Formac Stables, Inc., Makes it to the Tennessee Supreme Court

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

Mark Twain


Bruce Pearl, the basketball coach, took good care of his players but when his namesake, a big lick horse in training at Formac Stables, Inc.,  (whose owner is reported in industry advertising to be Jimmy McConnell, brother of the infamous Jackie) kicked a groom named Charles Haynes in the head, causing the groom injury, Formac didn’t take the same approach.  According to a suit filed by Haynes, he allegedly told the owner that he needed time off to seek medical care and the owner would not  give it to him.  He also declined to pay for such treatment.


It doesn't say in the record  what was going on with Bruce Pearl at the moment he delivered the coup de main to Mr. Haynes.  And, the  record in the case does not specify if Mr. Hayes was actually kicked, which would be from the hind feet,  or struck,  which would be from the front, but the end result was that from one end or another the four-legged, package -wearing version of   Bruce laid the skin of Mr. Haynes’ pearly white skull open.


Being an example of a  true sportsman, however,  the owner of Formac allegedly  told  his employee that he could have the  veterinarian sew up his head with sutures used in equine practice.  With no other choice, and likely no health insurance, the groom agreed.  


 It appears from Haynes’ contention that the  owner of Formac must have felt that if a vet was good enough to treat a high dollar horse like Bruce Pearl,   that using a vet for a lowly   groom was more than sufficient in the medical  care department.  After being stitched up by the vet, Haynes said that he continued to suffer severe headaches, which he dutifully  reported to his employer.


Then, Haynes lost his job. Haynes believed the owner of  Formac Stables, Inc. , unjustly  fired him because he refused to be quiet about having had his medical needs attended to by a veterinarian, so, he    brought common law and statutory whistle blowing claims against Formac Stables’ owner in a Tennessee state court. 


The  trial court in the case  granted a motion to dismiss Haynes’ suit because the only person the groom had ever complained to about the treatment was the wrongdoer, which would be Jimmy/Formac Stables.


Why is it that  both  performance horses and the people involved in the big lick business frequently end up in courts of law? Is this particular group of people simply litigious or does  the conduct of the parties as well as  their business practices make them wide open to rumble? That observation is speculative but    the result   that has come out of Haynes v Formac Stables, Inc., is more fascinating   than mere speculation.


Haynes didn't give up. He  appealed the trial court’s decision.  The story of the  kick, the sutures, and the firing was met with a history of     split decisions  within  the divisions of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, although the Court itself affirmed the decision of the trial court in Haynes’ case.


  The Middle and the Western divisions had  held that simply reporting to the wrongdoer in a case, in this case the owner of Formac Stables, Inc., was insufficient for standing as a whistle-blower. The Eastern division had  held that if the wrongdoer was a manager, owner, or senior official in a company, that reporting a situation like the one Haynes experienced, and for which he was allegedly fired , was sufficient  for grounds to sue under the whistle-blower statutes.


Thus, Mr. Haynes with his headache    found himself  as a character in an appeal  before the Supreme Court of Tennessee.  The Tennessee Supremes ultimately affirmed the dismissal of his case, resolving the split with the Appeal Court divisions.  In so doing the high court joined the ranks of the majority of states and federal statutes that operate under the legal theory that if a whistle-blower reports wrongdoing only to the wrongdoer, who already knows of his own wrongdoing, there is no public exposure of the wrongdoing or unsafe practices, thus no whistling has taken place.  Hence, an  employee couldn't  claim he was fired for whistle-blowing practices.


 Put another way, if a whistle toots in the forest and there is no one significant  there to hear it and to recognize it for what it is, no whistle has been effectively blown.  The person with pursed lips can’t qualify as a whistle blower if no one, except the one that has done wrong,  hears the bleat, because the  illegal activity or wrong doing remains hidden from the    great, wide world.    

  According to the Tennessee Supreme Court there are apparently two ways to blow a whistle, quietly or meaningfully, and in order for Haynes to have had a case he would have had to go public to expose an illegal or unsafe practice. The decision in favor of Formac Stables, Inc., will qualify as a guiding precedent for similar cases that may be brought in the state of Tennessee.


The intriguing result of this decision is that the internal reporting option for employees with grievances against employers could become passé and that reporting of wrong- doing outside of the work place could become de rigueur in order for employees to achieve a measure of satisfaction.  


Since employees at big lick barns may have  opportunity to see both illegal and unsafe practices in the workplace, Mr. Haynes, his head injury, his treatment by a vet, his complaints to the owner, and his resultant lawsuit, even though he lost, could create severe headaches for Tennessee stable owners (as well as other businesses) because   the Tennessee Supremes also made note that this decision could eliminate the option of internal reporting under certain circumstances.


In the future, instead of going  to employers with their concerns about wrongdoing or unsafe practices, grooms who may have been exposed to hazardous chemicals in their line of work, or, might be   injured by horses  that   object to being wrapped in plastic or being  put up in scar treatment and express their opinions with their feet,  would wisely opt not to report  their injuries or their knowledge of illegal activity to their bosses.  


Since the court didn’t say where they should report their issues, they could  decide to go straight to a more public reporting venue, say the police or the sheriff’s department, before they head to their personal injury lawyers or the District Attorney. 


The larger outcome of Haynes v Formac Stables, Inc.,  W2013-00535-SC-R11-CV March 27, 2015, is that Jimmy McConnell through Formac Stables   may have, by his alleged refusal to provide necessary human based medical care to a Formac Stables groom injured by a show horse, inadvertently opened a door that could  turn other disgruntled  grooms in Tennessee into noisy,  public, whistle-blowers. Grooms are usually fairly quiet and unassuming  but  they understand, when they've been done wrong.  As the groom in brother Jackie's video said, quite clearly, " I ain't goin to jail for no Jackie."


When Bruce Pearl lifted a foot to Charles Haynes, he put Formac Stables, Inc., into the law books and this changed the conversation about where employees should go if they witness illegal or unsafe practices in the workplace. 


All around the state, underpaid, undervalued, under-insured, and unheralded grooms, people  like Mr. Haynes,  who says he lost his job for speaking up, may decide that speaking out and blowing that whistle for all it’s worth is the only  way to get justice or appropriate compensation from the stable owners whose clients are,  certainly,  when  compared to Mr. Haynes,  wealthy people.   Although Mr. Haynes didn’t get satisfaction  that’s not to say that the next groom and his counsel , having learned a lesson from what happened with Bruce Pearl and Mr. Haynes , won’t get it right in the future.


One last item of interest in the case of Mr. Haynes V Formac Stables, Inc.: the corporation was reportedly represented in the case by Mike McGartland, the same attorney who brought the case against the USDA and mandatory penalties to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and won it. 


McGartland owns and operates Contender Farms.  He shows and breeds for big lick horses and  is , it appears based on performance,  the go-to- guy needed in the corner if you are a big lick entity with problems of any sort.  This time Mr. McGartland   won  the battle for Formac but the war   could just be beginning if grooms in Tennessee,  alerted to this new standard for notification of illegal or unsafe practices,   begin to buy whistles by the case lot and learn how to use them.