Department of Transportation v. Needham

In Department of Transportation v. Needham, 82 S.W.3d 314, 317 (Tex. 2002), the plaintiff, a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) employee, reported to his supervisor that a coworker had committed a driving while intoxicated offense while driving a TxDOT vehicle. The plaintiff was subsequently demoted. He sued under the Whistleblower Act. Following a jury verdict in the plaintiff's favor, TxDOT appealed asserting Needham did not report to an appropriate law enforcement authority because TxDOT was "not an entity charged with regulating under, enforcing, investigating or prosecuting the state's criminal laws, including those that penalize driving while intoxicated." Needham, 82 S.W.3d at 318. The court of appeals disagreed concluding TxDOT was an appropriate law enforcement authority because it could discipline its employees for legal violations under its progressive disciplinary action policy. Id. at 319. The Supreme Court disagreed holding that an employer's general authority to conduct an internal investigation and discipline its employees is not alone sufficient to show that the employer is an "appropriate law enforcement authority." See Needham, 82 S.W.3d at 320-21. Otherwise, the Court explained, all governmental employers with a disciplinary policy for handling illegal conduct would be appropriate law enforcement authorities for any violations of law. See id. However, contrary to UT Southwestern's suggestion, Needham does not hold a report to a supervisor can never constitute a good faith report. Rather, Needham explained, in determining whether an authority was an appropriate law enforcement authority, we look to whether the authority could regulate under or enforce the particular law alleged to be violated. Because TxDOT did not have authority to regulate under or enforce DWI laws or to investigate or prosecute such criminal offenses, TxDOT was not an appropriate law enforcement authority. Id. at 320. Needham did not reasonably believe TxDOT had authority to regulate under, enforce, investigate or prosecute such criminal laws. Id. at 321. Thus, it reversed the jury's verdict and rendered judgment for TxDOT.