Appeals court reverses landman’s judgment against Louisiana, throws out whistleblower case

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a $750,000 judgment against the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and dismissed the environmental whistleblower lawsuit filed against it by Baton Rouge landman Dan Collins.

In its April 28 decision, a three-judge panel ruled that the jury in Collins’ December 2015 trial “committed manifest errors” in finding that Collins was a state employee, and, therefore, entitled to sue under Louisiana’s whistleblower statute.

Rather, the appellate court panel found that Collins—who claimed in his suit that the state denied him work after he blew the whistle on alleged environmental violations in the Atchafalaya Basin—was an independent contractor when he worked for DNR in the early 2000s.

“Between 1997 and 2009, (Collins and his firm) did work for other clients besides DNR. … They were responsible for all taxes on payments received from DNR,” reads the decision. “They were issued 1099 tax forms rather than W-2 forms. They issued monthly invoices to DNR in order to receive payment. No vacation, sick leave or retirement benefits accrued. …The plaintiffs were clearly independent contractors and not DNR employees.”

The ruling is a major setback for Collins, who has been fighting the state for more than 10 years over a dredging project in Bayou Postillion in the Atchafalaya Basin. While working for the state as a landman, Collins uncovered evidence that showed the project, supposedly done to improve water quality in the basin, facilitated oil and gas drilling that benefitted local landowners. When he brought his findings to his superiors at DNR, he says his contracts with the state dried up, a claim the state has denied.

The state also challenged Collins’ standing to sue on the grounds that he was a contractor, not an employee. A trial court jury unanimously sided with Collins. Nearly 18 months later, however, the three-judge appellate panel has reversed the jury’s findings and dismissed the case. Collins says he’s not giving up.

“The facts remain the same, the damage to the environment, the people and those personally involved remain unchanged and not addressed by the First Circuit,” he says. “We will most certainly proceed with the appeal subject to my attorney’s opinion.”

Collins notes that two of the three judges on the appellate panel previously ruled in a 2013 hearing that the case could move forward to a jury trial because there were “genuine issues of fact in the evidence” as to whether he was an employee or an independent contractor.

“Interesting the very same justices did not form the now reached conclusion back in 2013 when considering the first round of summary judgment,” Collins says. “Time, money and much effort have been expended at the expense of the public.”

Procedurally, Collins can request an en banc rehearing before all the judges on the First Circuit or he can appeal directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Collins, who is traveling, says he is mulling his options.

“After 10 years of exposing the truth, which a jury of my peers agreed with, I’m not about to stop,” he says. “This decision by the First Circuit only addressed my employment status, nothing about the corruption.”

As Business Report detailed in a recent cover story, the environmental wrongdoing Collins alleges in his whistleblower suit have never been investigated by state or federal law enforcement agencies, though the Louisiana Legislative Auditor is currently conducting an audit of DNR’s Atchafalaya Basin Program based on issues Collins has brought to the auditor’s decision.

—Stephanie Riegel

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