A whistleblower is an individual (usually an employee) who reports activity the individual believes is unlawful activity (like fraud, unsafe work conditions, or civil rights violations) or activity by the employer that threatens the public health (like illegal waste dumping).
There are many federal and state laws that protect employee whistleblowers. Some are general and others cover specific industries. The federal laws include the False Claims Act, Sarbanes Oxley and the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. The New York State Labor Law also provides whistleblower protection in a broad range of industries. There is also a New York State Labor Law that covers healthcare workers who report substandard patient care, specifically.
An employer is not supposed to take any adverse action against you for engaging in lawful “whistleblowing” steps. Such lawful whistleblowing steps include: (1) conducting an investigation; (2) reporting misconduct internally or externally; (3) filing a formal complaint or starting a lawsuit; and/or (4) assisting government authorities. If your employer does retaliate against you for engaging in whistleblowing activity, you should immediately contact a whistleblower lawyer to preserve and protect your rights.
Generally, if you disclose, threaten to disclose, testify in a hearing or refuse to participate in illegal activity of your employer, you may not be fired, suspended, demoted, have your pay docked or reduced, or otherwise have your employment negatively impacted because of your whistleblowing. Typically, you are protected even if your employer turns out not to have broken the law, as long as you had a reasonable belief that such violations had occurred.
If you prove retaliation in court, you may receive reinstatement, back pay and financial compensation for other damages. Also, if you prove your employer is committing fraud against the government, you may also be entitled to file a lawsuit against your employer on behalf of themselves and the government. In these “qui tam” cases, the government may or may not intervene, and you may be able to share in any recovery. If you believe your employer is engaged in serious fraud against the federal or state government, you should consult an experienced employment lawyer immediately.
How do I know if I have been retaliated against for my whistleblowing activities?
Retaliation stemming from whistleblowing activities can be very obvious or it can be very subtle. The most obvious forms of retaliation are that you are fired, demoted or refused promotion to a higher paying position. But here are some examples of less obvious unlawful retaliation:
- You report your employer to officials for unlawfully dumping sewage into the street. Shortly afterward, you are fired.
- You cooperate in an investigation into whether your employer unlawfully dumped sewage into the street and notice that little by little, your hours and responsibilities are reduced and opportunities for advancement are being taken away.
- You have always received outstanding performance reviews. You reported a dangerous working condition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which your employer was ordered to fix. Your supervisor tells you that you are being demoted because you are not a team player.
- You work for a public company and notice accounting irregularities; you report the irregularity to the SEC and cooperate in the agency’s investigation. You become the object of derision and criticism at work, and even begin receiving anonymous threats to your safety.
Legal Editor: Timothy McInnis, January 2015 (updated February, 2016)
Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.