Brandi's Hope Cmty. Servs. v. Walters

Docket Number2022-CA-00188-COA
Decision Date20 June 2023
CourtMississippi Court of Appeals

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 01/25/2022






¶1. Brandi's Hope Community Services LLC (Brandi's Hope) provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a residential setting and day program. Danny Cowart is the owner and chief executive officer (CEO) of Brandi's Hope. Heather Denice Walters worked as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) for Brandi's Hope at Rock Cliff, a residential housing facility for adults. As a DSP, Walters assisted the residents with their daily needs.

¶2. Walters's employment was terminated following her handling of a March 2017 incident involving injuries sustained by a Rock Cliff resident named John.[1] Walters suspected abuse, believing that John had been hit in the face by another DSP employed by Brandi's Hope named Cleatonia "Toney" Burns. Walters took a photograph of John's injured face with her personal cell phone. In addition to reporting the incident to her supervisors, Walters also shared John's photograph with her cousin and former Brandi's Hope employee Frankie Crump. Walters's employment was terminated for "violating company policy" because she photographed John's injured face with her personal cell phone and shared that photograph with Crump.

¶3. Walters subsequently filed a complaint in the County Court of Lee County, Mississippi, against Brandi's Hope and Cowart, asserting a retaliatory discharge claim against Brandi's Hope and a "malicious-interference-with-employment" claim against Cowart.[2] Walters alleged she was wrongfully discharged "in violation of public policy" for allegedly "reporting illegal conduct." See McArn v. Allied Bruce-Terminix Co., 626 So.2d 603, 607 (Miss. 1993).[3] ¶4. The case proceeded to a jury trial. At trial, the defendants moved for a directed verdict on both counts against them at the close of Walters's case-in-chief. The county court denied that motion and denied the defendants' renewed motion for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence. The jury returned a verdict in Walters's favor on the retaliatory discharge claim against Brandi's Hope and the malicious-interference-with-employment claim against Cowart. The jury awarded Walters $100,000 in compensatory damages. The county court denied the defendants' post-trial motion.

¶5. Brandi's Hope and Cowart appealed to the Lee County Circuit Court, which affirmed the trial court's rulings and the jury's verdicts.

¶6. Brandi's Hope and Cowart (collectively referred to at times as Brandi's Hope) appeal, raising the following assignments of error:

1. The trial court erred in expanding the McArn criminal acts public policy exception for retaliatory discharge and ignoring the statutory exception and reporting requirements of the Mississippi Vulnerable Persons Act (MVPA), Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-47-1 through section 43-47-39 (Rev. 2021);
2. Even if McArn applied, the trial court erred in finding that Walters made a "report" of the alleged "illegal activity of [her] employer" as required for a McArn retaliatory discharge claim; 3. There was insufficient evidence from which the jury could find a causal connection between Walters's alleged report of illegal activity and her discharge; 4. There was insufficient evidence from which the jury could find that Cowart intentionally and maliciously interfered with Walters's employment;
5. The trial court erred in admitting prejudicial evidence that DSP Toney Burns committed a criminal assault;
6. Certain jury instructions failed to accurately state the law of the case; and
7. The trial court erred in refusing to grant a new trial on the issue of damages or in the alternative, a remittitur.

¶7. For the reasons addressed below, we find that Brandi's Hope and Cowart were entitled to a directed verdict and that judgment should be reversed and rendered in favor of Brandi's Hope on Walters's retaliatory discharge claim against it and in favor of Cowart on Walters's malicious-interference-with-employment claim against him.


¶8. Walters filed a complaint against Brandi's Hope and Cowart in August 2017, asserting a retaliatory discharge claim against Brandi's Hope and a malicious-interference-with-employment claim against Cowart. The case was tried before a county court jury from November 18, 2019, until November 21, 2019.

¶9. Walters testified during her case-in-chief. She also called two former Brandi's Hope employees as witnesses, and she called Keith as an adverse witness. The depositions of John's parents were also read to the jury.

