We’ve all heard stories about whistleblowers, the one who brought down President Nixon ( Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) in the Watergate scandal, the White House staffer who was a key witness in the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal (Linda Tripp), and the one who helped bring down Enron in the early 2000’s (Sherron Watkins). But what is a whistleblower exactly, how does someone become a whistleblower, and what are their rights in the state of New York?
A whistleblower is someone who reveals illicit activity by their employer or the government.
In the case of the examples mentioned above, Deep Throat was a reporter that revealed the Nixon administration’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. Linda Tripp secretly recorded private conversations between Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton that helped lead to Clinton’s impeachment. Sherron Watkins is the former Vice President of Corporate Development at Enron who helped unearth a massive accounting fraud by Enron.
Whistleblowers are important, because they help hold government officials and corporations accountable. In each of the examples, there was some kind of abuse of power that was brought to light so justice could be sought.
It is not always easy to come forward with information on powerful people and corporations. That’s why whistleblower protections were put into place, to minimize the negative consequences a whistleblower might face.
In most cases, being a whistleblower isn’t as glamorous as what is seen on t.v. There’s no prerequisite for how someone becomes a whistleblower. There’s no timeline to follow. Becoming a whistleblower is sometimes as simple as reporting on corporate or governmental abuses.
Reports don’t necessarily have to be public, either. Reporting illegal activity to a human resources department could be considered whistleblowing, as can telling a reporter, a coworker, a lawyer. The point is simply that someone is trying to make the illegal activity known in order to prevent it from continuing.
But, sometimes there are procedural requirements that must be followed, at least if the employee wants to ensure that they are protected under federal or state whistleblower protection statutes.
The best way to know how to go about sharing information regarding an employer’s illicit activity is to consult an attorney before taking action to ensure the employee is protected.
Unfortunately, whistleblowers sometimes face negative consequences for trying to do the right thing. Employers sometimes retaliate against them by firing them or engaging in other illegal workplace activity like harassment.
That’s where whistleblower protections come in. Laws to protect whistleblowers were first enacted in the 1800’s during Lincoln’s administration. There are federal protections. And, there are also state protections.
New York is an “at will” employment state. This means employees may be fired at any time for any reason. However, over the years, several exceptions have been made. For example, an employee can not be fired in retaliation for filing a discrimination claim against their employer.
Similarly, state law in New York prohibits an employee from being fired for being a whistleblower. Specifically, the statute protects employees who engage in the following acts:
- Making a complaint, instituting a case, or testifying in a case against an employer for violating labor laws. The complaint must be made to either the employer or to the New York Commissioner of Labor; or
- Taking action to protect the health and safety of the public. Only actions that could have a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety apply in this scenario.
The illegal activity must be disclosed either to a supervisor or a public body (such as a judge, law enforcement, an administrative agency, etc.). If an employee discloses the activity to a public body, the employee must first have disclosed the illegal activity to their supervisor and allow their employer a reasonable time to remedy the situation.
Employees are also protected if they provide testimony to a public body regarding an employer’s alleged illegal activity, so long as the activity specifically relates to a specific danger to public health and safety.
Additionally, employees will be protected from retaliatory discharge if they refuse to participate in the illegal activity posing a substantial risk to public health and safety.
There are also whistleblower protections in several specific industries such as:
- Civil service;
- Commercial goods;
- Non-profit corporations;
- Nursing homes;
- Schools; and
- Various other industries.
Although New York is an “at will” employment state, you still have rights if you report illegal activity by your employer or if you participate in an investigation. If you feel you may become a whistleblower, take steps necessary to protect your interests.
And, if you have already come forward with a claim and believe your employer has retaliated against you, it’s important to know that you may only have three years to file a complaint for retaliation. Once those three years passes, your opportunity to complain for retaliation passes (in most situations).
An experienced New York Whistleblower Lawyer can help you determine how to come forward with allegations against your employer, or even how to support a coworker who has come forward with allegations. An attorney can also help you handle a retaliation claim if your employer takes action against you for your allegations.