A Florida deputy sheriff who lost his job after telling People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that his former co-worker was allegedly abusing police dogs, can sue PETA for outing him as a whistle-blower, a federal judge ruled.
PETA allegedly made an oral promise to protect the identity of former deputy officer Jason Yerk when he agreed to talk to PETA about the suspected animal abuse, as a corroborating witness, within the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
However, PETA disclosed his identity to the sheriff’s office during the internal affair investigation and he had to resign, according to the complaint reported by Courthouse News.
Yerk claims that PETA intentionally broke the oral agreement, knowing that he would be subject to reprisals. He sued PETA for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, misrepresentation, breach of oral contract and negligence, saying that PETA’s disclosure caused him lost wages, benefits and earning capacity.
PETA contested the existence of a confidentiality agreement protecting his identity and claimed that since law enforcement had compelled PETA to identify Yerk, therefore his name could not remain confidential.
Yerk initially denied talking to PETA, but came clean following an internal affairs investigation. Thus, PETA sought to dismiss Yerk’s action claiming that his perjury during the investigation invalidated his claims.
U.S. District Judge John Steele rebuffed PETA’s argument, finding that Yerk’s untruthfulness does not constitute “illegal” conduct under any Florida statute, since his statements had no bearing on the result of the investigation. What’s more, the internal affairs interview was not an “official proceeding.
Steele also rejected PETA’s contention that the confidentiality agreement contradicted Florida public policy and was therefore unenforceable. “In this case, the confidentiality agreement allowed PETA to disclose the substance of the alleged abuse and the identity of the witnesses to it,” according to the Nov. 4 ruling. “The agreement only precluded the disclosure of the identity of PETA’s source. While it seems clear that the confidentiality agreement did not and could not create an absolute privilege, and would eventually give way to lawful procedures which could compel disclosure of the source’s identity, that stage had not arrived in this case. At the time of the disclosure in this case, PETA was not legally required to answer questions from the LCSO [Lee County Sheriff's Office].”
Steele left it up to a jury to decide whether Yerk’s resignation was reasonably foreseeable to PETA and whether PETA had caused his employment-related damages.
The court denied PETA’s motion for reconsideration on Dec. 1.