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Whistleblower Protection: Reporting Wrongdoings Without Fear of Retaliation

By Douglas Lipsky

Whistleblowers play a vital role in exposing unethical and illegal practices that harm the public interest. However, speaking up about wrongdoing often comes at a cost, as whistleblowers frequently face retaliation from their employers. 

Fortunately, both federal and state laws offer protections for whistleblowers who report employer misconduct. By working with an experienced whistleblower lawyer, you can understand your rights and take legal action if you experience retaliation.

What is Whistleblowing?

Whistleblowing refers to disclosing unethical, dangerous, or illegal activity occurring within an organization. Common issues reported by whistleblowers include:

  • Fraud
  • Violations of health and safety regulations
  • Abuse of authority
  • Discrimination or harassment
  • Mishandling of funds
  • Environmental violations

Federal Whistleblower Laws

Several federal laws protect whistleblowers from retaliation:

  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act – Covers reporting securities fraud and protects employees of publicly-traded companies, and allows for a civil cause of action and criminal penalties against employers.
  • False Claims Act – protects those reporting fraud against the government. Whistleblowers may be entitled to 15-30 percent of funds recovered by the government.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act – Protects reporting of health/safety violations. Complaints can be filed with OSHA.
  • Dodd–Frank Act – Covers reporting securities/financial fraud with awards between 10-30% of funds recovered.
  • Federal Labor Standards Act – Protects reporting of wage violations.

New York State Law Protections Against Whistleblower Retaliation

In addition to federal laws, New York has robust protections for whistleblowers under Section 740 of the New York State Labor Law. This law prohibits employers from taking retaliatory action against an employee who:

  • Discloses an actual violation of law, rule, or regulation
  • Provides information about an employer’s policies, practices, or activities to a regulatory, law enforcement, or other similar agency
  • Objects to or refuses to participate in an activity the employee believes violates the law

Notably, sweeping amendments to New York’s whistleblower protection law (Section 740 of the New York Labor Law) took effect in 2022. Previously, the law only protected workers who reported actual violations of the law that posed a threat to public health or safety or concerned healthcare fraud.  Now, employees need only show they “reasonably believe” a violation occurred, and the alleged illegal activity need not threaten public health or safety. This includes allegations of discrimination and harassment. 

Additionally, the amended law expands the definition of employee to include former employees, not just current employees, and current and former independent contractors. Finally, plaintiffs are now entitled to a jury trial to recover damages.

How an Employment Lawyer Can Help

An experienced employment lawyer can help whistleblowers in several important ways:

  • Evaluate your disclosure and determine if it is legally protected.
  • Counsel you on the best way to report misconduct and document unlawful practices.
  • Represent you if your employer takes adverse action for whistleblowing, such as unwarranted demotion, harassment, reduction in pay or hours, or wrongful termination.
  • File a retaliation lawsuit on your behalf.

In a successful whistleblower retaliation lawsuit, you may be able to recover damages such as

  • Reinstatement to your former position
  • Back pay to recover lost wages
  • Compensatory damages for emotional distress
  • Punitive damages to punish the employer
  • Attorney fees and court costs

The decision to blow the whistle is not easy, but an experienced whistleblower attorney can help you expose critical issues without jeopardizing your career. 

The Takeaway

You may be reluctant to come forward if you believe your employer is engaging in illegal activities. Talk to an experienced employment lawyer who can help you expose wrongdoings that betray the public trust, protect your rights, and obtain just compensation.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.