PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The False Claims Act protects a woman’s complaints that high school teachers were pilfering federally funded lunches meant for students, a federal judge ruled.
Samenia Mayer says she was fired from her program assistant position with defendant Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia after making such a complaint.
The organization had been contracted by the Philadelphia School District to implement a mentor program called “Step it Up,” which was bankrolled by the Department of Labor, she says.
Mayer says she was concerned that the School District of Philadelphia was fraudulently telling the feds that the lunches were only being given to students, and that she told as much to the district’s superintendent at the time.
But instead of taking action, the school chief told her to complain to someone else, which Mayer did, according to her December 2010 suit, which also alleged a violation of the Pennsylvania whistle-blower law.
When Mayer complained to the principal of Germantown High School, whose teachers were taking the lunches, the principal responded with animus, informing plaintiff that she would “teach [plaintiff] a lesson,” according to the suit.
Mayer says she proceeded to alert the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia.
She was fired in retaliation two days later, according to her suit.
The Boys & Girls Clubs argued that Mayer’s complaints didn’t constitute “protected conduct” under the False Claims Act.
U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson found otherwise Friday, denying the organization’s attempt to have the case dismissed.
The temporal proximity between the date of her alleged complaint to the group and the date she was fired is particularly compelling to her retaliation case, the judge ruled.
Boys & Girls Clubs also disputed Mayer’s characterization of it as a public body, a requisite element to bring an action under the Pennsylvania whistle-blower law.
But Pennsylvania’s Superior Court recently held that an entity becomes a public body if it’s funded in “any amount by or through” the state, Baylson noted.
Since plaintiff clearly stated that the Step it Up program was funded through the school district’s grant money, the Boys & Girls Clubs can be considered a public body at this stage in the litigation, Baylson found.
The group also argued that stealing student lunches amounts to only a de minimus statutory violation that’s not actionable under the state statute
“This court disagrees,” Baylson wrote.
“Although plaintiff does not precisely describe the severity of the conduct at issue, she does allege that the conduct led to a shortage of student lunches, that it occurred on multiple occasions, and that it resulted in fraudulent misrepresentations to DOL [Department of Labor].”
A pre-trial conference is slated for Oct. 13.