By Dawn Solowey, Kristin McGurn and Beth Foley

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and two of its transit police officers secured an important summary judgment win this week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in the case of Delaney v. MBTA et al., represented by Seyfarth’s Whistleblower Team.

The Claims

Lisa Delaney, formerly a MBTA transit police officer in the K-9 unit, brought suit against her employer and two superior officers.  Following a successful motion to dismiss multiple claims, two claims remained.  First, Delaney claimed that the MBTA retaliated against her in violation of the Massachusetts whistleblower statute, Mass. Gen. L. c. 149 § 185(b)(1), for making an internal report of alleged inaccuracies in certain training records.  Second, she claimed that her two superior officers had violated her constitutional right to free speech under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by allegedly retaliating against her for the internal report.

Delaney claimed that the Defendants retaliated against her by instituting a unit-wide shift change that posed a difficulty for her child care schedule which caused her to resign from the K-9 unit.  She also claimed that the MBTA’s decision not to permit her to purchase her police dog upon her resignation from the unit, and instead to continue the dog in active duty with another officer, was retaliatory.

On June 4, 2014, Judge Rya Zobel granted summary judgment to the Defendants on both claims.

The Ruling on the Whistleblower Claim

The Defendants sought judgment on the whistleblower claim on several grounds, including that Delaney’s report was not protected activity, because it was an alleged report of, at most, an internal policy violation and not a violation of law, and was not causally connected to any adverse actions.

But the Court did not have to reach those arguments, instead ruling that the Defendants had established an affirmative defense that barred the whistleblower claim.

The Massachusetts whistleblower statute requires that before disclosing an allegedly unlawful practice to a “public body,” an employee must give the employer written notice of the practice and a reasonable opportunity to correct it.  The Court ruled that filing suit in federal court was the relevant disclosure to a “public body.”  Since Delaney had admitted unequivocally at deposition that she did not give the MBTA written notice of her report before bringing suit, her claim failed.

The Ruling on the § 1983 Claim

The Court also entered judgment for Delaney’s superior officers on the constitutional claim.  The Court held that as a matter of law, they had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the shift change.  The Defendants had presented unrebutted evidence that the shift change was made as part of a successful effort to fight a crime pattern of thefts in commuter rail parking lots.  The Court held that the decision not to allow Delaney to purchase her dog also did not suggest any retaliatory motive, because the Defendants were merely enforcing a policy to which Delaney had agreed when she joined the unit.  The Court noted that the mere alleged temporal proximity between the report and the shift change was not sufficient to save Delaney’s claim.

The Court also held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, given that they had reasons unrelated to Delaney’s report for taking the actions she challenged.  The Court concluded: “Qualified immunity protects defendants’ reasonable judgments.”

Takeaways for Employers

The Court’s clear, robust ruling that the failure to provide written notice before filing suit will operate as a complete bar to a Massachusetts whistleblower claim is a welcome development for employers who face a rising tide of whistleblower claims.  The decision is also important precedent for employers defending retaliation claims in the whistleblower context and, more generally, in holding that the employer established an unrebutted legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its actions as a matter of law.  Further, the decision is notable for refusing to allow the claim to proceed to trial based merely on alleged temporal proximity between the protected activity and adverse action.  As the Court put it, “chronological proximity does not by itself establish causality, particularly if the larger picture undercuts any claim of causation.”