The former chair of the Sex Offender Registry Board can pursue her whistleblower complaint seven years after former Governor Deval Patrick fired her after she challenged the way Patrick’s brother-in-law was classified by the board, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.
In its unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said Saundra R. Edwards is protected by the state’s whistleblower law and can allege she was dismissed because she had challenged an illegal “activity, policy or practice” — and was punished for it.
“We conclude that the whistleblower act is applicable in these circumstances,” Justice Frank M. Gaziano wrote for the unanimous court. Edwards has “demonstrated sufficient disputes of material fact to survive the Commonwealth’s motion for summary judgment.”
The court said the arguments advanced to end the litigation by Edwards — she lost a separate SJC case in 2017 — by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office was “absurd” in that it contended the case must end because Patrick was not her boss.
“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. Since Edwards was a state employee it would be “nonsensical to view the single person empowered to hire and fire [Edwards} as acting independently of the Commonwealth. On this view, the Commonwealth would lack basic control over its own employee, an absurd result.”
Edwards was appointed chair of the board, which reviews and classifies sex offenders based on their likelihood to reoffend and shares those findings with the public online and with law enforcement, by Patrick in 2007.
After her hiring, she learned that an examiner had ruled that Patrick’s brother-in-law’s 1993 guilty plea to spousal rape under California law was not the same as a rape conviction under Massachusetts law, and Bernard Sigh did not have to register for life with the board, according to the SJC. (The SORB handling of the Sigh case was an issue during the 2006 election won by Patrick.)
Edwards explored the issue internally and interviewed the examiner who made the Sigh decision. That examiner quit the SORB, sued the state, and reached a settlement in 2014.
Patrick, who had never met Edwards before naming her to the board, told reporters she was failing her leadership duties at the board. He also, according to the court, asserted that she attempted to “influence inappropriately, a hearing officer, and that’s a matter of record. That hearing did involve my brother-in-law, that is true,” according to the SJC.
Patrick, who earlier won the 2017 case when the SJC dismissed a defamation lawsuit Edwards filed against him, was dropped as a defendant in the whistleblower case, leaving only the state, according to court records.
The sanctions against the state for violating the whistleblower law can include triple lost wages, payment of lawyers fees, or reinstatement to the prior job. The SJC ruling sent the litigation back to Superior Court for further action.