When Dimitrios Biller, former National Managing Counsel of Toyota’s National Rollover Program, filed a lawsuit against Toyota in July 2009, he positioned himself as a whistleblower. Among other things, he accused Toyota of withholding and destroying product safety information.
However, three things didn’t add up then.
- If Biller believed Toyota had committed fraud, why did he accept a $3.7 million severance package in 2007 and sign a confidentiality agreement?
- Why, if Biller believed Toyota had withheld product safety information that plaintiffs’ attorneys were entitled to see, did his website promote himself as being responsible for legal victories in product safety cases that he bragged saved Toyota significant dollars?
- What kind of ethical slope had Biller put himself on and why would he further risk his reputation? He kept the severance and when he left Toyota absconded with 6,000 internal documents.
At the time he filed suit he said he was released from attorney-client privilege because Toyota had committed criminal acts.
Not surprisingly, Toyota found out Biller had confidential documents and was using them in classes he taught on legal discovery. Toyota filed suit against him last year. Toyota said then that Biller violated attorney-client privilege, his ethical and professional obligations, and a restraining order Toyota had obtained against him. The company accused Biller of making inaccurate and misleading allegations.
After Toyota sued him, Biller sued Toyota back, accusing the company of racketeering, defamation, inflicting emotional distress, and wrongful termination. Messy.
In February 2010, Biller’s Toyota documents were subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee looking into the unintended acceleration issue. Although Biller’s documents weren’t related to unintended acceleration, the committee was interested in how Toyota approached safety.
In reviewing the documents, Committee chair Rep. Edolphus Towns found evidence that Toyota routinely withheld company records rather than turn them over to the court, settling personal injury cases to avoid revealing engineering data. Towns indicated this was a violation of court discovery orders in litigation.
Meanwhile Biller’s lawsuit against Toyota went to arbitration. This week the arbitrator, Judge Gary Taylor, found that Biller betrayed the confidences of his client, Toyota, and “violated ethical, statutory, and contractual prohibitions.”
Judge Taylor ordered Biller to return the documents, drop his lawsuit, and pay $2.6 million in damages to Toyota. Toyota in a statement expressed vindication and said the Judge’s award “completely discredits his (Biller’s) meritless attacks on our company and our people.” Biller represented himself in arbitration and hasn’t yet made a statement.
Biller misused the term whistleblower. His methods were ruled a violation of attorney-client privilege and he behaved unethically, further jeopardizing his professional reputation. Whatever damage Biller’s accusations have done to Toyota, the company has been deluged by federal criticism and international media on its handling of safety and unintended acceleration. In the absence of transparency, Toyota has found public trust and reputation are jeopardized.
While Toyota might say it is vindicated by the ruling, and Biller might say he is vindicated by Congressional criticism of the automaker, this is a sad tale without vindication.
Gael O’Brien, January 7, 2011
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.