Colorado’s Whistleblower Laws

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 What Are Colorado's Whistleblower Laws?

The term whistleblower refers to an employee who “blows the whistle” on their employer’s illegal or unethical behavior. The whistleblowing employee does this by reporting their employer to the appropriate authorities or commission, which is typically a law enforcement agency.

It is important to note that a whistleblower cannot legally be fired for their actions of reporting their employer and are protected under specific whistleblowing laws. In other words, employers are prohibited from retaliating against a whistleblower by firing them or by denying them benefits.

The following are common examples of how whistleblowing may occur:

  • The employer is violating public health laws, which leads to illness or death of employees;
  • The employer is violating workplace safety laws, such as not providing appropriate safety equipment or training;
  • The employer is violating hiring and firing laws, such as promoting certain employees for illegal activities;
  • The employer is practicing discrimination against a protected class or activity;
  • The employer is partying in the mismanagement of funds; or
  • The employer is abusing their authority.

Although whistleblowers are protected by whistleblowing laws, they may still be fired from their jobs for other reasons that are not related to their whistleblowing actions. For example, if the whistleblower also has a history of absences or tardiness, they may still be terminated for those causes.

As previously mentioned, there are federal laws in place that protect employees who speak up about an employer who is breaking the law. For example, The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is one of the federal laws that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report illegal activities by their employers. Similar to the list above, federal employers are protected if they report illegal acts by their employer such as:

  • Violation of laws, rules, or regulations;
  • Mismanagement or gross waste of governmental funds;
  • Abuse of authority; or
  • Actions that result in a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.

Then, if the whistleblower is terminated solely because of whistleblowing, i.e., there was no other valid reason for their termination, they will have the right to sue their employer for wrongful termination. Further, if the action reported by the employee was not actually illegal, but the employee reasonably believed that the action was illegal, they are still protected against any employer retaliation.

In addition to federal laws, there are also Colorado whistleblower laws that protect state employees and employees in the state from retaliation from whistleblowing. Colorado state law protects both public and private employees from retaliation when they report information regarding the illegal or inappropriate conduct of their employers. Specifically, Colorado law provides the following protections to public and private state employees:

  • Public Employees: Employees of the state of Colorado are protected from any disciplinary action by their employer that is taken in retaliation for disclosing information regarding any illegal policies or actions regarding certain government representatives.
    • In order to claim the protection, a state employee must file a written complaint within 30 days of a retaliatory incident with the state personnel board;
    • If the employee has been terminated and proves that their firing was retaliation for protected whistleblowing, then they may recover back pay or even be reinstated to the position from which they were terminated; and
    • If the employee files a complaint with the state personnel board and does not receive a satisfactory remedy, then they may initiate a civil lawsuit in a court of law.
  • Private Employees: Employees of private employers in Colorado are also protected from retaliatory actions by their employers for whistleblowing by providing the following protections:
    • A private employer in Colorado may not take disciplinary action against an employee in retaliation for disclosures of information made by the employee about illegal policies or actions;
      • However, an employee must make an effort to first provide the information directly to a supervisor or other authority within the employer organization before disclosing the information to an outside source; and
      • The employee’s remedy for retaliatory conduct on the part of their employer is to bring a private civil lawsuit and be awarded damages or other relief.

It is important to note that for both public and private employees in Colorado, a whistleblower is not protected by these state statutes if they disclose information that they know to be false or fraudulent. However, once again, if the employee believed the information to be true, then they would be protected under the Colorado retaliation laws from being terminated due to the whistleblowing.

Are There Any Other Laws Protecting Whistleblowers in Colorado?

In short, yes. In 2007, Colorado also enacted a law that provides whistleblower protection for workers who are employed specifically in the healthcare profession. That law allows healthcare workers to report concerns about patient safety without fear of retaliation by their employer.

Case law also protects employees who are whistleblowers in Colorado through its cause of action for wrongful termination. For instance, an employee hired for an indefinite amount of time in Colorado is considered to be an at-will employee.

This means that their employment may be terminated without notice for any reason, so long as the reason is not illegal. Colorado law provides further protection for at-will employees if their employment is terminated in retaliation for whistleblower activity.

Additionally, The federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”) provides protection for whistleblowers in publicly traded reporting corporations. SOX requires corporate employers to provide procedures for employees to make anonymous complaints. Employer retaliation is a criminal offense punishable by criminal fines or up to ten years imprisonment.

How Do I File a Whistleblower Claim in Colorado?

In order to file a whistleblower claim in Colorado, an employee who was terminated or retaliated against by their employer should complete the “Whistleblower Complaint Form” found on the Colorado State Personnel Board’s website.

Before filing a whistleblower complaint, it is important to first understand if employer retaliation has occurred. In order to prove that you were mistreated or retaliated against for whistleblowing, you should be able to answer “yes” to the following questions:

  • After reporting your employer, were you the recipient of any negative employment actions?
  • Is the reported information indicative of a law violation? To whom and when did you report it?
  • Was management aware of the whistleblowing event?
  • Did your reporting of the event contribute to the personal attack?

Once again, whistleblower claims should be reported immediately, either to an attorney or the appropriate government official or agency. Additionally, although there are numerous whistleblower protection laws, most laws do not allow the employee to immediately bring a civil lawsuit for wrongful termination.

This is true for Colorado. Instead, the complaint is typically handled on an administrative level first. Then, if the matter is not resolved, an administrative judge may be appointed to the case. If there is no appropriate remedy for the employee, then the employee may seek a private civil lawsuit in order to recover their damages.

Do I Need to Obtain a Lawyer for My Whistleblower Claim?

As can be seen, there are numerous remedies available for employees who were terminated as a result of whistleblowing. However, it is often difficult to prove that you were wrongfully terminated due to whistleblowing, especially as an at-will employee.

Therefore, if you believe that you were wrongfully terminated due to whistleblowing, you should immediately consult with an experienced Colorado wrongful termination lawyer. An experienced wrongful termination attorney will be able to advise you of your best course of legal action in the case of retaliation occurring. Additionally, an attorney can help you build your case, assert your legal rights, and represent you in court as needed.

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