Shootin’ Blanks: Tennessee Appeals Court Dismisses Officer’s Whistleblower Suit Over Live Ammo’s (Almost) Use
Reminder to Tennessee whistleblowers and employers: a Tennessee Public Protection Act (“TPPA”) suit only works if the purported whistleblower has a reasonable belief that what occurred was actually illegal.
To prevail on a TPPA claim, the plaintiff must show, among other elements, that he or she refused to participate in or remain silent about an illegal activity.
Last week, in Coffey v. City of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Tennessee Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the dismissal of a TPPA suit in which the plaintiff failed to show that the activity about which he complained was actually illegal. Mark Coffey, an Oak Ridge police officer, was to conduct a live training session with police officers and civilians using blank ammunition to “simulate the noise and realism of an actual shooter situation.” The police department’s armorer, Lt. Brad Jenkins, mistakenly provided live rounds. Before the training session began, Mr. Coffey discovered the ammunition was live and made sure it was not used.
Two days later, Mr. Coffey filed a written complaint with his employer about Lt. Jenkins’ issuance of live ammunition instead of blanks. Mr. Coffey subsequently resigned his employment because he “felt certain members were targeting him and trying to force him to resign in response to the complaint he filed against it.”
Mr. Coffey subsequently sued, alleging a TPPA violation, claiming that what Lt. Jenkins did amounted to “reckless endangerment” as live ammunition was almost used when all participants were expecting blanks. According to Mr. Coffee, such reckless endangerment was “illegal activity” about which he refused to remain silent. The City moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion. On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Court rejected Mr. Coffey’s “reckless endangerment” argument because Mr. Coffey had no evidence that Lt. Jenkins placed anyone in “imminent danger,” a requirement for reckless endangerment under Tennessee law.
“Thus, while the consequences could have been severe, Lt. Jenkins’s actions do not satisfy the elements of ‘reckless endangerment’ because he did not cause an imminent threat of any danger to the participants by placing them in a reasonable probability of danger.”
The failure to show “illegal activity” was not Mr. Coffey’s only downfall. In addition, the Court held that Mr. Coffey was not constructively discharged, was not in fear of dismissal at the time he filed his complaint, and was not able to show the necessary exclusive causal link for refusing to remain silent about the supposed illegal activity.