Reporting an employer’s misconduct or illegal actions in the workplace takes a great deal of courage. While there are many laws that apply to whistleblowing in the private sector — depending on the industry and type of wrongdoing — employees who work in the public sector are afforded strong protections under both federal and state statutes. Whether your employer violated OSHA safety regulations, committed financial fraud against the government, or engaged in other illegal conduct, it’s critical to understand that there are legal safeguards in place when you stand up against your employer.
The protection afforded to whistleblowers can depend on whether an employee works for a public or private company. Under Pennsylvania law, state and local government employees — and employees of publicly funded groups — are protected from retaliation for making a good faith report regarding their employer’s waste, fraud, or abuse.
Federal employees are also protected from speaking out about an employer’s misconduct under the Whistleblower Protection Act. Under this law, any disclosure of information by a federal government employee is protected if they reasonably believe it “evidences an activity constituting a violation of law, rules, or regulations, or mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”
For employees in the private sector, whistleblower protections are often included in statutes that govern the particular industry in which they work. Some whistleblower laws only apply in certain industries, like transportation or nuclear power. In addition, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act safeguards the rights of whistleblowers at privately-owned companies if they are publicly traded. Specifically, employees are protected from retaliation for disclosing wrongdoing related to securities fraud, bank fraud, mail fraud, or a violation of any Securities and Exchange Commission rule.
Importantly, a whistleblower attorney can help someone determine whether a report of wrongful conduct is actually protected under the law. Not all whistleblowing is.
Employers may not take any retaliatory measures against an employee for protected whistleblowing. Retaliation occurs when an employer takes action to punish the employee for reporting an issue. Retaliation can include a wide array of wrongful conduct, including blacklisting an employee, interfering with their ability to obtain future employment, threatening the employee, or taking any adverse employment action.
An employer’s retaliation in connection with whistleblowing must be demonstrated by showing (1) the worker engaged in protected activity; (2) the employee suffered an adverse employment action; (3) there was a causal connection between the whistleblowing and the adverse employment action. To establish that the employee engaged in a protected activity, the whistleblower may either have complained internally about the employer’s illegal activities — or to an appropriate agency.
Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state. This means an employee is free to leave their job or an employer can terminate them at any time — and for any reason that isn’t discriminatory. However, employees cannot be fired or retaliated against for whistleblowing that is prohibited by law.
Under whistleblower protection laws, all types of adverse employment actions are strictly prohibited, including the following:
If your employer fired you for exercising your whistleblower rights, you may have a claim for wrongful termination. You might also be able to bring a lawsuit for the loss of wages, out-of-pocket costs, court costs, and other damages incurred as a result of an employer taking unfavorable actions against you. In addition, you may be entitled to reinstatement.
Sometimes, an adverse employment action doesn’t just result in economic harm, but can also cause emotional distress. Generally speaking, an employer may not engage in coercion, intimidation tactics, or harass an employee for taking a stand and reporting illegal conduct. Employers may also not isolate, ostracize, and mock an employee for whistleblowing — this type of behavior is forbidden by law.
Workplace intimidation can take many forms, including bullying, verbal abuse, physical threats, violence, and blackmail. Intimidation can also occur by ridiculing a victim, sabotaging their work, or assigning duties that are outside the scope of their capabilities. Generally, intimidation is an ongoing pattern of behavior that can substantially affect an employee’s physical and mental health. It can also impact productivity and lead to constructive discharge in cases where it is pervasive enough.
Constructive discharge occurs when an employer creates workplace conditions that are so severe and unbearable that an employee feels they are forced to resign. Intolerable working conditions amounting to a constructive discharge due to whistleblowing may include discrimination, harassment, or other types of mistreatment by an employer.
Courts will typically find that a worker’s resignation was not under voluntary circumstances when the employer has created a hostile working environment or applied some form of pressure which made the employee quit. Specifically, if you are asserting a claim for constructive discharge, you must be able to show that a reasonable person in your situation would have resigned. It’s crucial for these types of claims to be well-documented in order to prevail in a legal claim.
If you reported your employer’s illegal conduct and were subjected to an adverse employment action or constructively discharged from your position, you may have legal claims. In such cases, it’s essential to have an experienced employment attorney on your side to ensure your whistleblower rights are protected — and that you obtain the compensation you deserve. Located in Pittsburgh, Stember Cohn & Davidson-Welling LLC is dedicated to providing high-quality counsel to whistleblowers throughout Western Pennsylvania. Call (412) 338-1445 or contact us to schedule a no-fee consultation.