As American business continues to increase in both size and complexity, it is perhaps unsurprising that the number of individuals willing to take unfair advantage of others has increased as well. In fact, the federal government alone recovered over $62 billion in judgments for improper acts since 1986 when it strengthened the False Claim Act. As a result, it is essential that fair-minded individuals feel empowered to come forward to expose these wrongdoings, thus enabling the business, its stakeholders, and its clients to seek justice for fraudulent activity.
Unfortunately, dishonest individuals often take drastic measures in an attempt to ensure their behavior remains hidden. Within the California workplace, this can translate into threats against employees with knowledge about fraudulent activities or even outright retaliation against those who report. Whistleblower protection laws exist to safeguard individuals with knowledge of unethical behavior against threats or retaliation and encourage them to come forward so the authorities can rectify the situation. However, to access the protections provided by these laws, it is essential to proceed with the expert legal guidance provided by a California whistleblower attorney.
Who Is Considered a Whistleblower?
Whistleblowers commonly reveal fraudulent acts, wasteful practices, abusive behaviors, corrupt business dealings, or even actions (or lack thereof) that pose a danger to the health or welfare of others within the business setting. In most cases, whistleblowers are employees, volunteers, contractors, or otherwise work for the business or organization in question.
In simplest terms, whistleblowers are individuals who reveal information about wrongdoing within a business that otherwise would not be revealed. However, to receive protection under the law for revealing this information, whistleblowers must meet certain guidelines set forth by the state and federal government. In total, there are over 50 federal whistleblower laws, but the most prominent by far is known as the False Claims Act.
The False Claims Act
First implemented in 1863 under then-President Abraham Lincoln, the False Claims Act was originally intended to allow insiders to safely report the rampant fraud, waste, and abuse by government contractors during the Civil War without fear of reprisal. The False Claims Act has experienced a number of changes over the years, most notably in 1986 when Congress broadened its scope. However, its most important provision remains – the ability of a whistleblower to file a lawsuit on the government’s behalf against individuals or entities defrauding the federal government.
Under the whistleblower (or qui tam) provision, the federal government not only provides protection against threats, retaliation, and reprisals but also rewards whistleblowers – known as a relator in a qui tam case, since the whistleblower does not need to have received direct harm from the fraudulent behavior – for coming forward. In fact, the False Claims Act provides a minimum reward of 15% (often up to 30%) of the total financial judgment for a successful qui tam case. However, the relator must provide original information that reveals previously undiscovered fraud resulting in government pecuniary loss.
Whistleblower Protection Act
While the federal government incentivized whistleblowing with the False Claims Act – a move some estimate has allowed the government to recover $20 for every $1 spent in litigation and relator compensation – it also found that it needed to further protect whistleblowers. Over 100 years after the implementation of the False Claims Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 strengthened protections for federal whistleblowers.
Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, federal government employees may report the existence of activity that violates the law, constitutes negligence, abuse of authority, fraud, waste, and abuse, or grossly endangers public and employee safety. Government employees may report this behavior or any suspected behavior anonymously and without fear of reprisal. As a result, government supervisors violate the Whistleblower Protection Act if they threaten to take or actually take any action in retaliation against the whistleblowing employee.
Of course, the Whistleblower Protection Act and the False Claims Act exist primarily to protect and incentivize individuals revealing unethical activity perpetrated by federal employees or defrauding the U.S. government. However, fraud exists within privately and publicly owned corporations as well. In fact, a recent executive survey estimated that whistleblowers had saved U.S. companies billions of dollars over the past several years.
Corporate whistleblowers are also just as vulnerable to reprisal as federal whistleblowers. In some cases, corporate employers who would engage in dishonest business practices are even more willing than their government counterparts to threaten, intimidate, or retaliate against would-be whistleblowers because they believe employer confidentiality agreements protect them. However, state and federal laws exist to protect corporate whistleblowers and supersede confidentiality agreements. Seeking the services of a whistleblower retaliation lawyer is essential to attaining these protections.
California Whistleblower Protection Laws
In the state of California, employees who discover fraudulent or illegal behavior receive protections under the law. California Whistleblower Protection Laws protect employees who:
- Report any suspected illegal or fraudulent behavior by their employer to a regulatory agency or law enforcement.
- Report suspected illegal or fraudulent behavior by another employee to the appropriate supervisor with authority to begin a proper investigation.
- Report fraud, waste, and abuse to the California State Auditor.
- Report abusive or fraudulent wage or labor issues to the California Labor Commissioner.
The most inclusive California law that provides reprisal protection is Labor Code 1102.5 LC. Under this statute, employers, supervisors, and other employees may not retaliate against employees that provide information they reasonably believe shows the individual or entity in question violated a law or is not compliant with regulations. In fact, whistleblowers receive protection under this law even if they are incorrect about the violation in question, so long as they can show there was reason to believe a violation occurred. Employees also receive protection from employers who falsely believe they engaged in whistleblowing.
