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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, legislators have created laws at both the state and federal level 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 anti-discrimination 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 face discrimination or retaliation related to reporting a variety of illegal conduct:

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. This 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. A person files a qui tam action "under seal." Being under seal prevents the action from becoming part of public record and gives 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. Below are some examples of state whistleblower protections:

  • The Illinois whistleblower law applies only to employees of a state or local government (not to private employees). It protects whistleblowers from facing discipline for publicly disclosing information they reasonably believe shows a violation of the law.
  • The California Whistleblower Protection Act applies to public and private employees. In 2014, the state added greater protection by adding new provisions to protect whistleblowers.
  • New York law protects both public and private employees from retaliation. It goes so far as to categorize employee retaliation as a chargeable crime.

The scope of whistleblower laws varies 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, ever-changing, and complicated. Protection for whistleblowers, however, is crucial to serve the best interests of our country's workers and society overall.

If you are a whistleblower or are considering reporting illegal conduct, consider speaking with an experienced attorney. They can discuss the important matters of your employment case, as well as the options available to you to best protect yourself against possible employer retaliation.

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