What You Should Know: Protection for Whistleblowers
Being a witness to obvious illegal activity becomes all the more challenging when you are an employee of the company committing the behaviors. Although you might feel reluctant to speak up, you should know that there are laws that can protect you for this. An employee who chooses to speak out against clear and apparent wrongdoings by their employer is known as a whistleblower.
California has enacted the False Claims Act (Gov. Code, § 12653), which vows to protect witnesses who have witnessed fraud against local, state, or federal entities. This also extends to fraudulent acts committed against public schools and any government-funded agencies. There are two ways this law protects you: it prohibits companies from retaliating against you and offers restitution or “whistleblower rewards.”
Particularly for those who believe they are achieving justice by shedding light on and potentially ending the fraudulent or illegal activity. However, for whistleblowers, the threat of losing their livelihood, their dignity, and their job are very real. Whistleblowers can take matters into their own hands by bringing forth a lawsuit under the False Claims Act.
A Whistleblower Case Example
Here is one example of a whistleblower case: an employee at a factory notices that there are several safety violations in the facility, going against the regulations made by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That employee alerts OSHA regarding the violations, and in retaliation, the factory fires this employee. In his lawsuit, the employee may include details such as the termination of his employment with the factory after making OSHA aware of the violations and working to improve the safety conditions at the establishment.
A whistleblower may receive an award under these circumstances:
- Between 15 to 33% of the amount of money recovered, if the money was recovered by the government agency, state, or political subdivision, OR
- Between 25 to 50% of the amount of money recovered, if the whistleblower has resolved the case without involvement from the government agency, state, or political subdivision, etc.
Whistleblower Claims for State or Government Employees
Whistleblower cases for public employees have a whole set of unique circumstances that differ somewhat from employees working in a private industry, offering special protection. According to California Gov. Code 8547.8, there exists the “California Whistleblower Protection Act,” to protect state or government employees.
The laws may provide protection for cases such as:
- Employees who report illegal or fraudulent activity in their place of work
- Employees who believe there may be a violation of the laws or regulations at their place of work and begin an investigation into the matter
- Employees who have reported the workplace to place themselves or other workers in serious risk to their health and/or safety
- Employees who have been subjected to labor or wage violations
- Employees who have noted that their place of work is harmful to the environment or wasting economic resources, or otherwise conducting business carelessly
If you are a public employee, your case would be handled either by the State Auditor’s Office or the Commission on Judicial Performance.
What If I Have Suffered Retaliation in my Whistleblower Case?
Has your employer issued threats to hold back on paying wages or even to terminate from your job? Even without going so far as to terminate you from your job, some employers may go to extreme lengths to make conditions intolerable.
For example, retaliation may include:
- Withholding wages
- Refusing to offer you a raise
- Denying you from a promotion, even if qualified
- Threats against undocumented workers to turn them into immigration
- Preventing you from attending training to advance your career
- Disregarding safety protocols
- Prohibiting you from resources to perform your job efficiently
If any of these do apply, know that the employer does not have your best interests at heart and it is up to you to take action and restore your dignity. Through legal recourse, you can not only fight for justice, but also work to ensure that these companies put a stop to their illegal and wrongful actions. Furthermore, you may be able to gain some financial reward for any damages you have suffered.
Whistleblower lawsuits can help recover the following:
- Reinstating your job position and title
- Paying for back pay or any lost wages while unemployed
- Payment for any interest on the back pay
- Pain and suffering damages
- Punitive damages (monetary compensation paid by the employer as punishment)
- Payment for attorney fees and any other legal expenses
- Any other compensation to pay for other costs associated with retaliation
What Should I Do if My Case Includes Wage Violation?
Whistleblower laws do include protection for employees with wage and labor violations, as well as for any instances of discrimination, being denied rightful compensation, being withheld from receiving bonuses or retirement benefits, and other such claims.
It is important that your case gets handled by the appropriate government agency. In this case, it would be California’s Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department. It is imperative that you maintain an organized record to support your claim.
Documentation for your wage violation claims might include:
- Time sheets that document your hours
- Paystubs for the time period in your claim
- Paychecks that were voided or dishonored
- Any other documentation given by your employer regarding compensation
A whistleblower claim can be a difficult undertaking. Although the laws have been established to protect you, there is significant challenge when seeking to protect yourself from an employer who takes action against you. Having a whistleblower attorney who understands the laws is a safeguard. Your attorney understands the laws and can help uncover critical information that can lead to a successful case, much better than someone who is less seasoned at handling whistleblower lawsuits.