Similar to federal WPA statutes, the California Whistleblower Protection Act exists to protect individuals who report fraud, waste, and abuse, violations of the law, corruption, bribery, incompetency, and acts that threaten public or individual health and welfare. In addition, California has instituted its own False Claims Act, allowing qui tam lawsuits against employers who have defrauded the state government. For all employees, both the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act include provisions for employees to file whistleblower claims against employer retaliation for workplace harassment or employment discrimination and securities fraud, respectively.
Understanding Employer Retaliation
Each of the laws described above provides protections for whistleblowers against employer retaliation. As a result of these statutes, California employers may not engage in retaliatory actions, including:
- Termination of employment
- Denied promotion or advancement
- Denied raises
- Withholding of training
- Denial of benefits
- Unfair employee evaluations
- Reassignment to an undesirable position
- Harassment by the employer
- Encouraged harassment by other workers
- Threats of physical, financial, or other harm
Keep in mind, an employer or supervisor only needs to threaten these or any other retaliatory actions to violate California whistleblower protection laws. Your California whistleblower attorney can help you determine the transgressions or threats that qualify as a violation.
How Do I File a Whistleblower Lawsuit?
If you believe you have evidence of your employer, supervisor, or another entity participating in illegal or unethical behavior that defrauded the California state government, you may be entitled to bring a California False Claims Act lawsuit against your employer. Similarly, if you believe you have evidence of illegal or harmful activity by your private employer, you are entitled to report those actions to the proper regulatory body, such as the California Labor Commissioner, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), or others.
If you choose to file a qui tam lawsuit against a current or former employer, you are acting on behalf of the defrauded government entity and must file the lawsuit in California Superior Court. In addition, you must show exhaustive evidence of the violation and a copy of the complaint to the California Attorney General. The AG will then decide whether it is in the best interests of the state to join you in your claim or allow you to proceed on your own — however, you will still receive a share of any damages found during the proceedings.
California has established a statute of limitations that leaves you six years to file a whistleblower claim after the False Claims Act violation occurred, or three years after you learned of the violation – however, you may not file a qui tam lawsuit more than ten years after the violation occurred even if you learned of the violation at a later date. In addition, if you were a government employee when you learned of the violation, you must first adhere to the internal reporting procedures outlined by the organization.
How Do I File a Whistleblower Retaliation Lawsuit?
After filing a California False Claims Act case, reporting an employer violation to a California governing body like the California Labor Commissioner or OSHA, or revealing unethical, unsafe, or illegal behavior by your supervisor to the proper entities, you are entitled to whistleblower protections. If your employer or supervisor participates in any of the retaliatory behaviors listed above, you may file a separate complaint for the damages caused by their actions. In corporate retaliation situations, you typically have six months to file a complaint and three years to file a lawsuit. For California government/qui tam lawsuit retaliations, you have 12 months to file a complaint with the California State Personnel Board.
In the state of California, you must first provide notice to your employer and the California Labor and Workplace Development Agency in the case of private employer retaliation or the California State Personnel Board in the case of state agency retaliation. You may also file a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner, though it is not mandatory. In a private complaint, the California Labor and Workplace Development Agency may investigate the case itself. If it decides not to do so, you may proceed with a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit.
Why Take Action?
If the California Attorney General recovers lost funds due to your False Claims Act qui tam case, you are entitled to a portion of the recovery. If the AG chooses not to participate and your lawsuit is successful, you could recover a larger portion of the funds. Meanwhile, refusing to participate in illegal corporate behavior and reporting the same has the potential to save your company, its stakeholders, and its clients from financial ruin.
Similarly, filing a California whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against an employer who has violated the Whistleblower Protection Act can help you seek appropriate remedies or recover damages, including:
- Reinstatement to your previous position or salary
- Reimbursement of lost wages and back pay
- Clearing of negative performance reviews
- Reimbursement of attorney’s fees
- Other compensatory damages
Do I Need an Attorney?
If you discover a False Claims Act violation, the government is the party that incurred the fraudulent financial damages in the first place and holds the ultimate right to file the lawsuit. As a result, the government prohibits individuals from filing pro se lawsuits in which you represent yourself. You must hire an attorney to represent you as you file any False Claims Act case.
If you believe you have evidence of illegal corporate actions or have experienced whistleblower retaliation for notifying the authorities of any unethical behavior, consider the reasons the government requires attorney representation for qui tam suits. Whistleblower law is often complicated and requires in-depth knowledge of more than 50 federal and multiple state whistleblower laws, their various statutes of limitations, and potential damages you may recover. The government requires you to seek professional representation when litigating such matters, and your own whistleblower case should, too.
Retaining a skilled attorney can help you determine your rights as they pertain to your unique situation and outline your next steps towards pursuing whistleblower protection or recovering damages. As your case proceeds, an attorney will ensure you file the proper documents with the necessary entities, enabling you to pursue your case without unnecessary legal roadblocks. Finally, legal representation will help ensure you achieve the best possible resolution to your case, which may include recovering financial damages and restoring your career.
For more information about California whistleblower laws and whistleblower protections or to discuss your case with a skilled Costa Mesa whistleblower protection attorney, contact California Employment Counsel, APC for a free consultation. Our team of Orange County employment lawyers will assist you in evaluating your claim and pursuing fair compensation for your case.