Whistleblower protections are one of the ways government helps ensure businesses comply with state and federal laws and regulations. The protections available depend on the statute, but a general feature is that employees have protection from employer retaliation for reporting violations.
A recent example of retaliation here in Wisconsin is the case of a structural engineer who recently filed a lawsuit accusing a Wausau window manufacturer of retaliating against him for reporting violations of federal law. In his lawsuit, the engineer says he raised a concern with management that the company, and other related businesses, were failing to meet established requirements regarding window frames and bolts.
The lawsuit was brought under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, under which the companies are accused of providing non-compliant materials. The engineer also accuses the company of financial reporting violations under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The company, for its part, says the engineer was fired for failing to disclose a previous employer, though the engineer claims he was transparent about his past employment from the beginning.
One of the important issues that can come up in whistle-blower cases is whether the employee engaged in protected activity under the statute. Some jurisdictions define protected activity narrowly, others broadly. Knowing the law of the jurisdiction is important to building a strong case. Another important issue in whistleblower cases is whether the protected activity was a contributing or motivating factor in adverse employment action. If so, this constitutes retaliation. An employer may be able to demonstrate a valid alternative explanation for the adverse employment action, though, and this has to be considered as well.
In a future post, we’ll continue looking at the topic of retaliation and why it is important to work with an experienced employment law attorney to build a strong case, whether as an employer or an employee or former employee.