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Mishandling whistleblowers can result in liability for employers

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Whistleblower laws make it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who report wrongdoing they observe in the workplace.

For example, federal law protects workers who report violations related to consumer and food product safety, discrimination, workplace safety, environmental protection, financial issues, wage-and-hour protections, and child labor, among other things.

In some cases, the federal government, in addition to punishing employers for firing or disciplining workers who report violations, will provide financial rewards to workers who blow the whistle.

Meanwhile, at the state level, although employers can typically fire at-will employees for any reason, most states do not allow firings for reasons that violates “public policy.”

For example, an employer may not fire an at-will employee for refusing to break the law or for seeking workers’ compensation benefits after getting hurt on the job.

Although the specifics may vary from state to state, most jurisdictions recognize whistleblowing as an exception to at-will employment.

It’s prudent to consult with an employment lawyer to review your firing, demotion and discipline policies, as well as your procedures for handling employee complaints, to make sure you’re not at risk of a whistleblower suit.

Consider the case of Atrius, a Massachusetts-based healthcare organization that fired a doctor for refusing to comply with its order that she undergo assessment and potential counseling to address alleged interpersonal issues in the workplace.

Atrius asserted that Diana Rodriguez, who practiced maternal fetal medicine, had excellent clinical skills but was a difficult colleague who refused to accept feedback and clashed with sonographers and medical assistants, many of whom refused to work with her.

After circulating an online “collegiality survey” about Rodriguez to other employees — an action that was not standard company procedure — Atrius ordered her to seek counseling through the state medical association.

Before the survey had been distributed, however, Rodriguez had come forward with concerns about a supervisor’s clinical competence and Atrius’s billing practices.

When Atrius fired her for noncompliance with its counseling directive, she brought a retaliation complaint under the state’s healthcare whistleblower law alleging she was actually fired for raising safety and fraud concerns.

A Superior Court judge allowed the case to proceed, stating that the timing of the survey and the disciplinary action raised a legitimate question as to the true motivation behind her firing.

A Missouri car dealership learned a similar lesson when it fired an auto mechanic who had reported a co-worker for theft.

The worker told the employer he had witnessed employees steal a rear camera from a vehicle owned by the shop.

He also claimed his supervisor told him to ignore it.

He next told the owners, and was fired by the supervisor a week later for “deficient work” on a vehicle.

A county judge dismissed the worker’s retaliation suit under the state’s new whistleblower law, reasoning that the law didn’t allow suits based on the actions of an “individual employed by an employer” like the supervisor.

But the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the decision, stating that while the law doesn’t allow the individual to be personally accountable, the employer can still be responsible for that person’s actions.