Facts: Ronald Bias was a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps when he began working at the Tangipahoa Parish School Board as the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) instructor at Amite High School. The Marine Corps paid and employed Bias.
On two occasions, Bias reported to the JROTC Regional Director about the possible misuse of federal JROTC funds at the school by a JROTC master sergeant/teacher who worked under Bias. It was alleged that the use of the funds were improperly approved by the school principal. Shortly after the second report, Bias was transferred to a different school an hour away. Instead of accepting the transfer, Bias resigned.
Bias later filed suit against the school board, the principal, and the subordinate JROTC instructor in their official capacities under the False Claims Act, 42 U.S.C. 1983 for constitutional violations, and under state law. The trial court found that the constitutional and state law claims were barred by the two-year statute of limitations. The trial court also dismissed the False Claims Act retaliation claim. Bias appealed.
Ruling: The Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the False Claims Act retaliation claim, holding that Bias had stated sufficient facts supporting his lawsuit against the school board. The suit alleged that the principal retaliated against the JROTC instructor by generally harassing him and badgering him. The appeals court held that the principal’s conduct likely dissuaded the employee from reporting misappropriation of federal funds under the JROTC program, and that was enough to state an FCA retaliation claim against the board.
Interestingly, the JROTC instructor was actually employed by the Marine Corps and it was the Marine Corps that made the ultimate decision to transfer him to another school an hour away. The man claimed, however, that the principal influenced the Marine Corps’ decision to transfer him. The board didn’t take any employment action against the instructor, but it was the principal’s conduct that could establish liability against the school board based on vicarious liability. According to the Court, the plaintiff “pled enough facts to make it plausible that [the principal] was acting within the scope of his employment, or at the very least, with the apparent authority of the School Board.” The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal, holding that the facts alleged were sufficient to assert an FCA retaliation claim against the school board.