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Oregon Guard's Wrongful Discharge Suit for False Poisoning Claim Revived

The Oregon Court of Appeals reinstated a wrongful termination suit of a youth prison guard who claimed that someone poisoned his unattended Vitamin Water. The trial court improperly applied an objective reasonableness standard, when only a subjective, good faith basis for the report was required.

Timothy Hall was an Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) employee, working in the Maclaren Youth Correctional Facility visiting center. He brought a sealed bottle of Vitamin Water to his post to drink during his shift.

Hall left his Vitamin Water unattended when he went to another area of the building to process incoming youth offenders. After he returned, Hall took a drink of his water and felt a hard "foreign substance." He spit the substance into his hand and saw what he believed was a partially dissolved white pill. He suspected that someone had poisoned him because he did not notice any foreign substances in the liquid when he opened the bottle.

Hall showed the bottle to three OYA employees. Two of them believed they saw a "crushed" or "dissolving pill" while the third employee described seeing "sediment."

Hall claimed that in his experience, "it was 'not uncommon for offenders and visitors to try to harm OYA employees."' He prepared a Youth Incident Report, claiming that he had been poisoned, but he initially refused to give the drink bottle to OYA officials.

Hall went to the hospital a few hours later, claiming that he felt sleepy, dizzy, and disoriented. Much later, he also claimed "that his vision became blurry, he . . . felt unstable, and . . . like he lost his balance and coordination." A urinalysis test produced an "unconfirmed positive" for the presence of barbiturates and cannabinoids. Hall later admitted that he took a prescription migraine medication that contains barbiturates.

About 20 minutes after receiving the test results, Hall filed a police report detailing the incident. He alleged that the crimes of supplying contraband and assault in the fourth degree had been committed.

Surveillance footage revealed, however, that no one actually touched or tampered with Hall's drink bottle. Hall watched the video and agreed that no one had tampered with the bottle.

OYA terminated Hall, finding that he "had violated the drug-free workplace policy by testing positive for unlawful substances, 'violated multiple agency policies and procedures by alleging a "poisoning incident,"' and 'providing false and/or misleading information to management during an investigation and pre-dismissal meeting."'

Hall brought suit in state court, alleging that OYA officials violated several whistleblowing statutes. He also alleged common-law wrongful discharge and due process claims. The trial court granted Defendants summary judgment, applying an objective reasonableness standard to Hall's whistleblower and wrongful discharge claims.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that two of the three whistleblower statutes and the wrongful discharge claim required a showing of only subjective, good faith in making the report. The court agreed that one whistleblower statute imposes an objective reasonableness standard.

After examining the summary judgment record, the court concluded "that plaintiff presented evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact that he acted with subjective, good faith for purposes of ORS 659A.199 and ORS 659A.230 and that he had an objectively reasonable  belief for purposes  of ORS 659A.203 that  someone had tampered with his bottle."

The court also reversed the dismissal of Hall's wrongful discharge claim. "Plaintiff presented evidence sufficient to create a question of fact as to the objective reasonableness of his report," the court found. "Moreover, plaintiff’s subjective good faith report suffices for a wrongful discharge claim." See: Hall v. Oregon, 274 Or App 445, _ P3d _ (2015).

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Related legal case

Hall v. Oregon