Based on the language in the federal statute providing whistleblower protections to employees in the automobile industry, an employee’s claim of retaliatory discharge failed after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals differentiated between reports of safety issues related to the product versus those related to processes ancillary to the product. The court’s decision turned on the specific language contained in the applicable federal law.
From 2014 until his termination in 2016, the plaintiff worked in the Final Process Repair Department at the General Motors (GM) plant in Wentzville, Ark. As a vehicle progresses through the assembly line and errors occur, employees report and log damaged vehicles in an electronic system called the Global Standard Inspection Process (GSIP), and on paper tickets. Those vehicles then go to the Final Process Repair phase where the mechanics, like the plaintiff, make the needed repairs. Once repairs are completed, the employee marks it in the GSIP (and presumably on the paper ticket) and the vehicle is later tested and sent through a final inspection line.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against GM alleging that he was wrongfully terminated under both state and federal law because he reported safety issues with the manufacturing process at the Wentzville plant. Specifically, beginning around January 2015, the plaintiff claimed to management that repairs were being left incomplete by his co-workers, who he said were falsely reporting the same repairs as complete in the GSIP and at least once on the paper tickets. On occasion, the plaintiff would discover an incomplete repair that had been marked complete and he would make the repair himself. GM investigated his reports.
In May 2016, GM terminated the plaintiff for creating a hostile work environment due to a threatening comment he made during a disciplinary review with his supervisors (“I’ll see you guys at your funeral.”).
The plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge claim arose out of the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). MAP-21 provides for whistleblower protections applicable to the automobile industry. Under its terms, a manufacturer of motor vehicles may not discharge an employee for reporting “information relating to any motor vehicle defect, noncompliance or any violation or alleged violation of any notification or reporting requirement of this [law].”
To overcome summary judgment, the plaintiff needed to show that his reports to management fell within the protections of MAP-21, which means that he had engaged in protected activity, and then that engaging in such protected activity was the reason for his termination. The plaintiff was unable to clear the first hurdle. The district court did not agree that his conduct fell within the protections of MAP-21 and granted summary judgment in favor of GM.
The district court reasoned that the plaintiff’s reports of incomplete repairs in vehicles still being manufactured could not be “relate[d] to motor vehicle defects” because “motor vehicle defects” only exist in fully complete and manufactured vehicles. In other words, the district court held that the plain language of MAP-21 seemed to address only post-manufacture whistleblowing.
The plaintiff appealed. The 8th Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court but on slightly different grounds. In interpreting the statute, the 8th Circuit reviewed the definitions in the statute and looked at definitions in Webster’s dictionary around the time the statute was enacted. Taking all of it together, the court read the statute as protecting employees who provide information about something “lacking in the completeness, perfection or adequacy of the performance, construction, a component, or the material of a motor vehicle or its components.”
The 8th Circuit distinguished its interpretation of MAP-21 protections from the plaintiff’s reports relating to employees falsely reporting repairs as complete in the GSIP system. The plaintiff had identified a potential risk caused by errors in the reporting system for needed repairs, but not information about the processes that created defects in motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment. The court recognized that it was drawing a fine distinction but drew it anyway.
Barcomb v. General Motors LLC, 8th Cir., No. 19-1350 (Oct. 15, 2020).
Professional Pointer: The employer in this case was saved by the court’s interpretation of the specific language in the statute. It is not far-fetched to think that this decision could have gone the other way and very well may have if heard by a different court. Employers should be careful and consult legal counsel before taking adverse employment actions against employees who may have engaged in activity considered legally protected under some statute or regulation.
Meaghan E. Murphy is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser PC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Springfield, Mass.