Jury rejects ex-Flint official's suit over firing
A federal jury on Tuesday ruled against a fired Flint city administrator, rejecting her whistleblower lawsuit that claimed she was wrongly terminated by the mayor in 2016.
Natasha Henderson testified May 2 in U.S. District Court that she was fired in February 2016 by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver two days after sending then-City Attorney Anthony Chubb an email about an "allegation of unethical conduct" by the mayor.
The eight-person jury came back with its quick decision less than three hours after listening to closing arguments in Judge Sean Cox's courtroom.
A stoic Weaver said she thanked God for the ruling and the people who stood by her in Flint, and that she was justified in firing Henderson. The former employee testified this month that Weaver told her she hadn't informed the mayor fast enough about the link between a Legionnaires' disease outbreak and the Flint River as part of the water crisis.
"I'm fine," said the mayor. "I told people who had my back it's all been God. So I'm not surprised."
The city's attorney felt the same as he battled in a two-week trial with 14 witnesses called by Henderson's lawyers.
"I strongly believe the the mayor acted lawfully and that the jury considered all the evidence," said Maurice Jenkins, who represented Flint in the lawsuit. "Ms. Henderson and her attorneys simply didn't satisfy their burden of proof."
Henderson alleges she was fired in retaliation for reporting that the mayor had asked a city employee to redirect water crisis donations into a political fund. Weaver has said the lawsuit contained "outrageously false claims."
Lawyers for the city said the mayor was not warned of the link between the Legionnaires' outbreak and the city's switch to Flint River water promptly enough by Henderson. They said Henderson had a duty to tell the public — and Weaver — and failed to do so.
The Legionella outbreak in Flint in late 2014 and early 2015 killed 12 people and sickened 79 others.
Outside the courthouse, Henderson said the decision was "very disappointing" because "this has been my career at stake."
"It just tests your morality when you know that you have done the right thing," she said, flanked by her attorneys. "For anyone out there that something like this happens to, it's very unfortunate. As a whistleblower, you'll be labeled that."
Katherine Smith Kennedy, the lead attorney for Henderson, said in a statement read outside the courthouse that "while we are disappointed with today’s verdict, it does not change the truth: Natasha Henderson is a hero for speaking up in the face of corruption and wrongdoing. She was a voice for Flint residents at a time when they were being grievously harmed by the politicians who were supposed to be helping them."
Kennedy said an appeal of Tuesday's verdict is possible.
While the jury agreed that Henderson "suffered damages" as a result of her firing and that her communication on Feb. 10, 2016, to Chubb "was a good-faith report of a violation or a suspected violation of law," the eight-member panel disagreed that was the reason she was fired.
That prompted Cox to announce in the packed courtroom that the jury "has found no cause of action."
In asking for damages upwards of $600,000 for back and future pay and emotional distress due to her termination, Henderson's lawyers painted Weaver as lacking credibility when she testified last week that she was blindsided by media reports of the Legionnaires' outbreak.
As for the fund, Kennedy said the testimony and evidence in the trial showed that deposits were made but "ended abruptly" because Henderson "outed them."
But Jenkins hammered at Henderson's case, saying the mayor had a responsibility to show Flint residents, struggling with the water crisis and and distrustful of government, that people will be held accountable for not revealing how the crisis first started.
"There comes a time when silence is betrayal," Jenkins said, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last fall that Henderson's whistleblower claims in a lawsuit against Weaver could proceed after getting dismissed by a lower court judge.