What Is a Qui Tam Lawsuit?
Essentially, if you have witnessed someone submitting a false claim to any type of government agency and being paid for doing so. A type of lawsuit that will provide rewards for whistleblowers is known as a “qui tam” lawsuit, and typically occurs when the money lost during the fraudulent act is reclaimed.
Qui tam lawsuits may encompass the following:
- The individuals or entity were aware of their actions to defraud a government entity and receive payment for their actions
- The individuals or entity were aware they made false claims in order to receive a government payment
- The individuals or entity received a bribe to cover up or neglect to report any known wrongdoings
- The individuals or entity was aware could compromise the health and safety of their employees
- The individuals or entity conspired with other individuals to defraud the government
- The individuals or entity knowingly used false records to avoid making payments to the government
What Should I Expect in a Qui Tam Lawsuit?
Every qui tam lawsuit is filed in the federal district court and is placed under seal. The suit is then served to the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney in the district where the complaint was filed.
There is a deadline for filing qui tam lawsuits. You must do so within:
- Six years from the date where the violation occurred, or
- Three years from the date that the government was made aware of the illegal actions
You will not be allowed to file a qui tam lawsuit after ten years from the date of the illegal or fraudulent actions.
Once the lawsuit has been filed and the process has begun, there is a 60-day period of investigation. Employers are not aware of the circumstances during this time, as it is sealed. That is, unless the government decides to step in and intervene. At this time, each document and article of evidence is scrutinized thoroughly. In some cases, the 60-day period can even be extended if necessary, allowing more time for The Department of Justice to continue gathering any necessary information.
The government may choose to participate in the lawsuit, which does not always happen. If it does, however, there is a higher likelihood of having a successful case outcome. The government might encourage the parties to settle the cases. In fact, a good number of qui tam cases settle without bringing the items to litigation.
What Questions Might Be Asked in a Qui Tam Lawsuit?
When considering the final settlement and reward for a successful qui tam case, it will depend on whether or not the government will decide to step in on your case. If they do, you can expect anywhere between 15 to 25 percent of the compensation award. If not, the reward is higher, between 25 to 30 percent.
Here are some of factors that will be considered in a qui tam lawsuit:
- The severity of the circumstances
- The type of information that that was reported
- If the government had prior knowledge of these actions
- How quickly you, the whistleblower, reacted and reported the actions
- If anyone in the company or organization tried to put a stop to the illegal activity
- The circumstances as to how you learned of the illegal activity
- If you had any involvement in the illegal activity
- How the company’s illegal actions affected you
Why File a Qui Tam Lawsuit?
Beyond simply seeking restitution, your actions will hopefully right the wrongs of a company. That company will be made to pay civil penalties for their actions, and possibly even criminal penalties, depending on what type of wrongdoing had taken place. It is possible that your lawsuit can help outright prevent further occurrences of fraudulent activity and ensure that retaliation does not happen to other colleagues any more.
What Is a FEHA Lawsuit?
In addition to laws that protect employees from workplace harassment or other forms of discrimination on the job, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) offers legal protection to employees who have witnessed any violations of this. Employees who have experienced job loss or retaliation when fighting against workplace harassment or discrimination fall under this category of whistleblower protection .
When Employees Do Not Report Illegal Activity
Whistleblower laws extend to cases where employees have been victims of retaliation, even without reporting the circumstances. Does this sound like your case? Sometimes, employers retaliate against an employee, even if the employee has never actually taken legal action or reported anything to the government agencies.
For example, you had a conversation with a coworker where you suspected your company may be involved in some type of fraudulent activity. Your coworker reports this to your manager and they subsequently terminate you from your position. After thorough investigation, it is discovered that your company had never engaged in illegal activity. Yet, they may still be held legally responsible for your termination as whistleblower retaliation.
Why an Attorney Is Critical to Your Whistleblower Case
For any employee who has been wronged — had their wages reduced or revoked, failed to gain a promotion, or even fired from their position — justice must be served. That is precisely why the Fair Claims Act was set into place. An attorney is critical to handling some of the more precarious details involved, especially in cases that could involve the government. Having an expert with you offers you the best possible chance of obtaining an outcome that you deserve.
If you believe you have a case, do not hesitate to consult with a whistleblower attorney so that you can have that peace of mind.
Contact Eldessouky Law Firm today to schedule your appointment!