When individuals see illegal conduct happening in their place of business, they may not know how to warn the authorities without putting themselves in some sort of harm or reprisal situation. 

For this very reason, both state and federal governments passed a series of laws known as whistleblower laws to help protect those in weaker positions to come forward with any information on fraudulent and illegal activities. So what are these laws and how do they work? Here is a short guide to whistleblower protections in the state of California.

What Is a Whistleblower?

Put simply, a whistleblower is a person who exposes unethical, illegal, or fraudulent behavior by a public or private organization. The origin of the term goes back to the 1970s, when activists were looking for a better term than a “snitch” or an “informer”, which carry negative connotations and were often associated with organized crime cases. 

The idea was to associate the person with the historic practice of blowing a whistle to warn the public of impending danger, like a natural disaster or a crime. And although the term can refer to someone on the inside or outside an organization, most laws are written to protect the rights of internal whistleblowers, most commonly employees.

Does California Have Whistleblower Protections?

Yes. There are legal protections against whistleblower retaliation through the California Whistleblower Protection Act (Labor Code Section 1102.5 to 1105), which was most recently updated in 2014 and modeled on the federal Occupational Health And Safety Act (OSHA) regulations. 

The law prohibits retaliation by the employer (or a third party) against an employee who reports violations of state or federal law to a government official and/or law enforcement. It covers both public and private sector employees. 

What Kinds of Actions Constitute Retaliation?

If the employee is on the receiving end of any “unfavorable” actions by their employer due to their legal whistleblowing activities, the state of California considers this prohibited retaliation. There are a number of different actions that can fall into this definition, including:

  • Laying off or firing the employee;
  • Blacklisting (placing a do not hire tag) on the employee, hurting future job prospects;
  • Demoting the employee;
  • Reassigning the employee to lesser or unsuitable positions;
  • Reducing pay and/or hours;
  • Denying regular wages, benefits, or overtime pay;
  • Denying promotions;
  • Denying acknowledgment of non-compete agreements;
  • Denying employment; or
  • Subjecting employee to harassment and intimidation from management or other employees.

This is not an exhaustive list. Any sort of negative reaction from the employer, management, or other workers in the company or organization may meet this threshold. 

What Can I Do If I Have Experienced Whistleblower Retaliation?

The state of California has a stated reporting process for employees seeking whistleblower retaliation. The first level is to report issues to the company itself. State law requires that private companies and public entities have procedural mechanisms to deal with possible legal issues. If the company or entity either ignores the report or retaliates against the employee for doing so, then you can take legal action. 

The next step is to file a complaint with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), and allow state investigators to review the employer’s practices. You generally have six months after the retaliatory actions took place to file your complaint. You can also file a civil lawsuit against the company in the right state court for monetary damages. The claim will usually be either a wrongful discharge suit or a general whistleblower suit, but your attorney will tell you which claims are appropriate for your situation. Unlike a DLSE complaint, you have two years to file a civil claim. 

What Kinds of Damages Should I Seek for Employer Retaliation?

In a civil lawsuit, an employee harmed by retaliatory behavior due to their whistleblowing activities is entitled to seek monetary damages. If found liable, the company or entity will be forced to pay the employee any lost wages and benefits. In some cases, a court may determine that the employee was the subject of particularly malicious retribution and award them punitive damages as well. The employer will also be forced to pay attorney’s fees to the successful party.

Do I Need an Attorney for a Whistleblower Retaliation Action?

Yes. All legal proceedings can be complicated, and employment law is no exception. Employees are often in a weaker position than their former employer, with fewer resources and less power to assert their rights. 

If you feel like you have been the victim of employer retaliation after legally reporting illegal or immoral conduct, you need to seek the services of an experienced California employment attorney. They can advise you of all the rights and protections afforded to you under California law and be your advocate and defender through the reporting process and any litigation that results.