California whistleblower law provides some powerful protections for employees working in the Golden State. And why shouldn’t it? Whistleblowers draw attention to dangerous or unlawful issues that affect all Californians. And these brave employees often engage in whistleblowing activities despite threats to their own livelihood.
Continue reading to learn a little about a landmark case in California, in which a court ruled that California’s whistleblower lawactually protected a woman who wasn’t technically a whistleblower.
This case serves to remind those who have considered reporting workplace violations to the authorities, that strong laws do exist to protect whistleblowers. If you’ve notified authorities of workplace violations, and have experienced retaliationas a result, consider contacting our officeto find out how our employment attorneys can help you.
The Case of Cecilia Diego
In 2002, Cecilia Diego was hired as a preschool teacher at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ located in Carlsbad California. This was an at-will position, and she held the job for many years.
In 2011, another employee, Cynthia Saldana called the Community Care Licensing Division of the California Department of Social Services and reported a foul smell coming from one of the rooms, and inadequate sand under the playground equipment. This triggered an unannounced inspection of the school by authorities. The inspection found no violations.
But shortly after the inspection, Diego had a phone conversation with her supervisor Anne Lewis. During the conversation Lewis reportedly asked Diego why she was “doing this” and suggested that there had been several calls to social services in recent months. It was clear to Diego, that Lewis incorrectly believed Diego was the one who called Social Services.
On a phone call a day later, Lewis notified Diego that she was fired. Diego filed suit against Pilgrim United, and testified that she believed the church fired her because of the anonymous report. Pilgrim United filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the law doesn’t protect employees merely believedto have engaged in whistleblowing activity. The trial court granted Pilgrim United’s motion.
But this wasn’t the final word on the matter.
California’s Appellate Court Sides with Employee
Diego appealed the lower court’s ruling, and the California Court of Appeals, Fourth District agreed to review the case. The core question the court considered, was whether or not Diego’s firing had been a violation of public policy. The church had argued that Diego did not report the violation, and therefore was not protected by law.
However, the appellate court noted that it didn’t matter whether Diego reported the complaint. What was important in the court’s eyes, was whether or not public policy had been violated by the firing. Public policy in this case can be defined as something that is injurious to the public or public good.
The court noted that the whistleblower law contained in the Labor Code was designed to encourage employees to report suspected violations of state law. The court sited an earlier ruling, which stated:
“Firing workers who are suspected of planning to file workplace safety complaints can effectively discourage the filing of those complaints.”
Applying this previous reasoning, the appellate court in Diego’s case wrote:
“If an employee can effectively be discouraged from reporting a violation by the employer’s mere belief a report might be made or has been made, then the public policy…will be violated.”
The appellate court reversed the lower court’s ruling, a win for Cecilia Diego.
What Are California’s Whistleblower Laws?
In California, there are a number of different whistleblower laws that protect workers. Among these is Labor Code §1102.5. Subsection (b) states:
“An employer, or any person acting on behalf of the employer, shall not retaliate against an employee for disclosing information to a government or law enforcement agency, to a person with authority over the employee, or to another employee who has the authority to investigate, discover or correct the violation or noncompliance…”
Other whistleblower protections are found in the health and safety code, as well as in federal laws. These laws protect whistleblowers in a wide range of situations. These could include an employee reporting:
- Patient endangerment
- Workplace safety
- Tax evasion
- Medicare fraud
- Refuse to violate the law
- Securities fraud
- Environmental threats
- Violations of worker safety (OSHA etc.)
- Workplace harassment
- Other violations of law
Whistleblower Law Protects Workers, Even When a Violation Hasn’t Occurred
The court case discussed earlier in this article looked at the question of whether a person could be protected by whistleblower law even when they haven’t engaged in whistleblowing activity. The court ruled the law does in fact provide protections in that type of situation.
But what about people who blow the whistle on a perceived workplace violation that turns out is not a violation?
The law provides specific protections to workers in this type of situation. Labor Code §1102.5(b) states as long as the “employee has reasonable cause to believe” a violation has occurred, they are protected.
When Should a Whistleblower Contact an Attorney?
An employee who calls out a company for violations of law sometimes does so at significant risk to their own career. In some cases, companies find clever and subtle ways to retaliate against employees that don’t often involve immediate termination. This might involve a whistleblower being isolated from team members, experiencing harassment, being ignored at staff meetings, or suddenly being given less-desirable tasks. These actions might be done in an effort to get the whistleblowing employee to quit.
If you’ve blown the whistle on an employer, and feel you are experiencing retaliation, it’s important that you call an employment attorney to discuss the circumstances of your case as soon as possible. In employment cases, there is usually a limited amount of time in which to file suit against an employer, and the clock starts ticking the moment the retaliation takes place.
Have Questions? Contact the Offices of Lawrance Bohm
If you’ve experienced retaliation as the result of whistleblowing activities, you might have a case worth pursuing. Whistleblowers who experience retaliation may be entitled to:
- Back pay
- Lost Wages
- Pain and Suffering
- Punitive Damages
A good employment lawyer can increase your chances of obtaining a fair settlement or judgment.
If you have questions about whistleblower law or some other area of employment law, contact the offices of Lawrance Bohm to find out how our attorneys can help you.