College Police Officers’ Whistleblower Suit Reinstated

DALLAS (CN) – A Texas appeals court Wednesday reinstated a whistleblower lawsuit filed by community college police officers who claim they were retaliated against for reporting an alleged $1 million theft of textbooks and money.

In a 3-0 ruling, a panel with the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas reversed a trial court’s grant of Collin College’s plea to the jurisdiction. The panel concluded the college failed to establish that it did not retaliate against plaintiffs Billy D. Burleson, Jon J. Mark and Craig A. Bennight for reporting the alleged thefts.

“We conclude that the trial court erred by granting the plea to the jurisdiction because the undisputed facts as developed as this preliminary state show that for the purposes of the College’s plea to the jurisdiction there is a fact issue regarding whether the College’s alleged retaliation were adverse personnel actions,” the 19-page ruling states.

The officers sued in September 2014, claiming they were ordered to stop their two-month investigation of a “complex scheme” to rip off the books and money. They said there may have been “corruption and a cover-up by high-ranking officials within Collin College.”

The officers said they were retaliated against by being written up, transferred to other campuses, omitted from department-wide email lists and having their schedules changed to overnights.

The Fifth Court was not persuaded by the defendant’s claim of sovereign immunity. Writing for the court, Justice Bill Whitehill said the Texas Whistleblower Act waives immunity if the plaintiffs can properly allege a violation of the act.

Whitehall said the court could not conclude as a matter of law that reprimands of Mark “would not deter a similarly situated employee from reporting” the law being broken.

“Although the reprimand was entitled ‘coaching,’ and purported to give constructive feedback, the overall tone suggests something more,” the opinion states. “The form states that it is not ‘formal’ discipline, but also warns that further infractions may result in termination. Therefore, it threatens negative repercussions regardless of whether it is formal or informal discipline.”

The plaintiffs’ appellate attorney, Chad Ruback, of Dallas, said his clients have waited for over two years to tell a jury what Collin College did to them.

“Understandably, the college has not wanted this case to ever go to a jury,” he told Courthouse News Friday morning. “I am ecstatic that the three court of appeals justices have unanimously agreed that this case should be able to proceed.”

Collin College operates seven community college campuses in Collin and Rockwall counties, north and northeast of Dallas.