Supremes: Fulton Co. whistleblowers deserve day in court
By JIM WALLS
Nov. 18, 2013 — Two Fulton County whistleblowers may proceed with legal claims that they lost their jobs in retaliation for reporting misuse of taxpayers’ funds, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled today.
The decision strengthens enforcement of Georgia’s whistleblower law by holding that sovereign immunity does not shield government agencies from claims filed under the statute. Reversing a 2012 decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, the justices also found that the law protects all public employees, not just those who work in state-funded programs.
One of the plaintiffs, Gwen Warren, was deputy county manager in 2009 when she got her boss to establish an Office of Professional Standards to field complaints of fraud, waste and abuse by county workers. Maria Colon, the second plaintiff, was the investigator hired to look into those complaints.
In 2010, Warren and Colon reported that $183,000 intended for programs for the homeless had been diverted to benefit a private event-planning business and four county employees who owned it. Soon thereafter, County Manager Zachary Williams disbanded the Office of Professional Standards, fired Warren and demoted Colon with a cut in pay.
The pair filed suit, blaming political pressure for stifling the investigation and costing them their jobs. Fulton County officials said other factors led to the personnel actions and that the concept of sovereign immunity protected the county from having to defend the decisions in court.
The Court of Appeals tossed the sovereign immunity defense last year but sided with Fulton County’s argument that whistleblowers may only file claims relating to a “state-funded program or operation.” The Supreme Court held today that the appellate judges had reached that conclusion by erroneously conflating two code sections and then using language that does appear in the statute to define certain terms.
“Under our system of separation of powers[, courts do] not have the authority to rewrite statutes,” today’s ruling said, citing the court’s 2006 decision in State v. Fielden.
Only one of the county workers implicated in Warren and Colon’s report was prosecuted. Nicola Hosier, a former DHS financial systems supervisor, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in August to 10 years’ of home confinement and/or probation and payment of $135,000 in restitution.