This webpage describes California’s whistleblower law. Reading this page, you’ll learn what types of workplace complaints are protected by law and what kind of employer behavior is illegal. The second part of the page gives straightforward guidance to people who are victims of unlawful whistleblower retaliation.
If you believe you’ve been retaliated against for blowing the whistle, we highly recommend that you call a whistleblower lawyer for a free consultation. Reading a webpage is no substitute for actually speaking with an experienced employment attorney.
Below you will find details regarding the following topics:
- California whistleblower law generally
- What types of complaints are protected?
- When should you contact an attorney?
- How much can you recover in a whistleblower lawsuit?
- What is the deadline for whistleblower cases?
- What is the difference between a whistleblower, retaliation, and wrongful termination?
- How does a whistleblower lawyer get paid?
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California’s Whistleblower Law Generally
At their basic level, California’s whistleblower laws try to protect workers who report their company for committing some sort of violation of law or regulation. When an employee “blows the whistle,” the employer is prohibited from retaliating against the employee.
CA’s whistleblower law is actually several different laws. This page examines all of the major violations that lawyers hear about all the time. We identify all of the protected activities that qualify for legal protection. California whistleblower and retaliation rules often overlap and mix. If you would rather read a page dedicated to CA’s retaliation laws, click here.
If a corporation fires an employee because he or she does any one of these things, the employee may file a whistleblower lawsuit in an attempt to recover monetary damages. As you’ll see below, with a good lawyer, employees who are a victim can sometimes recover substantial amounts of money in a legal action.
The law doesn’t just protect whistleblowers – it also protects perceived or suspected whistleblowers.
What Types of Complaints are Protected?
There are several different types of employee complaints that are protected by CA’s whistleblower laws. Here are shortcuts to each type:
- Reporting a violation of law
- Refusing to violate a law
- Reporting an unsafe work environment
- Reporting unsafe patient care or conditions
- Reporting that your employer is not disclosing correct financial information to the public
- Reporting false claims made to the government
Reporting a Violation of Law
A corporation is not allowed to retaliate against an employee for reporting that the company has violated a law to the employee’s supervisor, HR, management, government agency, or a law enforcement agency. Nor may a corporation retaliate against an employee for providing information demonstrating the legal violations to, or testifying before, any public body conducting an investigation, hearing, or inquiry.1
According to the California Supreme Court, this whistleblower law reflects the State’s “broad public policy interest in encouraging workplace whistleblowers to report unlawful acts without fearing retaliation.”2
Refusing to Violate a Law
California’s main whistleblower rule also includes a provision that says, “An employer… shall not retaliate against an employee for refusing to participate in an activity that would result in a violation of state or federal statute….”3
This bans your employer from firing you if you refuse to do something that you believe is illegal. To establish a whistleblower case under this law you must show that you engaged in a protected activity (i.e. that you refused to do something that was illegal), and then your employer fired you because you engaged in that protected activity. Your lawyer must show that the employer was motivated to terminate you because you refused to do the illegal act.
Reporting an Unsafe Working Environment
It is extremely important that your workplace be a safe place. But some companies put profits over worker safety. California law protects employees who complain about an unsafe work environment.4 Your complaint can be regarding your own safety, or the safety of others. Similarly, it can be about unsafe working conditions or unsafe practices.
Who does the complaint need to be made too? This law includes complaints you made to your supervisor, HR, or management. It also includes complaints that you made to Occupational Safety & Health (OSHA) or any other government or administrative body having responsibility over the safety of workers.
How should you make the complaint? Ideally, the complaint would be made in writing. But the law applies to both verbal and written complaints. It’s just harder to prove oral complaints. At the end of the day, if you made a complaint about a safety issue, and they you were terminated, contact a lawyer immediately.
Reporting Unsafe Patient Care or Conditions
Patient safety is paramount to most health care workers. But some people in the medical world put profit over people and disregard basic patient safety rules and procedures. California’s Health & Safety Code makes it illegal to fire an employee for complaining about patient safety or unsafe patient conditions.
If you are a doctor, nurse, or other health care worker, and you work at an in-patient medical facility, contact our office if you feel like your rights have been violated. California law establishes a “presumption” that the employer unlawfully retaliated against an employee if management knew that the employee filed a grievance or complaint about patient safety issues and the employer fired the employee “within 120 days of the filing of the grievance or complaint.”5 That is a powerful presumption that assists healthcare whistleblowers.
Reporting that Your Company is Not Disclosing Correct Financial Information to the Public
This area of law concerns large companies that are publicly traded on the stock market. These companies are required to disclose accurate financial information to the public. The body of law that governs these disclosures and whistleblowers is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
If you find out that your employer is not reporting accurate financial information, or withholding information from the public, you can blow the whistle.
Reporting False Claims Made to the Government
Many healthcare organizations are paid by Medicare, the federal health insurance program. Basically, when a hospital or doctor submits an invoice to Medicare, they are asking the government to pay their bill. But sometimes doctors and hospitals submit false bills to Medicare. Employees of these doctors and hospitals who find out about the false claims can blow the whistle.
