The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has found a Middle Smithfield Township zoning officer, who was suspended and ultimately fired after denying a certificate of compliance to a local school district, was not entitled to whistleblower protection.
Wayne Rohner claimed that after he denied a certificate of compliance because of leaks in a school building roof and deviations from the approved development plan to the East Stroudsburg School District, he was suspended and an “Alternative Zoning Officer” was appointed who issued the school district a certificate of compliance. Rohner was subsequently fired.
Rohner filed a suit for wrongful discharge, which was dismissed because the trial court determined: (1) under Huffman v. Office of Personnel Management, 263 F.3d 1341 (Fed. Circ. 2001), Rohner’s refusal to grant the certificate of compliance was not a report of wrongdoing or waste as contemplated by the Whistleblower Law, (2) the report was simply a job duty and was not made against his employer, and (3) the Pennsylvania Municipality Planning Code did not alter the at-will status of the zoning hearing officer and it was not obvious that Rohner’s firing was contrary to public policy of the Commonwealth. Rohner appealed, asking the Commonwealth court to determine whether Rohner was entitled to whistleblower protection, and whether there is a clear public policy to protect zoning officers who make unpopular decisions.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the trial court’s holding denying the public policy claim, reasoning it was not obvious that there was a public policy to protect zoning officers who make unpopular decisions from being fired. Further, the Commonwealth court reversed in partand remanded for further proceedings on the whistleblower claim, reasoning that Rohner’s report denying the certificate of compliance related specifically to the mission of his employer and, therefore, Rohner stated a potential claim.