San Francisco Whistleblower Protection Lawyer
What is Whistleblowing?
A whistleblower plays a vital role in society by reporting fraud or other unlawful conduct. At Rukin Hyland, we provide a full range of legal services to protect whistleblowers who report illegal conduct by their employers and other businesses. Individuals who have already reported illegal conduct, or who are considering doing so, may need legal advice and representation for several reasons. Whistleblowers may require advice and assistance in making a formal complaint—whether internally or to a governmental enforcement agency—or if the complaint is related to unlawful conduct by an employer, the individual may need assistance addressing potential retaliation.
At Rukin Hyland, we understand that whistleblowing is sometimes necessary but not easy. A recent study found that whistleblowers are susceptible to mental health issues, anxiety, depression, financial instability, and even declining physical health after speaking out against illegal activity. Because of this, we make it a priority to assist employees with filing and prosecuting whistleblower claims to relieve some of this pressure and put your life back on track.
Retaliation Against Whistleblowers
If an employer punishes or takes an adverse employment action against an employee after they engage in a protected activity at work, this is known as retaliation. According to the EEOC, protected activities include:
- Filing a complaint for unlawful behavior
- Participating in an investigation or lawsuit
- Asking a superior about salary information
Retaliating against these types of behaviors is illegal and many different laws create protection for whistleblowers. Moreover, some laws, such as Dodd-Frank and the False Claims Act, permit an individual who reports fraud or other unlawful activity to collect a portion of the money ultimately recovered.
What Qualifies as Retaliation
Although many people believe that unlawful termination is the only form of retaliation by an employer, retaliation can take on many forms including:
- Disciplinary action
- Salary reduction
- Job reassignment
- Denial of a raise
- Exclusion from business trips or training opportunities
Legally Protected Individuals
Federal and state laws also protect individuals who file complaints in the following areas:
- Health care fraud
- Military and defense contract fraud
- Insurance fraud
- Investor, financial and tax fraud
- False financial reporting
- Construction contract fraud
- Mortgage and loan fraud
- Consumer fraud involving unsafe foods and products
- Workplace safety violations
Certain whistleblower claims may also be filed without the employer’s knowledge. Claims under federal and state qui tam laws are filed under seal and investigated by government agencies before the company is notified of the lawsuit.
For more information on the reporting of fraud committed by companies against U.S. and state governments through the False Claims Act (FCA) and its state equivalents, see our blog post: The Rise of the Anti-Fraud Whistleblower.
Whistleblower Protection Act
The federal Whistleblower Protection Act, the law at issue in MacLean, protects federal employees who disclose information that they reasonably believe violates a law, rule or regulation; or shows gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety—so long as the disclosure is not specifically prohibited by law. See 5 U.S.C. §§ 1221, 2302. For example, a court found that a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who reported her supervisor for illegally seeking to commit a veteran involuntarily had engaged in protected conduct under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. (Murphy v. U.S. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, 1:12-CV-379-DBH, 2013 WL 4508346 (D. Me. Aug. 23, 2013)). On the other hand, minor disagreements about policy or mistakes in the conscientious course of duty do not qualify for protection – for example, one would-be whistleblower’s view that secretaries should not open confidential envelopes designed for their superiors did not qualify for protection. (Langer v. Dep’t of Treasury, 265 F.3d 1259, 1263, 1267 (Fed. Cir. 2001)).
California’s Whistleblower Protections
It’s not just federal employees who are protected when they disclose information about unlawful conduct. California recently expanded the scope of its own California Whistleblower Protection Act. Pursuant to this law—California Labor Code Section 1102.5—employers cannot retaliate against an employee for disclosing information that the employee has reasonably believes may violate a local, state, or federal law, rule, or regulation. It is also unlawful for employers to punish an employee for refusing to participate in an activity that would result in a violation of a local, state, or federal rule or law. To prove a retaliation claim under the Labor Code, a plaintiff must prove (1) that he or she engaged in protected activity, for example, that he reported to his supervisor that the employer was engaged in unlawful acts; (2) an adverse employment action, for example, a demotion or a termination; and (3) that a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. An employee asserting a retaliation claim can rely on both circumstantial evidence (for example, by showing that he was terminated the day after he reported unsafe working conditions) or direct evidence (for example, an email from her boss stating that she would fire any “tattletales” who reported her unlawful activity).
The underlying purpose of these and similar state and federal whistleblower laws is to encourage employees to stop or report illegal or unsafe employer actions, with an overarching goal of ensuring safe, lawful work environments. As one Court of Appeal judge in the MacLean case approvingly noted, MacLean “presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public,” which “allege[s] conduct at the core of the Whistleblower Protection Act.” If you, like former air marshal MacLean, have suffered an adverse employment action because you reported unlawful or unsafe workplace activities for the benefit of the public at large, you should consult an attorney to determine whether you may have legal recourse.
If you believe that you have been retaliated against as a whistleblower, there are legal options available to you. We believe that you should never be punished for reporting wrongdoing or illegal activity within your company. Speak with our office today and set up a free consultation to discuss the merits of your case.