Whistleblowing occurs when a company employee reports violations of law, safety violations, or even refuses to violate a law. If an employee “blows the whistle,” an employer is prohibited under California law from retaliating against the employee. But is an employer prohibited from retaliating against an employee if the employer mistakenly believes that an employee is a whistleblower? The court in Diego v. Pilgrim United Church of Christ directly confronted this issue.
In Diego v. Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Plaintiff sued her former employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Plaintiff’s supervisor believed that Plaintiff made an anonymous complaint to social services regarding poor health conditions of the classrooms and playground. Plaintiff was terminated after only two days of the supervisor believing that Plaintiff reported the conditions to social services. Employer argue that Plaintiff was terminated for insubordination when in fact Plaintiff was terminated based on the employer’s mistaken belief that she filed a complaint with a government agency.
The trial court entered judgment for the employer, and Plaintiff appealed. The appellate court reversed, and found that the employer was prohibited from terminating the Plaintiff. The court held that perceived whistleblowers or employees that are mistakenly believed to be whistleblowers are protected from retaliation. The court stated that it is public policy to encourage employees to report violations of law in the workplace without fear of retaliation. The court reasoned that to allow termination of a perceived or suspected whistleblower would be counter to public policy and actually discourage employees from reporting violations in the workplace.
At the end of the day, California law protects perceived and suspected whistleblowers from retaliation by their employer. With that said, an employer cannot terminate an employee if he believes the employee reported a violation of law, even if the employer’s belief is mistaken and the employee never even reported the violation of law.