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Can I Sue if I'm Fired for Whistleblowing?
The federal government protects employees who act as whistleblowers. This is because it recognizes that employees form the first line of defense that ensures employers act responsibly and ethically. This means that, if an employer fires an employee for Whistleblowing, the government finds said termination unlawful and retaliatory. In this case, the employee may file suit against the employer.
What is a Whistleblower?
An employee complaining of any company misconduct is called a whistleblower. This misconduct may include allegations of fraud, safety violations, or financial mismanagement. In most cases, employees who participate in the investigation but do not make the initial complaint are also protected against retaliation by the same federal protections.
What is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act?
Inspired by the corporate mismanagement scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Congress enacted the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The main provisions of the act work to prevent shareholder fraud and financial mismanagement, but it also includes protections for whistleblowers. These protections guard employees against retaliatory acts such as demotion and termination, even in the event the employee's claims prove incorrect. In other words, as long as the employee acts in good faith that the company violated the law, he or she is covered as a whistleblower under Sarbanes-Oxley. This protection includes complaints originating within the company, as well, not only those filed directly with a government agency.
Other Protections Agaisnt Employer Retaliaition
Numerous federal workplace laws protect employees complaining of illegal activity within a company. Employees may not face retaliation from their employer for reporting discriminatory practices, unsafe working conditions, violations of federal wage laws, or violations of FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act). Though the term "whistleblower" is not used, the same protections apply: no employee may face disciplinary action for filing a complaint. This protection extends to complaints of wrongdoing in cases such as companies contracting with the federal government or who handle hazardous materials.
Many states also have such workplace protections for employees when said state has its own antidiscrimination laws, as well as other labor laws. These may include paid time for performing civic duties, such as voting or jury duty, or state laws dictating wages and work hours. States may also allow employees to file lawsuits against employers in the event said employer fired the employee for exercising his or her legal rights. This is called discipline "in violation of public policy."
There are many variations in these rules, depending on the state. Some states only allow a violation of public policy claim if the employee filed the complaint with the government, while others require only an internal complaint. Some states require that the law in question explicitly include an anti-retaliation provision. Finally, some states don't recognize violation of public policy claims.
Proving Your Whistleblowing Case
To prove you were the victim of retaliatory practices for whistleblowing, you must establish three things:
- You engaged in a protected activity
- Your employer retaliated against you
- Your complaint and your employer's retaliation are connected
In the first instance, you must prove that you both made a report of illegal behavior and that a law exists that prohibits retaliation against you for making your complaint. Next, you must prove that you suffered negative action for making the complaint. This may be demotion, termination, or any other negative employment action taken against you. Finally, you must prove the connection between your complaint and the disciplinary action taken by your employer. In other words, you must prove that your employer disciplined you because of your complaint and not for some other reason. In this event, timing is important. If your history with the employer shows strong performance reviews but you are fired shortly after filing your complaint, that demonstrates a causal relationship.
Schedule a Free Consultation with a Whistleblowing Expert Attorney
If your employer retaliated against you after you acted as a whistleblower, you may have a valid lawsuit. Schedule a free consultation with an experienced employment attorney, preferably one who is familiar with the intricacies of your state's employment laws, as there are so many variables per state in this field.
Time is limited during initial consultations, so arrive prepared with as many details as you can. This allows the attorney the proper context to determine the viability and merits of your case, as well as the amount you may reasonably expect to collect in damages.