Ernst v. Union Cnty. Conservation Dist., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104535 (M.D. Pa. June 10, 2022) (Brann, C.J.) In March 2021, Plaintiff Eric Ernst, a Union County Conservation District employee for fifteen years, reported that his agency was improperly processing certain environmental permits. When Ernst’s supervisor learned of these reports, he became upset and irritated, and four weeks later, Ernst was fired. Ernst now brings suit against his former employer, alleging discrimination and violations of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law. The Conservation District moves to dismiss the claim under the Whistleblower Law, asserting that Ernst failed to allege (a) he reported “wrongdoing,” as defined in the statute, and (b) a causal link between his reports of wrongdoing and his termination. But that’s incorrect. For the reasons provided below, the Conservation District’s motion to dismiss is denied.
Ernst’s Complaint and Opposition leave many questions unanswered. Although Ernst endeavors in his Opposition to outline the legal basis for the violations he reported, he does not identify any statutory or regulatory provision that “specifically define[s] some prohibited conduct” regarding the processing of NPDES permits. Moving forward, this omission, if left unaddressed, will prove fatal. But at this stage, the absence of this information does not necessitate dismissal. Ernst’s allegations about reporting Nyerges’s approval of improperly processed permits “suggest that [Nyerges’s] actions were violative of a [Federal or State law or regulation].” Accordingly, Ernst adequately alleges “wrongdoing” under the Whistleblower Law. At the pleadings stage, Ernst needs only to allege “enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary elements.” Ernst has met this burden.
Everything considered, the pleading requirements for claims under the Whistleblower Law are relatively modest. Plaintiffs need only plead factual allegations that raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary elements of a prima facie case. By alleging that he reported improper permit processing, which angered his supervisor and resulted in pretextual write-ups, hostile treatment, and, ultimately, his termination four weeks later, Ernst has satisfied his requirements at this early stage. The Conservation District’s motion to dismiss Count III is therefore denied.