Many of us have witnessed some form of wrongdoing in the workplace, whether it is something minor like someone taking office supplies for home use or something more serious like inappropriate harassment by a manager. It can be difficult to speak out when an employer, manager, or coworker is doing something wrong. Even when you know it is the right thing to do, it could cause tension in the workplace, loss of advancement, or even getting fired.
There are laws in place to protect employees and others who report illegal activity, fraud, harassment, and unlawful discrimination. Whistleblower laws protect individuals who report wrongdoing from being retaliated against, including demotion, termination, or creating a hostile workplace. A whistleblower claim can help the employee recover compensation for their losses, and punish the employer who committed the illegal acts or allowed them to continue.
What is a Whistleblower?
A whistleblower is an individual who comes forward to report illegal activity. This could include unlawful activities of an individual, corporation, or government agency. Whistleblowers often face retaliation for reporting wrongdoing, including employment termination, hostile workplace, damage to their reputation, and emotional harm. Whistleblower protection laws were enacted to protect individuals who report illegal activity and allow for compensation for any harm they suffered.
Whistleblower protections can apply to individuals, private employees, or government workers. Protected whistleblower activities can include:
- Reporting violations to the employer,
- Reporting violations to a government agency,
- Refusing to follow orders that would be unlawful, or
- Assisting in internal or government investigations.
The most common reaction by an employer after a whistleblower reports violations is to retaliate against that employee. The employer is not likely to say the employee was fired or demoted for reporting fraud, discrimination, or harassment. Instead, the employer may come up with some pretext or excuse for disciplining the employee. Retaliation may include:
- Deny a raise
- Job transfer
- Denied promotion
- Sudden change in poor evaluations
- Reducing benefits
- Reducing hours or shifts
- Deny training opportunities
Even if the employee is not punished through pay or benefits, an employer could create a hostile work environment that could be considered “constructive discharge.” Making the job difficult, uncomfortable, or encouraging other employees to threaten the whistleblower can become so bad that the employee is forced to leave.
Talk to your whistleblower lawyer about how you can show that you were terminated because you spoke out and not because of what the employer claims was the reason. Your attorney can investigate your case to identify other violations, discriminatory practices, and how the employer tried to cover up the real reason for retaliation.
Types of Whistleblower Claims
There are a number of types of whistleblower claims, which can range from rewards for reporting fraud to retaliation for reporting violations against another employee. Some of the common types of whistleblower claims include:
- Healthcare fraud
- Tax fraud
- Securities fraud
- Criminal activity
- Sexual harassment
- Employment discrimination
- Labor law violations
- Workplace safety violations
- Qui tam lawsuits
- Whistleblower rewards
Healthcare fraud is common and can drive up the costs of healthcare for everyone. Reporting healthcare fraud may involve a healthcare worker who witnesses illegal activity by a healthcare provider, doctor, or clinic. This may include billing Medicare or Medicaid for services that were never performed, overbilling for services, or upcoding.
Tax fraud may be increasing as the IRS funding has been cut drastically over the years. Lack of enforcement may embolden companies and individuals to falsely report income or losses to reduce the amount of taxes owed. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Whistleblower Office can reward individuals who provide “specific and credible” information that results in the collection of taxes and penalties. Under federal law, the IRS can award up to 30% of the additional taxes, penalties, and other amounts collected by the IRS.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Office of the Whistleblower can provide financial rewards to individuals who report or help in securities fraud investigations.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)has laws that protect employees asserting their rights to be free from harassment. This is not just limited to an employee who suffers sexual harassment but also includes other employees who report harassment or cooperate in an EEOC complaint or investigation.
The EEOC also prohibits employment discrimination for employees and job applicants. Employees are protected against retaliation for reporting discriminatory practices, being a witness in a discrimination lawsuit, or refusing to follow discriminatory orders.
Labor Law Violations
Labor laws are supposed to protect workers to make sure they are paid fairly for their work. Unfortunately, many employers shave off minutes or hours, take unlawful fees or payments, or underpay for overtime. For one employee, it may not seem worth it to report the labor law violations. However, wage and hour violations often impact many employees and reporting the violations can help the whistleblower recover compensation for this unlawful activity.
Workplace Safety Violations
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Whistleblower Protection Program protects workers and employees who report unsafe conditions or workplace violations. An employer cannot take an adverse action against employees for engaging in activities protected by OSHA's whistleblower laws.
Qui Tam Lawsuits
Qui tam is a type of lawsuit where an individual files a claim alleging fraud against the government even if the individual was not personally harmed. The False Claims Act allows for awards for individuals who bring claims on behalf of the government for fraud. The whistleblower who files a qui tam lawsuit can get a percentage of the amount the government recovers.
Whistleblower rewards allow for a financial award for someone who reports illegal activity. The most common whistleblower rewards are for tax fraud and securities fraud. The IRS or SEC can authorize an award (generally a percentage of the money recovered), to be paid to the individual who provided information about the violation.
Compensation in a Whistleblower Lawsuit
Individuals who take the brave step to speak out against wrongdoing by an employer or corporation are taking a big risk. The good news is that state and federal whistleblower protection laws provide for compensation after someone is retaliated against for reporting illegal activity. Depending on the case, damages and equitable relief after whistleblower retaliation can include:
- Back pay with interest,
- Front pay to compensate the plaintiff for time to secure equivalent employment,
- Benefits reinstatement,
- Bonuses and commissions,
- Special damages for emotional distress or injury to reputation,
- Punitive damages,
- Reasonable attorney's fees,
- Litigation costs, and
- Reinstatement to the same status.
Fighting for Whistleblowers' Rights
Coming forward to report fraud or wrongdoing is difficult but it is the right thing to do. After speaking out, you may feel all alone, but there is help available. The attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian are there to fight for you, protect your rights, and help you recover compensation. Do not hesitate to contact Gilman & Bedigian today for a free consultation.