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An employer generally may not take an adverse action against an employee (such as by firing, demotion, or suspension) because the employee reported a suspected violation of the law or other misconduct by the employer. Such employees are popularly known as "whistleblowers," and are protected by a number of federal laws.
There are too many federal laws containing a whistleblowing or anti-retaliation provision to detail here. Some examples in the federal sphere include the federal Whistleblower Protection Act (protecting federal employees), the Corporate and Criminal Fraud Accountability Act of 2002 (Title VII of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act), the Energy Reorganization Act (which provides protections to employees of nuclear power plants), the False Claims Act, and many of the environmental protection laws. Other laws protect individuals who blow the whistle on companies who have contracted with the federal or state governments for misconduct in spending federal funds.
In addition, many states either have enacted a general whistleblower protection statute or provide protections for whistleblowers by recognizing their claims under their common law of wrongful discharge. Many of these whistleblower statutes protect those who report the misconduct of state employees or officials, health care fraud or abuse, or companies that spend state funds.
Many federal and state laws also contain anti-retaliation provisions for reporting violations of their provisions, which in effect provides whistleblower protection from adverse actions in the workplace for such reports. In the case of many discrimination laws, an employee is protected even when he or she is not the alleged victim of discrimination.
In order to qualify for protection as a whistleblower, however, an employee must have a reasonable, good-faith belief that the employer has violated a well-defined and valid law. In addition, the employee must take his or her complaint to an appropriate outside agency or to the employer itself; an employee who merely complains to his or her coworkers is not protected by the law. Once the employee establishes that his or her belief that the employer was violating the law is reasonable and in good faith, and that the employee made his or her complaint to the appropriate person or agency, the employee is protected even if the employer is ultimately found to be in compliance with the law. An employee is also protected from retaliation for refusing to participate in or cause a violation of the law.
An employee who has made a whistleblower complaint is not permanently protected from any adverse action by his or her employer. An employer may take action against an employee for reasons unrelated to the complaint or because the employee has engaged in illegal conduct. An employee may not cause a violation of law by the employer and then seek to avoid the consequences by reporting the employer to the government.
How Employment Law Attorneys Can Help Employers
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