A whistleblower is vindicated by a jury—and then by the D.C. Circuit

Williams v. Johnson, No. 12-7074 (D.C. Cir. Jan. 16, 2015).

Christina Conyers Williams worked for an addiction-prevention department in the D.C. government. Using an outside contractor, the department was trying to implement a new software program to collect and analyze data on its clients, but the rollout wasn’t going so well. Called in front of the D.C. Council, Williams testified—truthfully—that the software couldnt perform all the functions it was supposed to and that its implementation would be delayed by four months. Hearing Williams’s testimony, the chair of the D.C. Council’s health committee wasn’t happy, speculating that the outside software contractor had received the contract corruptly. 

Williams’s boss wasn’t happy either. He began to treat her with open hostility, and eventually stripped her of all responsibilities, staff, and resources. Williams finally resigned because, as she later testified, she had “no job” and “no duties.” 

Williams filed this lawsuit under D.C.’s whistleblower-protection statute, which prohibits the D.C. government from retaliating against employees who go public about “gross mismanagement,” an “abuse of authority,” or a “violation of law.” Williams claimed that she was stripped of authority in retaliation for her truthful but unfavorable testimony in front of the D.C. Council. The lawsuit went to trial, and a jury awarded Williams $300,000. 

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit rejects the District’s factual arguments against the jury’s verdict. The jury, it says, had enough evidence to find that Williams had made a disclosure of the sort that triggers the protections of D.C.’s whistleblower law. The jury also had enough evidence to find that the District had “constructively discharged” Williams by making things so intolerable for her that a reasonable person would be forced to resign. 

But the District raises a purely legal issue, too. The whistleblower-protection law used to require whistleblowers to give written notice to the District “within six months after the injury or damage was sustained.” Williams didn’t give that required notice. But after she filed her lawsuit, the D.C. Council abolished the notice requirement, saying it didn’t apply “to any civil action” brought under the whistleblower law. This procedural change, the D.C. Circuit holds, applies to Williams’s lawsuit. So, even though Williams didn’t give written notice that she had been retaliated against, the jury’s verdict stands.