MIAMI – The appellate court declared that a former independent auditor general (IAG), who exposed indiscretions in Miami’s government offices, was protected under the Whistleblower’s Act.
The Florida Third District Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the trial court, which granted a summary judgment in favor of the city involving former IAG Victor Igwe. In the opinion released by Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg, she disclosed that the panel found that Miami-Dade County Judge John Schlesinger erred in his decision to dismiss the retaliatory lawsuit filed by the former auditor.
The lower court dismissed the claims of Igwe that pointed out how he suffered a retaliatory move following his involvement in the investigation that exposed a number of improper practices in the city. He further stated that his rights should have been protected under the Whistleblower’s Act. Since the city refused to renew his contract after his move to testify against officials, Igwe claimed his rights were violated.
The lower court decided that Igwe could not claim protection under the Whistleblower’s Act as he is not covered by it. Since he worked as an IAG at the time of the investigation, the trial court pointed out that his participation in the trial was only part of his job. Moreover, Schlesinger noted that Igwe did not voluntarily provide the information needed in the case. Rather, he stressed that all the actions and efforts of the former IAG were parts of his duties. Apart from his own investigation and reports, Igwe also reported and cooperated with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
According to Rothenberg, however, the trial court failed to properly implement the purpose of the Whistleblower’s Act. Upon review of the intent of the law, the appellate court declared that Igwe falls under the definition of “employee” as well as “any person” sought to be protected by it. Regardless of his position, the plaintiff was deemed qualified under the act.
“[T]he City’s interpretation of the statute runs contrary to the plain meaning of the language contained in the Act and the express intent of the Legislature to protect 'any person' who discloses such misconduct. It also contradicts the requirement that the remedial statute be liberally construed to favor access to the statutory remedy, and significantly limits the number of people who may seek whistle-blower protection after disclosing governmental misconduct,” wrote Rothenberg in her opinion.
With regard to the voluntary disclosure of information, the appellate court noted that the Whistleblower’s Act sought to cover five categories. Among these, Igwe was determined to be qualified under the “employees who file any written complaint to their supervisory officials.” His involvement with the SEC and the FBI also should not preclude him from seeking protection despite the requirements of his job, the court found.
The appellate court stressed that this kind of retaliatory incident is precisely the situation the Whistleblower’s Act seeks to avoid. That is, the law was enacted to protect any person who would step forward and expose the wrongdoings committed against the government.
“What happened to Victor is a very clear optic lesson to whoever they put in that job: You can have teeth but we’re going to bash them in,” stated William Amlong, Igwe's lawyer, according to the Miami Herald. He added, “Hopefully, this opinion will take away that message.”