Whistleblower laws exist to protect employees who become aware of illegal conduct at their workplaces or are asked to participate in company or office practices that violate the law. These kinds of situations are often extremely difficult for workers, because by speaking up, they risk retaliation from their employers, but if they choose to keep quiet, they risk being blamed for taking part in illegal activity.
Whistleblower laws allow employees to raise concerns or, “blow the whistle”, over illegal, unsafe or unethical conditions, without fear of being retaliated against or otherwise punished for their actions. Many laws, like Title VII and other anti-discrimination statutes, themselves include protections for employees who speak out when they notice violations. In addition, there are specific whistleblower statutes that apply to certain industries and certain types of illegal conduct. A few of those are listed below.
The False Claims Act
This law is also known as the Qui Tam law, and applies to companies that work with the government. These companies can try to steal money from the federal government by wrongfully reporting higher prices of certain items for which the government reimburses them. If this activity goes on for a long time, a company can scam millions of dollars from federal agencies. If you see this kind of activity and report it, you can be protected from blame for the illegal conduct, and in some cases even be eligible to receive a percentage of the damages from the lawsuit. Many states, including Georgia, have instituted their own “little False Claims Acts” to protect against companies that try to fraudulently obtain money from the State. Georgia’s law is called the Georgia Taxpayer Protection False Claims Act (GTPFCA) and was passed in 2012. These laws are very complex and have requirements that must be followed to the letter, necessitating competent legal counsel before proceeding. As is always the case – and more so with False Claims Act cases – consultation with an attorney who specializes in this area is critical before taking action.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration governs workplace safety and helps ensure that an employer provides his or her employees with a safe work environment, including proper protective equipment, safety training, and resources in case of a workplace accident. An employer may be non-compliant with OSHA requirements if it does not provide equipment like masks, earplugs, hard hats, or safety glasses in workplace environments that expose employees to harmful conditions. If you know about and report non-compliance with these standards in your workplace, the law provides for protection from dismissal, demotion, and other adverse actions in retaliation for your conduct. In all cases, complaints about retaliation are extremely time-sensitive but this is especially true in safety cases under OSHA, so employees must act quickly and are advised to consult competent legal counsel or an OSHA representative as soon as possible.
This law protects workers who expose securities or commodities fraud. Specifically, employees who are aware of workplace fraud in the private investment sector, including Ponzi schemes, bribery, insider trading, improper sale of risky investments, market manipulation, or accounting fraud, can report such conduct knowing that there are protections in place for retaliation.
The federal securities laws require publicly traded companies to disclose financial information, and also protect the workers who are aware of illegal falsification of records. If you report to management your concern about a violation of SEC rules (particularly, violations that have to do with fraud against shareholders) and the company takes action against you, you may file a claim with OSHA or the Department of Labor to seek reinstatement to your position.
Other Industry-Specific Whistleblower Laws
Regulations in the food product, consumer finance, environmental, nuclear, military, airline, pipeline, mining, and other industries may also protect employees who speak out about violations of law in their workplaces.
Some whistleblower laws allow an individual to bring a private action, and others require that an agency (like OSHA or the Unites States government) bring a lawsuit against the company, with the whistleblowing employee helping to provide evidence of the violation.
To have a valid whistleblower claim, there must be a reasonable basis to conclude that a violation of the law occurred. In other words, the whistleblower statutes usually do not require that the employee who blows the whistle actually know that the law has been broken. You may know about a violation at your workplace through verbal communication with coworkers, or you could have access to evidence of what appears to be illegal activity in the form of company records or communications. However, the law typically does require that your suspicion be subjectively and objectively reasonable.
As mentioned, many whistleblower claims are time-sensitive, and some require legal action within as little as 30 days if you are to be protected. Additionally, some whistleblower protections only apply if you have reported the conduct to the right people or agencies. If you have been asked to participate in illegal activity at your workplace, or if you are aware of unethical or unsafe conduct in your company, talking to an attorney can help you figure out your options and determine how to proceed.
If you have spoken up or want to speak up about illegal conduct but fear retaliation from your employer, you can call us toll free at 1-855-774-3675, send us an e-mail, or fill out a consultation request form and we will contact you as soon as possible to further discuss your situation.