Employees who report an employer's illegal activity are known as whistleblowers. They have been instrumental in exposing all sorts of alarming behavior—everything from discrimination and harassment to health and safety violations. But, by taking a stand, whistleblowers put themselves at risk of retaliation. Luckily, there is legal recourse for victims of retaliation. Sometimes it can even result in multimillion-dollar jury awards. This article looks at a few of the most notable whistleblower cases.
Major Jury Award Against the City of Boston
A Boston jury awarded a significant sum to a city employee who was the victim of racial discrimination and retaliation. Chantal Charles is of African American and Haitian ancestry. She began working for the city of Boston in 1986. Charles' supervisor gave her management responsibilities in her first years with the city. She could also work a flexible schedule to accommodate her children's school and daycare.
In the late 1990s, Charles got a new supervisor, Vivian Leo, due to a government reorganization. Leo didn't let Charles use her management title. She also denied Charles:
- Overtime pay
- Flexible hours
- Transportation benefits received by her white co-workers
Leo reportedly referred to Charles as "aloof" and "uppity." Charles filed a formal discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. After filing the complaint, Charles claimed that Leo gave her less-favorable job evaluations.
Charles filed a lawsuit for discrimination. In 2015 a jury returned a verdict awarding her $10.9 million in total damages. The verdict consisted of the following:
After the lawsuit, Charles remained in her position with the city.
Record Fine for Pharmaceutical Giant
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Pfizer agreed to pay a $2.3 billion fine. The DOJ was investigating Pfizer for illegal and fraudulent promotion of its drug, Bextra, and other drugs. At the time, the fine broke several records:
- Largest healthcare fraud settlement
- Largest criminal fine in the U.S.
- Largest civil fraud settlement against a pharmaceutical company
The DOJ accused Pfizer of using its sales team to sell and promote the off-label use of unapproved drugs. Pfizer promoted the sale of Bextra, an anti-inflammatory drug, for uses and at dosages, the FDA hadn't approved. Pfizer also gave several kickbacks to physicians to promote the drug to their patients.
John Kopchinski, a Pfizer sales representative, was one of the many salespersons who blew the whistle on Pfizer's actions. Pfizer later fired Mr. Kopchinski.
U.S. Government Security Contractor Exposes Global Surveillance Program
Edward Snowden was a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. In 2013, Snowden disclosed highly classified documents that showed the existence of a government mass surveillance program called Prism. The Prism program gave the NSA access to a vast amount of user data such as email and videos from tech companies, including:
The documents also implicated foreign governments and telecommunications companies in the surveillance program.
The U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Snowden now lives in Russia.
In 2020, a U.S. federal court ruled in United States v. Moalin that the mass surveillance program exposed by Snowden was illegal.
Pharmacy Chain Improperly Billed Federal Programs
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc agreed to pay $269.2 million in 2019 to settle two whistleblower lawsuits. The civil fraud lawsuits accused Walgreens of overbilling Medicare, Medicaid, and other health programs. From 2006 to 2017, the company billed these programs for insulin pens it knowingly dispensed to patients who didn't need them.
Walgreens also overcharged Medicaid from 2008 to 2017. In that instance, it did not disclose and charge the discount drug prices it advertised as part of its Prescription Savings Club program.
The whistleblower brought their claims under the False Claims Act.
Settlement of California Mental Health Center Retaliation Lawsuit
Delhi Mental Health Rehab Center is a mental health rehabilitation center in the Bay Area Central Valley. It agreed to pay $25,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC charged Delhi with retaliation when it fired a male employee. The employee had helped female co-workers oppose sexual harassment in the center.
The EEOC brought two separate lawsuits against the center. The first lawsuit, filed in 2006, claimed that a supervisor subjected women to a barrage of crude sexual comments. It also claimed the women were subject to unwanted touching by the supervisor. The conduct occurred over five years. Delhi settled the lawsuit for $145,000 on behalf of nine female employees.
The EEOC brought the second lawsuit on behalf of Audel Mendoza. Mendoza was the boyfriend (and now husband) of one of the women named in the first lawsuit. The center reportedly fired Mendoza days after an EEOC investigator contacted the center to arrange an on-site inspection and witness interviews. According to the EEOC, this constituted retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California state laws. Besides monetary compensation, the settlement required the center to do the following:
- Refrain from future retaliation against employees
- Purge Mendoza's personnel file of any reference to either lawsuit
- Provide a neutral reference for Mendoza
Fracking Equipment Company Sued for Retaliation
The EEOC also brought a federal lawsuit against Downhole Technology. Downhole manufactures equipment used in hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"). The EEOC claimed Downhole violated federal law by retaliating against employee Kenneth Echols. Echols had reported racially based harassment by co-workers.
Echols reported that his co-workers used a white hood like the Ku Klux Klan used to harass and intimidate him. When Echols reported the behavior to Downhole, it didn't address his concerns. Instead, the company reprimanded and then fired Echols.
The EEOC filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The agency asked the court to permanently enjoin Downhole from future discrimination or retaliation. The agency also sought punitive and compensatory damages plus lost wages and benefits.
Whistleblower Fired for Exposing Unsafe Roofing Practices
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a safety and health inspection of Jasper Roofing Contractors. The company fired its safety manager after he gave OSHA information about Jasper's safety compliance.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) filed a lawsuit against Jasper in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The suit resulted from an investigation by OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program.
The lawsuit alleged that Jasper retaliated against the safety manager when it fired him. "Employees have the right to participate in an Occupational Safety and Health inspection without the fear of retaliation," said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA's Atlanta regional administrator. "OSHA will continue to hold companies accountable that violate the whistleblower provisions of the OSH Act."
Associate Director of the FBI Brings Down a President
In 1972, five people broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters (DNC). The Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., housed the DNC offices. At the time, Richard Nixon was running for re-election.
Investigators linked the crooks to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. This revelation led to Congressional hearings about the incident.
During the scandal, an anonymous source known as "Deep Throat" fed information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Both were reporters with the Washington Post. Deep Throat's disclosures led to Nixon's impeachment and eventual resignation.
Deep Throat's true identity was a secret for three decades. In 2005, Mark Felt revealed that he was Deep Throat. He was an Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the time of the scandal.
Legal Help for Whistleblowers
The success of whistleblower and retaliation lawsuits varies. Your case's circumstances will determine if you qualify for whistleblower protection. Contact an experienced whistleblower attorney to understand your legal options. An attorney can also help if you are the victim of illegal whistleblower retaliation.
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Contact a qualified whistleblower law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.