Last week, an employee whistle blower complaint was filed against individuals and organizations associated with the Lap-Band weight-loss device. Deuel v. 1 800 Get Thin, LLC, Case No. BC477064 (Jan. 17, 2012). A copy of the complaint is available here. This prompts a reminder that whistle blower, or retaliation, lawsuits pose difficult problems for employers.
There are two types of whistle blower lawsuits. In a qui tam action, the plaintiff seeks relief against the substantive wrongdoing on behalf of the government. The federal False Claims Act is an example. It allows a civil action by a private person on behalf of the government against a contractor who fraudulently bills the government. The successful plaintiff gets a portion of the recovery and attorney’s fees. California has its own False Claims Act, which provides for similar relief. For an example of a successful such action, see “Quest Diagnostics settles Medi-Cal whistle-blower suit” in the L.A. Times.
The more common type of whistle blower lawsuit is where an employee calls attention to illegal activity, and then is subjected to adverse action by the employer. The anti-discrimination laws all contain provisions that prohibit retaliation against employees who complain about discrimination and harassment. See EEOC v. Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d 951 (9th Cir. 2009) ($135,000 in lost earnings, $5,000 for emotional distress, and $250,000 in punitive damages for retaliation against employee who complained about discrimination); Wysinger v. Automobile Club of Southern California, 157 Cal.App.4th 413, 69 Cal.Rptr.3d 1 (2007) (jury awarded $204,000 in economic damages, $80,000 in noneconomic and $1 million in punitive damages for retaliation against employee who complained about age discrimination).
In some circumstances, employees may also pursue claims for retaliation based on other types of unlawful conduct by the employer. For example, the California Whistleblower Protection Act authorizes claims by state employees who are subjected to adverse action for complaining about waste, fraud, abuse of authority, violation of law, or threat to public health. The employee must first file an administrative charge with the designated state agency.
Labor Code section 1102.5 is the basis for an action by employees of private and public employers who can prove that their employer retaliated against them for providing information to a government or law enforcement agency, where the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of state or federal statute, or a violation or noncompliance with a state or federal rule or regulation. This and other whistle blower statutes establish a public policy to protect whistle blowers, which may be invoked to support a claim for wrongful termination in violation of pubic policy. See Green v. Ralee Engineering Co., 19 Cal.4th 66, 960 P.2d 1046, 78 Cal.Rptr.2d 16 (1998).
When an employee has complained about activity that is protected by one of the statutes, the employer must be prepared to prove a legitimate reason for any adverse action that it takes against that employee. That is because a complaining employee can prove a prima facie case of retaliation by establishing the protected activity, adverse action, and that the adverse action followed closely on the protected activity. The establishment of a prima facie case puts the burden on the employer to prove that it had a legitimate reason for its actions.