Blake Stafford (’17) Wins the 44th Annual Stanley Moot Court Competition

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The 44th Annual Stanley Moot Court Competition finalists, Blake Stafford (’17) and Emily Jeske (’17), after presenting their oral arguments.

Blake Stafford (’17) won the final round of the 44th annual Stanley Moot Court Competition held at Wake Forest School of Law on November 20, 2015.

Stafford represented the fictional plaintiff Sarah Donaldson, arguing that her unsolicited internal complaints about a potential ERISA violated constituted protected conduct under ERISA’s whistleblower” or “anti-retaliation” provision, which makes it unlawful to discharge an employee who “has given information or testified or prepared to testify in any inquiry or proceeding” related to ERISA. Emily Jeske (’17) represented the fictional defendant St. Pete Medical Supply who argued that Ms. Donaldson did not engaged in protected conduct under ERISA. See below for a full summary of the case.

The judges were Richard Dietz (’02), judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals; Rhoda Billings (’66), a retired Wake Forest Law professor who was the first female chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court; and Ken Carlson (’90), an attorney at Constancy, Brooks, & Smith and a Wake Forest Law professor of Advanced Trial Practice and Trade Secrets and Unfair Competition. Both competitors did extremely well responding to questions from a hot bench. All three judges spoke very highly of both finalists and praised their oral advocacy skills. The judges noted that the final scores were extremely close decision.

Stafford also earned the award for best brief.

Stafford was not the only student to take home an award. Mia Falzarano (’17) was named best oralist and the winner of the James C. Berkowitz Award, which was presented by the Berkowitz family. This year marks the 31th anniversary of the death of James, who was in a car accident while returning to the law school to argue in the quarterfinals of the 1984 Stanley Competition.

As a result of their performance in this competition, we welcome ten new members to the Moot Court Board: Ryan Bowersox, Maria Collins, Christopher Conley, Casey Fidler, Wes Harty, Alanna Jereb, James Lathrop, Amelia Lowe, Erica Oats, and Daniel Stratton.

A special thank you to Katie Law (’16) and Ben Leighton (’16) to the 2015 Stanley Competition Co-Chairs who did a great job running the competition. This competition would not have been a success without your hard work!

The intramural moot court competition is named in honor of the late Judge Edwin M. Stanley, a distinguished Wake Forest alumnus and supporter, who served as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Middle District of North Carolina from 1958-1968.

A summary of the case is set forth below:

This appeal involves the interpretation of a “whistleblower” or “anti-retaliation” statute, section 510 of the Employer Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), codified at 29 U.S.C. § 1140. The issue is whether Plaintiff Sarah Donaldson engaged in conduct protected by section 510, which makes it unlawful to discharge an employee who “has given information or testified or prepared to testify in any inquiry or proceeding” related to ERISA.

Donaldson was the Human Resources Director for Defendant St. Pete Medical Supply, Inc. She also served on St. Pete’s five-member pension committee, which met twice per year and decided where to invest employee pension contributions. At the committee’s September 2013 meeting, the committee voted 3-2 to invest in a relatively new company, Sunshine State Investment Professionals, which was owned by the brother of St. Pete’s Treasurer, Karl Wagner.

After the meeting, Donaldson met twice with Wagner to express concern that the investment with Sunshine State might violate ERISA. Wagner dismissed her concerns and said she could bring them up again at the next pension committee meeting, in late March 2014. In December 2013, Donaldson emailed St. Pete’s President Thomas Sinclair and left him a voicemail, noting her concerns and asking to meet with him. Sinclair never responded to Donaldson and told Wagner that he had heard from Donaldson but had complete confidence in Wagner.

Donaldson left Sinclair a similar voicemail in January 2014, again with no response.  On March 1, 2014, Sinclair told Donaldson she had been fired because the company wanted to “go in another direction.” St. Pete also gave three specific reasons for firing her, but they are disputed and not part of this appeal. The Middle District of Florida granted St. Pete’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the statute did not protect Donaldson’s conduct. She has appealed to the Eleventh Circuit. The parties disagree over whether section 510 protects an employee’s unsolicited internal complaint to management and base their arguments on the plain meaning of section 510, other circuit decisions on point, and interpretation of other whistleblower statutes.