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Whistle-blowers’ choice: federal or state claim

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Employees who claim they were terminated or otherwise punished for whistle-blowing often have several potential claims.

Fortunately for employers, employees can’t file both a federal administrative claim (and then not appeal the agency decision) and file a state court claim later.

Since both claims deal with the same factual questions, a final decision in one ends the matter. In short, employees can’t try to relitigate the matter in another forum. Now the California Supreme Court has reaffirmed that principle in a new decision.

Recent case: Kevin Murray worked for Alaska Airlines as a quality-assurance auditor. He brought what he believed were safety concerns to the attention of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA investigated and concluded that he had raised legitimate air carrier safety concerns.

Then the airline closed the facility where Murray worked and outsourced his job. Murray wasn’t rehired.

He then filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) under the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act, which provides whistle-blower protection. The agency investigated and declared Murray a whistle-blower. However, it found no connection between his FAA complaint and his subsequent lack of a job offer. The agency order said he had 30 days to appeal. He did not.

Instead, Murray filed a wrongful-discharge case in California state court. The case was moved to the federal court system and the federal judge asked the California Supreme Court to decide whether Murray could sue.

The California Supreme Court said he could not because the DOL had already considered the underlying facts and made a final decision. (Murray v. Alaska Airlines, No. S162570, Supreme Court of California, 2010)

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