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Washington Jury Awards $1M to “Perceived” Whistleblower

May 6, 2015

In a jury verdict handed down on March 26, 2015 in Washington state, an employee of the state's ferry system, was awarded $1 million because the jury concluded that his employer demoted him as an act of retaliation in violation of the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act. The supervisor believed the employee to be a whistleblower, though, in fact, he was not.

The plaintiff, a carpentry shop foreman for the Washington State Ferry System, the largest such system in the nation, informed his supervisor of a co-worker's alleged practice of going to baseball games and practices in a state-owned vehicle while the worker was on the clock, according to National Law Review. The supervisor said he would investigate, but failed to do so. Two months later, an anonymous whistleblower-not the plaintiff-filed a whistleblower complaint about the same conduct. After that complaint was filed, the plaintiff began receiving performance-related warnings, which the plaintiff alleged were based on his supervisor's belief that he was the anonymous whistleblower. After a yearlong investigation, the co-worker was suspended. The plaintiff was demoted, supposedly for performance issues, though the issues arose only after the whistleblower complaint.

The plaintiff brought a claim under the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects both actual and "perceived" whistleblowers, which is defined as "[a]n employee who is perceived by the employer as reporting, whether they did or not, alleged improper governmental action." The jury found that plaintiff had, in fact, been retaliated against for being perceived as a whistleblower, and the jury awarded him $1 million, according to National Law Review.

Whistleblowers report many types of unlawful conduct-fraud and waste, unsafe working conditions, harassment, and other violations of law. State and federal whistleblower laws, many of which cover both public and private employers, protect workers from retaliation and adverse employment actions related to such reporting. Cases like this one signal the risk for employers who take adverse actions against an actual whistleblower or even someone perceived to be a whistleblower, according to National Law Review.

Under provisions of the federal False Claims Act, a whistleblower law dating back to the Civil War, private parties may bring suit on behalf of the government and, if the suit succeeds, they share in funds the government recovers. According to a recent news release, the Justice Department has recovered more than $23.9 billion through False Claims Act cases since January 2009. More than $15.2 billion has been recovered in cases involving fraud against federal health care programs. Many of these cases involve prescription drugs and medical devices paid for under federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and veterans' health care programs. The False Claims Act is "one of the most powerful tools" in the effort to reduce such fraud, Justice Department officials say.

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