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Florida Whistleblowers Must Prove Actual Violation of Law

A recent decision made in Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals has clarified that an employee’s “reasonable belief” that a violation has occurred under the state’s Whistleblower Act is no longer enough, and the employee must prove an actual violation of law in order to state a claim. This case falls under the Florida private sector Whistleblower’s Act, which protects employees who refuse to participate in their employer’s violation of law.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Kearns v. Farmer Acquisition Co., Sean Kearns was hired by Charlotte Honda in 2006. He objected to a practice that the dealership used known as power booking, where the dealership makes a fraudulent representation to a bank regarding the optional features on a car being sold that are not actually on the car. As a result, the bank would think that the car being sold was worth more than it actually was, which would in turn induce the bank to loan the purchaser of the vehicle a higher dollar amount. The dealership engaged in this practice to ensure that the purchaser would have the ability to purchase the vehicle, thereby creating profit for the dealership.

Mr. Kearns also testified to driving a car that was listed with more features than it had, witnessing fraudulent information in loan applications for purchasers, and was threatened with being fired over not power booking potential sales. He spoke with many high level executives of the company who were contentious with him in meetings and who told him to “keep it quiet” about the transactions.

Mr. Kearns was eventually fired from his position at Charlotte Honda in September 2009, and he filed a lawsuit against the company in February 2010. He asserted a claim under the Florida Whistleblower’s Act (FWA) that he was fired because he objected to or refused to participate in violations of law regarding power booking and fraudulent warranty activity. At trial, the court directed a verdict in favor of Charlotte Honda, and Mr. Kearns appealed.

Ruling of the Court

On appeal, the judges in the case admitted that there was a split in authority on the issue of whether actual proof is required under the FWA. This case relied upon the reasoning in another Florida case, White v. Purdue Pharma, Inc., which held that under the FWA, requiring a plaintiff to prove an actual violation promoted the FWA’s policies “while adequately protecting the legitimate interests of private employers.”

In this case, the appellate court held that Mr. Kearns must show as a whistleblower that he “objected to an actual violation of law or that he refused to participate in activity that would have been an actual violation of law.” Because he alleged actual violations of law through the use of power booking and warranty violations, the ruling of the trial court was overturned and a new trial was ordered.

Call a Florida Whistleblower Lawyer

If you or someone that you know is aware of their employer’s violation of the law and wish to blow the whistle in Orlando, Fort Myers, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, or Tampa let the experienced whistleblower lawyers at The Pendas Law Firm help. Call or contact the office today for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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