Legal Protections for Whistleblowers

Many laws protect whistleblowers: local, state, and federal. Some laws have 30 day time limits, others are 3 years or more.  Administrative agencies often investigate claims.  Some laws, like the False Claims Act qui tam provisions, require a lawyer.

Are there time limits for bringing whistleblower claims?

Yes.  The statutes of limitations can be very short, from just a few days for federal Government employees, to 30 days for employees asserting retaliation claims under a variety of federal statutes, and upwards to 3 to 6 years or more under the False Claims Act.

Statutes of limitations can entirely determine whether you can bring a whistleblower claim.  If the time limits expire, your case cannot be pursued, no matter how illegal the conduct. Some statutes of limitations involve events on a specific date. Others may involve “continuing acts” that extend the time limits. A complaint under many federal whistleblower laws, including most protecting environmental whistleblowers (other than nuclear whistleblowers), is considered timely if filed in writing within 30 days of the time an employee learns of the discrimination, harassment or retaliation.  Some courts have interpreted the time limit to begin when the employee learns of the final adverse action, even if the adverse action will not actually occur until a later date.

This is a very tricky area of the law and there are wide differences between the various state and federal laws—what is an untimely or a continuing violation under one statute may not be under another.

Do not delay in getting legal advice, or in otherwise protecting your rights by filing a claim with the appropriate authority, if there is any question about a short time period within which to assert your legal rights to protection for whistleblowing.

Do other laws besides federal laws protect whistleblowers?

Yes. Many states have enacted laws to protect whistleblowers. Most state laws have a longer statute of limitations than the 30 or 60 day time limit in some federal whistleblower statutes.  These state laws may also offer other benefits or damages unavailable under federal law.

It may be easier for a whistleblower to find a local lawyer knowledgeable about state whistleblower protections than to find an attorney familiar with the federal whistleblower laws.

What legal protections exist for employee and former employee whistleblowers?

Determining what federal, state, and local laws apply requires legal research in a relatively obscure area of the law, which a few lawyers and specialized public interest groups know well, but which most lawyers and the general public know little about. The laws are not comprehensive, and they do not cover every person in every situation. In a way, the whistleblower laws are a “crazy quilt” of overlapping laws, with lots of “holes” as well.

There are many laws against employment retaliation designed to protect employee whistleblowers. There are federal, state, and local laws, known as statutes. There are laws which cannot be found in any federal, state, or municipal law book because they are based upon the “common law.”  Common law whistleblower cases are often termed "wrongful discharge" or "public policy" claims.  These common law claims are developed by judicial rulings over a period of time or are based upon the general “public policy” interest that some states recognize as prohibiting some types of employment retaliation.

While there are many laws protecting employees, there are far fewer laws to protect those who are not employees or former employees. The False Claims Act qui tam provisions are one method by which a non-employee whistleblower may be able to expose wrongdoing in a legal proceeding. Other laws, such as those designed to protect witnesses who assist in official investigations, may protect non-employee whistleblowers who suffer retaliation or retribution because of their cooperation with government investigations or because they gave testimony in court proceedings.

How do laws prohibiting discrimination and retaliation protect whistleblowers?

Laws prohibiting discrimination make it unlawful to treat those with a special legal status differently than other employees because of their special legal status. This special legal status can be race, gender, age, ethnic origin, disability, or, in the case of whistleblowers, the reporting of wrongdoing. Congress or a state legislature determines who shall enjoy this protected status and, thus, receive protection from the discrimination laws. These same laws make it illegal to retaliate against an individual who has reported or made an effort to oppose discrimination in the work place, including whistleblower discrimination.

Discrimination prohibited by federal anti-retaliation or whistleblower laws includes a wide variety of actions taken by an employer. Virtually any retaliatory change in the whistleblower's status or terms and conditions of employment may be illegal. Prohibited retaliation can include a wide range of actions, including reprimands, probationary periods, overly-harsh performance appraisals, demotions, failure to promote or transfer, threats of termination, and employment termination.

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