Whistleblower Law Overview
Whistleblowers play a critical role in keeping employers honest. Unfortunately, those who speak out against illegal activity sometimes put themselves at risk of discrimination and retaliation. Whistleblower laws were developed to protect those who speak out from illegal retaliation by their employer. Read on to learn more about whistleblower law.
What Is Whistleblower Law?
A whistleblower is a person who exposes or reports illegal or unethical activity. An employee whistleblower reporting a violation of the law by his or her own employer is sometimes met with retaliation in the form of discharge or discrimination. Frequently, violations of the law and public hazards caused by employers go unreported because employees fear they will be punished for reporting the violations. For this reason, laws at both the state and federal level have been developed to protect whistleblowers who speak out against illegal activity.
Many of the laws that protect workers include provisions protecting workers who report a violation of the particular law. This includes antidiscrimination laws, wage and hour laws, health and safety regulations, and laws regarding union organization and workers' compensation. Legislation protecting the public at large also includes whistleblower provisions, such as environmental protection regulations.
Federal Law and Whistleblowers
Many federal laws contain provisions that protect employees who report unsafe or illegal conditions at work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) administers the employee whistleblower protection provisions of many different statutes. Employees can file a complaint through OSHA if they have been discriminated or retaliated against for reporting a variety of illegal conduct, including:
- Workplace safety or health hazards in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act
- Employer violations of the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and other environmental protection laws
- Violations of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act by manufacturers, private labelers, distributors, and retailers
Further, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 specifically protects government employees who report agency misconduct, including legal violations, government waste, or fraud.
Qui Tam Actions
Another legal option available to some whistleblowers is a qui tam action, which is a legal proceeding in which a whistleblower reports an employer's fraudulent conduct towards the government. By filing a qui tam action, an individual alleges than an employer has submitted some sort of false claim to the government in order to cheat, defraud, or steal from the government. Qui tam actions are filed "under seal," preventing the action from becoming part of public record, and give the government an opportunity to investigate and prosecute the allegations.
There is also a monetary incentive for bringing a qui tam action. The person who brings the action becomes eligible to receive a portion of the government's total recovery – an amount set by the court, usually between fifteen and thirty percent.
State Laws Protecting Whistleblowers
Many state laws also protect whistleblowers from discrimination and retaliation. Some states protect public employees only, and some also extend coverage to private employees. Some examples of state whistleblower protections are:
- The Illinois whistleblower law applies only to employees of a state or local government (not to private employees) and protects whistleblowers from being disciplined for publicly disclosing information they reasonably believe shows a violation of the law.
- The California Whistleblower Protection Act, which applies to public and private employees, was strengthened in 2014 with the addition of new provisions to protect whistleblowers.
- New York law protects both public and private employees from retaliation, and even categorizes employee retaliation as a chargeable crime.
The scope of whistleblower laws will vary considerably depending on the particular state's laws and the specific circumstances of the case.
Legal Help with Whistleblower and Qui Tam Actions
Whistleblower law is extensive and many different types of statutes contain provisions to protect whistleblowers. If you are a whistleblower or are considering reporting illegal conduct, consider speaking with an experienced attorney to find out more about the options available to you and how to protect yourself against possible retaliation by your employer.