High court: Sex Offender Registry whistleblower case may proceed

  • In US
  • 2021-10-13 23:03:00Z
  • By Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.

Oct. 13-SALEM - The state's highest court says a whistleblower complaint against the state by the former head of the Sex Offender Registry Board can proceed toward trial.

In a decision released Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the state's whistleblower law does in fact apply to the case of Saundra Edwards. The former prosecutor was by then-Gov. Deval Patrick to take over the Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) in 2007 - only to be forced out in the waning days of his administration, she says in retaliation for looking into the matter of Patrick's brother-in-law Bernard Sigh.

"Whether, but for the protected activity, Patrick would have dismissed the plaintiff is a genuine question of material fact that must be resolved by a fact finder," either a jury or judge, Justice Frank Gaziano wrote for the court in the 34-page ruling.

A lawyer for the state had tried to convince the court that the whistleblower statute did not apply in the Edwards case on several grounds, including the fact that Patrick had waited more than six years to fire her after her investigation into the Sigh case, and that she was allowed, after being told she was being replaced, to submit a face-saving resignation letter.

The ruling is the latest chapter in a story that stretches back more than 15 years, when Patrick was running for governor and the case involving Sigh - convicted of spousal rape in California in 1993 - came to light in press reports.

Sigh had not registered as a sex offender after moving to Massachusetts. After the prior conviction became known, a SORB hearing officer eventually came to the conclusion that spousal rape was not the same as a rape charge in Massachusetts. After arriving at SORB, then located in Salem, Edwards learned about the case and looked into it further, concluding that the hearing officer had not applied the correct legal standard.

She decided to order re-training for hearing officers. The hearing officer who had issued the decision on Sigh then quit and filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which was finally settled in 2014 - just before Patrick moved to fire Edwards.

In comments to the news media after the firing, Patrick specifically mentioned Edwards' involvement in the Sigh matter as part of his justification for removing her, with just months left in his second and final term.

While the SJC has upheld the dismissal of part of Edwards' lawsuit accusing Patrick of defamation for those comments, it has now affirmed a Superior Court judge's ruling letting the rest of the case go forward.

"We conclude that the whistleblower act is applicable in these circumstances and that there was no error in the judge's decision to deny the Commonwealth's motion for summary judgment," Gaziano wrote in reference to Salem Superior Court Judge Salim Tabit's earlier ruling, which the state had appealed.

The SJC rejected another argument by the state's lawyers, who suggested that neither Patrick nor the state would be considered an "employer" under the whistleblower act.

"We think it clear that the governor was acting for and on behalf of the Commonwealth when he brought about the departure of the plaintiff from SORB," Gaziano wrote.

"Given that the plaintiff was employed by the Commonwealth, it also would be nonsensical to view the single person empowered to hire and fire the plaintiff as acting independently of the Commonwealth," Gaziano wrote.

And even at-will employees, like Edwards, the court found, are protected by laws against discrimination and retaliation for refusing to disobey a law.

The court concluded that Edwards' actions, while not a specific "complaint," were protected - she took steps to prevent future errors, and to prevent establishing a precedent with the decision, which could have been used by lawyers for other sex offenders challenging their registration requirement or classification level.

The ruling means that the case, which remains pending in Salem Superior Court, can continue to move toward trial, where a jury or judge will be asked to decide whether her removal was retaliatory.

Sigh, meanwhile, is serving 6 to 8 years related to a subsequent 2019 rape and kidnapping case. The state Appeals Court heard arguments in Sigh's appeal earlier this month.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@gloucestertimes.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@gloucestertimes.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis


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