This law does not apply only to hospitals and doctors, but to any company that submits false bills to the government. Qui-tam claims can also be made when an employee finds out that his employer is not paying all appropriate taxes to the IRS.
These powerful laws are generally called the False Claims Act. These lawsuits take the form of a Qui Tam case, where the employee recovers a portion of the money the government recoups from the corporation. Historically, some healthcare Qui Tam lawsuits have been worth billions of dollars.
When Should You Contact an Attorney in a Whistleblower Case?
Generally, the best time to hire an attorney is after you have been terminated. If the company suspends you, that is also a good time to contact a lawyer.
We understand that a lot of people reading this page are still employed. What should these people do? Generally, if you are being retaliated against for blowing the whistle, we recommend submitting a polite and helpful complaint in writing to the appropriate authority at your company.
This complaint should be concise and thoughtful, and it should clearly indicate that you believe you are being retaliated against for reporting the violation of law, refusing to violate the law, or whatever other protected activity applies to you. If things get worse after complaining, that would be a good time to contact a lawyer.
Experienced lawyers know that whistleblower cases can be incredibly valuable if prepared properly. The earlier you contact a lawyer the better. Most employment lawyers like Mr. Robertson offer employees free consultations. That means it doesn’t cost you a dime to call our office. You can contact us here.
How Much Can You Recover in a Whistleblower Lawsuit?
There are various monetary remedies available in whistleblower cases. The company may be ordered to pay you reimbursement for lost wages and benefits.6 You may also recover emotional distress damages (the mental pain and suffering caused by the termination). Your employer may also be required to pay a civil penalty of $10,000 for each violation.7
If your employer behaved extremely bad (such as with oppression, fraud, or malice) you may also win punitive damages in a whistleblower suit. These are rare but can be extremely large.
Finally, in Qui Tam False Claim cases, you may earn a portion of what the government recovers from your employer. This ranges from 15% to 50%.8
Therefore, if the suit recovers $5,000,000 from your employer, you could reap between $750,000 and $2,500,000 for blowing the whistle.
How much are you likely to win? Well that is impossible to answer without having your case examined by a lawyer. There is very little published data on settlements because they are confidential. According to one publication, in whistleblower cases, plaintiffs won 63% percent of the time with a median verdict of $540,000. But nobody should ever expect to earn the median because every case is vastly different and there are hundreds of significant variables at play. Again, consult with an attorney to get a realistic idea for your case.
What is the Deadline to File a Whistleblower Case?
In all areas of the law there are deadlines (also called “statutes of limitations”). Whistleblower cases in California have various deadlines.
If you are filing a lawsuit under Labor Code § 1102.5 or Health & Safety Code 1278.5 employees have three years to sue for whistleblower violations.9 But you only have one year if your suit is for civil penalties.10 A qui tam lawsuit under CA’s False Claims Act must be filed within six years of the violation.11
Certain types of retaliation cases under the FEHA (which arguably fall within the definition of a “whistleblower case”) require potential clients to take action as soon as six months! So, don’t wait, call a lawyer as soon as possible.
Generally, we highly recommend that you speak with an employment lawyer when investigating statues of limitations. Do not rely on what is written in this article. Call sooner rather than later. If you make a mistake, your case is lost forever.
What is the Difference Between a Whistleblower Case, Retaliation Case, and Wrongful Termination Case?
In California, a whistleblower case usually involves reporting a company violation to governmental authorities, refusing to violate a law, complaining about unsafe patient conditions, or trying to recover money on behalf of the government.12
A retaliation case usually involves discrimination or harassment, filing a complaint with a governmental agency about harassment or discrimination, or reporting patient abuse under the Penal Code.13
A wrongful termination case involves employer acts that violate public policy. Wrongful termination was created by case law whereas retaliation and whistleblowing were created by the legislature.
How Much Does a Whistleblower Lawyer Cost?
Whistleblower lawyers who represent employees are usually paid with a contingency fee. This means the lawyer is paid a percentage of the settlement. The attorney only gets paid if they recover money for you. So, if the lawyer charges 40% of your gross settlement amount, and you settle for $250,000, the lawyer would get paid $100,000. You do not pay the lawyer out of pocket.
Additionally, it costs a lot of money to properly pursue a case. Attorneys like Mr. Robertson usually front the case costs for you. That means they pay money out of their own pocket to litigate your case, and they recover those expenses when the case settles.
- CA Labor Code § 1102.5(b)
- Greene v. Ralee Engineering Company (1998) 960 P.2d 1046
- Labor Code § 1102.5(c)
- CA Labor Code § 6310
- Health & Safety Code § 1278.5(d)(1)
- CA Labor Code § 98.6(b)
- CA Labor Code § 1102.5(f)
- CA Government Code § 12652(g)(2)-(3)
- CA Code of Civil Procedure § 338(a), governing suits for “liability created by statute”
- CCP § 340(a), governing suits for “penalty or forfeiture”
- CA Government Code § 12654(a)
- Labor Code § 1102.5; Health & Safety § 1278.5; and CA Government Code § 12650, et seq.
- CA Government Code § 12940(h); CA Penal Code § 11161.8