On March 26, 2015 a Washington state jury awarded a supervisor for the state’s ferry system $1 million, concluding that his employer had demoted him as an act of retaliation for perceived whistle blowing, though the plaintiff had not in fact filed the anonymous complaint. The supervisor’s act was in violation of the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act.
The plaintiff in the case was a carpentry shop foreman for the Washington State Ferry System, the largest ferry system in the nation. He informed his supervisor that a co-worker went to baseball games and practices in a state vehicle during his work hours. The supervisor promised to investigate but did not do so, National Law Review reports. Two months later, an anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint about the same conduct. The supervisor believed the shop foreman was the whistleblower, though he was not the one to file the complaint. After the complaint was filed, the plaintiff began receiving warnings relating to job performance, which he alleged in his lawsuit were based on the supervisor’s belief that he was the whistleblower. The co-worker was suspended, following a yearlong investigation. The plaintiff was ultimately demoted, ostensibly for performance issues, though the issues arose only after the whistleblower complaint.
The plaintiff filed a claim under the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects both actual and “perceived” whistleblowers. A whistleblower is defined as an “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 subject to retaliation for being perceived as a whistleblower. The jury awarded him $1 million, according to National Law Review.
Whistleblowers report not only co-workers’ misconduct, but also fraud and waste, unsafe working conditions, and other violations of law. Because whistleblowers are frequently subject to retaliation, state and federal laws have been enacted to protect both public and private employees who make reports. National Law Review says that cases like the Washington case indicate a risk for employers who take adverse action against a whistleblower or someone believed to be a whistleblower. The federal False Claims Act, a whistleblower law dating back to the Civil War, allows private parties to bring suit on behalf of the government and, if the suit succeeds, share in funds the government recovers. The False Claims Act was passed to deal with rampant military contractor fraud and price gouging during the Civil War and the law is still used for that purpose today.
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 such federal programs 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.