Blake Stafford (JD ’17) wins 44th annual Stanley Moot Court Competition

Photo of Blake Stafford (JD '17) and Emily Jeske (JD '17)

Blake Stafford (JD '17) and Emily Jeske (JD '17)

Blake Stafford (JD ’17) of Baton Rouge, Louisana, is the winner of the final round of the 44th annual Stanley Moot Court Competition, sponsored by the Wake Forest Law Moot Court Board, held on Nov. 20 in the Worrell Professional Center.

Stafford represented the fictional plaintiff, while Emily Jeske (JD ’17) of Clemmons, North Carolina, represented the defendant.

Judges for the final round were Richard Dietz (JD ’02), a North Carolina Court of Appeals judge; Wake Forest Law Professor Emerita Rhoda Billings (JD ’66), former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court; and adjunct Professor Ken Carlson, a partner with Constangy, Brooks, & Smith LLP, who is a certified mediator and helps to resolve employment-related disputes.

Both Stafford and Jeske faced a hot bench responding to multiple questions. And all three judges were highly complimentary of both competitors. “It was extremely close and well done,” Carlson said.

Mia Falzarano (JD ’17) was named best oralist and the winner of the James C. Berkowitz Award, which was presented by the Berkowitz family. This year marked the 31st 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. Matt Cloutier (JD ’17) was runner-up for best oralist.

Stafford also earned the award for best brief. Runner-up for best brief was Zachary Rhines (JD ’17).

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. This year 50 students competed in the competition, according to organizers.

Katie Law (JD ’16) and Ben Leighton (JD ’16) were the 2015 Stanley Competition co-chairpersons. A reception immediately followed the finals in the new Law School Commons.

Following is a summary of the Stanley Moot Court problem:

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.