What Is a Whistleblower?

You’ve probably heard about famous whistleblowers in the news. Or maybe you’ve even seen a movie about one or two who made history. A whistleblower is a person who learns of unethical or even illegal activity within their company or government, and reports or refuses to participate in it. While whistleblowers aren’t always famous, they do play an important role in holding companies and governments accountable for wrongdoing. Read on to learn about the laws protecting whistleblowers on both the state and federal level.

The Birth of U.S. Whistleblower Laws

U.S. whistleblower laws have been around since the days of President Lincoln, who wanted to encourage individuals to report fraud that was being perpetrated against the government. The False Claims Act (FCA) was passed in 1863, largely in response to egregious fraud and waste that occurred during the Civil War. It included whistleblower or “qui tam” provisions that encouraged private citizens to bring lawsuits against individuals and companies who were defrauding the government. If successful, the whistleblower could receive a percentage of whatever the government recovered as a result. The FCA is still in effect today, though there have been some changes made to it over the years.

Types of Wrongdoing

Whistleblower cases can cover virtually any kind of illegal activity, not just fraud against the government. The majority of claims under the FCA involved fraud related to military contractors, health care (Medicare and Medicaid), and other government spending programs. Other common claims involve violations by organizations against environmental laws, securities laws, and tax law. Some examples include reports of:

  • Companies illegally dumping toxic waste
  • Defense contractors selling faulty equipment to the military
  • Financial organizations committing accounting fraud

Protecting Whistleblowers from Employer Retaliation

There are also many federal and state whistleblower laws designed to protect these individuals from retaliation by their employers. The FCA has its own provisions to protect whistleblowers who report fraud committed against the government, while the Whistleblower Protection Act protects federal employee whistleblowers who report misconduct perpetrated by the government.

Other federal laws that provide whistleblower protection include the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Sarbanes Oxley Act. Furthermore, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) protects individuals who engage in activity related to workplace safety and health, the environment, corporate fraud, and many other areas. Employees who think they have been retaliated against should file a complaint under OSHA within the applicable timelines.

Usually, to qualify for protection, whistleblowers must simply have a good-faith belief that their employer is violating the law. In those cases, even if a claim against the employer turns out to be wrong, the whistleblower is protected against retaliation such as firing, demotion, harassment, and pay cuts. Many successful lawsuits have been brought against companies and agencies to recover damages such as lost wages and back pay.

Get Help with Your Whistleblower Claim

While whistleblowers provide a vital service in holding organizations and government entities accountable, it can be a daunting task, and they would be severely discouraged from coming forward without the legal protection. However, these laws vary with regard to what types of workers are protected and the deadlines for filing whistleblower or retaliation claims. Whether you’re thinking of exposing wrongdoing by your company or government agency, or your employer has retaliated against you for doing so, seek experienced advice by contacting a local whistleblower attorney.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified whistleblower law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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