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Friday, November 12, 2010

Former Employee of Brentwood Whole Foods Market Alleges Termination for Blowing Whistle on Bad Organic Practices [Updated]

Posted By on Fri, Nov 12, 2010 at 2:32 PM

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A former employee of Whole Foods Market in Brentwood claims that she was fired after alerting management of multiple instances in which the produce department had not followed the proper standards for handling organic produce, according to a lawsuit filed last week in St. Louis County Circuit Court.

Elisha Wellman, the plaintiff in the suit, worked for Whole Foods from 2001 until August 30 of this year, when she was terminated. The suit names Whole Foods Market Group, Inc. and Brian Gourley, the manager of the Brentwood store, as defendants.

Attorney Gary Growe of the Clayton law firm Growe, Eisen, Karlen, Eilerts & Ruth, which is representing Wellman, tells Gut Check that Wellman was an "at-will" employee of Whole Foods: "In Missouri, as in most other states, if an employee does not have a contract of employment for a definite term, they are considered at-will employees, which means they can leave any time they want to, and their employer can terminate them [any time the employer wants to] as long as the termination doesn't run afoul of discrimination laws of race, gender, age, etc.

"One of the exceptions to this concept is the whistle blower exception -- also referred to as the public-policy exception -- which offers protection to an employee who either complains to or notifies outside authorities that there is some wrong-doing occurring in the company, or if they bring their info and complaints to top management. If that's the case, and if there is retaliation for that, then that is a wrongful termination claim.

"We contend that she is a whistle blower because she did bring to the attention of Whole Foods management both at the local level and more regional management observations she made concerning whether the store was complying with organic [standards]."

Growe declined to make Wellman available for comment. However, the lawsuit makes the following claims:
During her employment, Plaintiff observed that Whole Foods - Galleria was allowing and permitting the handling of produce products in a manner that was unsanitary, and that compromised the organic labeling of produce for sale and specifically violated the regulations set forth above in that Plaintiff observed co-mingling of organic and conventional produce, the improper sanitization of sinks and display crates, as well as the presence of mold on the display shelving.

Plaintiff brought the above violations to the attention of Whole Foods and Defendant Gourley by speaking out about the violations during store meetings, discussing the violations with her direct superiors and emailing and mailing letters to regional Whole Foods supervisors and executives. ...As such, Plaintiff was a whistle-blower under Missouri law.

A few days after sending this letter, Whole Foods began a series of meetings and disciplinary actions aimed at terminating Plaintiff in retaliation for her actions at disclosing to Whole Foods management the aforesaid violations of the Act, Regulations and local ordinances.

On or about August 30, 2010, Defendants terminated as a direct result of her whistle blowing activities as described above. As such, Plaintiff's termination violates the public policy of the United States and the State of Missouri.
Reached for comment, Gourley referred Gut Check to Whole Foods Market's regional office in Chicago, where a spokesperson declined to comment because the issue is an ongoing legal matter.

Click here to read a PDF of the lawsuit.

Update: (Friday, November 12, 2:30 p.m.) Whole Foods Market spokesperson Kate Klotz left a comment this afternoon. Having verified that the comment was legitimate, I post the text of it here:
Hi, Kate from Whole Foods Market here. We can't get into specifics here, but we'd like to communicate that we feel extremely confident about the systems we have in place to protect the integrity of our organic offerings. We were the first national retailer to become voluntarily certified organic under the USDA's National Organic Program, and each of our U.S. stores is inspected and certified each year by a USDA-accredited organic certifier, CCOF. Their inspectors review each department in our stores in order to ensure that our organic products are purchased, handled and sold with integrity. They also verify that our Team Members are well trained in organic food handling requirements. We continue to work closely with the USDA and the organic community to ensure that the organic standards remain strong and consistent with our shoppers' expectations. Our company's strong support of organic practices and standards is a core value of our business, and we take the organic certification of each of our stores very seriously. It is expected that Team Members bring any potential practices out of the norm to their team leader's attention.

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