A Texas appeals court has reinstated a whistleblower lawsuit three campus police officers filed against Collin County College, claiming they suffered workplace retaliation for reporting crimes by district coworkers.
Two years have passed since the officers filed their case in state district court against against Collin County College, alleging they were punished after they reported thefts and illegal incarceration to outside law enforcement agencies.
The trial court initially agreed with the community college, whose attorneys argued that sovereign immunity barred the lawsuit. They also claimed two of the officers did not meet the prerequisites for a whistleblower grievance. But police officers Billy Burleson, Jon Mark and Craig Bennight appealed the trial court’s decision. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas in Dallas overturned the trial court’s initial ruling on Wednesday in a 3-0 decision.
The Observer reached out to the police officers for comment. Mark said their attorney doesn’t want them to discuss the case since they expect the college to appeal the appellate court’s decision. Instead, he simply said, “Justice survives today.”
Charles Crawford, an attorney for the college, couldn’t be reached for comment.
As we discussed in our previous story about the officers’ whistleblower case in January 2016, officers Bennight and Burleson were investigating the theft of books from the campus bookstore in 2014 when they stumbled upon what they believe was a scheme to defraud the college and a cover-up by high-ranking officials. Burleson claimed more than a million dollars had been stolen.
They reported their discovery to their police chief, Michael Gromatzky, who no longer works for the college. They claimed employees were stealing from the bookstore, and also reported several violations of the law, including coercion of a public servant, public corruption and tampering with evidence to various law enforcement agencies. Instead of initiating arrests or a follow-up investigation, Gromatzky ordered the investigation closed, according to court documents.
Bennight and Burleson were transferred to undesirable shifts, an action they claimed was retaliatory. They filed a whistleblower grievance with the college, but they were denied.
Mark became part of the lawsuit after he complained to Gromatzky and others that he had been ordered to lock an intoxicated person in a closet for four hours.
Instead of a follow-up investigation, Mark was written up in April 2014 and threatened with disciplinary action that could include termination because the college claimed he didn’t follow police department policies and procedures. He didn’t receive the disciplinary form until a month after it was filled out. After he received the write-up, Mark’s shift was changed to deep nights due to his “violations.”
Mark filed a whistleblower grievance with the college. Like Bennight's and Burleson's, his grievance was denied.
So the campus police officers sued the college for violating the Texas Whistleblower Act. The college filed a plea to jurisdiction claiming that no adverse personnel actions occurred and that Mark and Burleson had failed to file a whistleblower grievance properly.
The trial court agreed that it didn’t have jurisdiction and ruled the college district was immune from the suit.
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But in the memorandum opinion issued on Feb. 8, 5th Court Justice Bill Whitehill writes that the officers did meet the jurisdictional prerequisites for filing a grievance. “We thus reverse the trial court’s order and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” he concluded.
The college was also ordered to cover Burleson, Mark and Bennight’s expenses for having to appeal the trial court’s decision.
Chad Ruback, the appellate attorney who represented the campus police officers, said his clients have been trying for two years to get their case before a jury. Though the college still has several options available in regards to the appellate court’s recent decision, Ruback says he and his clients are thrilled the case is “back on track.”
“That’s all they’ve been asking: to allow a jury to determine the merits of the case,” he says. “The court of appeals sent a very strong message that this case is far from over.”