Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and his office are striking back against a whistleblower. They allege that a court should dismiss Assistant A.G. Michael J. Ritter’s whistleblower claim because Ritter never reported an actual violation of law and the office did not take any adverse personnel action against him.
Arguing at a March 31 hearing, Abbott and the Texas Office of the Attorney General contended that Ritter’s allegations don’t meet the Texas Whistleblower Act’s requirements and that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the suit. But Ritter countered that his suit does meet the requirements.
The dispute started in October 2013, when Ritter filed Ritter v. Abbott, alleging that he was forced to take leave time, to transfer to the OAG’s Transportation Division and to give up four cases set for trial, among other alleged retaliation, after he reported alleged “misuse” of resources and discrimination, among other things, within the OAG’s Law Enforcement Defense Division (LEED). The defendants have denied all of the allegations.
OAG spokeswoman Lauren Bean wrote in part in an email: “Michael Ritter internally complained that he did not feel safe at his workplace and did not trust his coworkers, so he was transferred to the Transportation Division—the same division where he had applied for a position only three months earlier. Any allegation that this transfer and the accompanying step-up in pay somehow constituted retaliation for making an internal complaint is without legal merit, which is one of the reasons why the attorney general’s office is seeking to have the case dismissed as not satisfying the basic requirements of the Whistleblower Act.”
Ritter didn’t return a telephone call or email seeking comment.
At the March 31 hearing, 261st District Judge Lora Livingston of Austin commented on both sides’ arguments, although she didn’t make an immediate decision on the March 20 defendants’ third plea to the jurisdiction.
Assistant A.G. Benjamin Dower, representing Abbott and the OAG, told Livingston that everything that Ritter reported was related to sex discrimination allegations, and he should have filed the lawsuit under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act instead of the Texas Whistleblower Act.
But when Livingston asked Ritter which of his allegations would invoke the Whistleblower Act, Ritter said he reported misuse of taxpayer dollars and falsification of government records by other assistant A.G.s on their time sheets.
“Those were the allegations of illegal conduct,” Ritter said. “However, sex discrimination was also reported.”
But Livingston said that alleged discrimination would have nothing to do with a whistleblower claim.
“If we don’t clear that up now, we’re doing to have a fuzzy lawsuit to try when we get to the trial,” she explained.
Regarding Dower’s argument in the plea to the jurisdiction that Ritter had only alleged sex discrimination and not a whistleblower claim, Livingston said that Dower should make such an argument in a motion for summary judgment. She explained about Ritter’s amended petition, “Looking only on the four corners of the document … he gets past the plea to the jurisdiction.”
Abbott and the OAG also claimed in their plea to the jurisdiction that Ritter’s allegations do not make up “a good faith report of a violation of the law.”
While Ritter “described several possible violations of internal agency policy,” the Whistleblower Act doesn’t define internal policies as “law,” they argue.
The defendants disagree with Ritter’s allegation that they took adverse personnel actions in, among other things, giving him a week of paid leave and then transferring him from the LEDD to the Transportation Division.
But Ritter argues that he should have the chance to present his evidence and prove his case. He contends that he has faced adverse personnel actions and that he did report a violation of the law.
“The live pleading alleges facts showing that many OAG employees have a pattern and practice of disregarding policy and the law,” according to his March 27 motion to strike defendants’ third plea to the jurisdiction and alternative motion for construction of the first amended pleading.