¶10. Walters began working at Brandi's Hope as a DSP in April 2016. She was assigned to the Rock Cliff residential home. This home housed four adult residents. Walters's duties included cooking and cleaning for the residents, bathing them, and changing their undergarments, as needed.

¶11. When Walters was hired, she signed and agreed to Brandi's Hope's "Confidentiality and Communication Policy," which provides, in relevant part, as follows:

I agree that I will not divulge Brandi's Hope Community Services data to any unauthorized person for any reason. Neither will I directly nor indirectly use, or allow the use of Brandi's Hope data for any purpose other than directly associated with my official assigned duties.
I understand that CLIENT INFORMATION, including financial data, is strictly confidential.
I will not, either by direct action or by counsel, discuss, recommend or suggest to any unauthorized person the nature or content of any Brandi's Hope information. I agree to the conditions stated in this policy.
I understand that violation of Brandi's Hope Community Services confidentiality and communications policy may result in disciplinary action, up to and including immediate termination.

¶12. Similarly, Brandi's Hope's employee handbook provides as follows:

As an employee of Brandi's Hope, you may see, hear or have access to confidential information. It is your legal and ethical responsibility to safeguard the privacy of all written or spoken information you might access through conversations, phone conversations, meetings, files, assessments, data, facsimile transmissions, reports, letters, memos, mail, e-mails or any other documents or data .... Furthermore, it is a violation of policy to either by direct action or by counsel to discuss, recommend, or suggest to any unauthorized person the nature or content of any Brandi's Hope information.
All individuals in your care have a fundamental right to privacy that is governed by the law. All employees of Brandi's Hope will be trained to respect the health care information of the individuals who receive services and support through Brandi's Hope. They will treat all medical, personal, and financial information as confidential.
Any individual who breaches this policy is subject to discipline, up to and including termination.

¶13. As part of her employee training, Walters completed numerous online computer courses. With respect to the circumstances at issue here, Walters completed the "BHCS Serious Incidents Reporting in Vulnerable Adults" course. The course identified the site manager, the CEO of Brandi's Hope, the resident's parents or guardians, the Office of Constituency Services, and the Mississippi Department of Mental Health (MDMH) as the appropriate contacts for reporting a serious incident.

¶14. The course materials also specifically addressed the reporting requirements for DSPs like Walters: "As a direct support professional, you are to report the incident to your Site Manager, who will contact the compan[y's] CEO. The CEO or his designee will contact the other parties [who] need to be notified." The materials further provided that "[a] written report of the incident will be made and forwarded to the appropriate parties."

¶15. Walters also completed a course entitled "HIPAA Privacy"[4] as part of her training.

¶16. John was a resident at Brandi's Hope. He has diagnoses for mental retardation and cerebral palsy. Walters described John as having the mind of a five- or six-year-old, though John was in his early twenties.

¶17. Walters testified about the incident involving John in March 2017. Her shift began at 1:00 a.m. on Thursday, March 16, 2017, and she worked until about 8:00 that morning.

Around 6:30 a.m., Walters walked into John's room to wake him up. After turning on the light and telling him to get up for breakfast, Walters returned to the kitchen. Shortly afterward, Walters heard another resident ask John what happened to his face. She turned to see John had walked into the kitchen, and she saw that he had black eyes and bruises on his face. The resident asked John if "Toney" hit him. Toney Burns was another DSP. John answered, "Yeah."

¶18. Walters called Caleb Texidora, her immediate supervisor, and Keith, the site manager, to report the incident. She did not get an answer from either of them at that time. Walters then took pictures of John's injured face with her personal cell phone. She sent text messages to Texidora and Keith to tell them what had happened and included the picture of John's face with her text messages.

¶19. Keith returned Walters's call that morning before 8:00 a.m. while Walters was still at work. Walters told Keith about John's injuries and that he said he was "beat up" and that "Toney had hit him." Walters testified Keith told her that "she would look into it and she would get some information on...

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