In elementary school, teachers often read students stories about a character facing an important ethical choice and ask students what they would do in the character’s situation. Students get to practice thinking through the consequences of choices where every possible course of action carries some risk, either to the decision maker or to someone else. They come away from these exercises confident that they will have the courage to speak up for what is right when they witness injustice and wrongdoing. As an adult, you can probably think of a time when you spoke up about something for the sake of the greater good, even though it would have been easier to stay silent. It is not so easy to do this when the people doing the wrongdoing are your supervisors at work and your job is at stake if you say something about it.
Risking your financial stability in order to protect the public from fraud and other forms of harm being perpetuated by your employer is not easy. The good news is that federal and state laws have created protections for employees who notify relevant parties about illegal and unethical actions taken by their employers. If you have witnessed your employer committing fraud or other unethical or illegal activities, contact the Minneapolis whistleblower claims lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP.
What is a Whistleblower?
A whistleblower is an employee who draws attention to misconduct, ethical breaches, or violations of the law on the part of their employer. The act of whistleblowing could include anything from notifying the company’s upper management about unethical conduct by the employee’s direct supervisor to notifying law enforcement about fraud or other crimes committed by the employer. These are just some of the issues about which public and private sector employees have made whistleblower claims:
- Reporting a crime by a co-worker or work supervisor to law enforcement
- Reporting harassment or discrimination to human resources or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whether the target of the discrimination or harassment was the whistleblower or another employee
- Reporting actions by the employer that endanger the public
- Filing a workers’ compensation claim about a work injury or occupational disease
- Complaining about non-payment of wages or overtime compensation
The law protects employees from retaliation from their employers if they make reports about any of the issues listed above. Unfortunately, though, employers often try to punish employees who stand up for what is right. These are some retaliatory actions that employers sometimes take against whistleblowers, even though, according to the law, they should not:
- Terminating the worker’s employment
- Reducing the employee’s pay
- Furlough or suspension
- Harassment or threats against the employee
- Publicly tarnishing the employee’s reputation
Federal Whistleblower Laws and the False Claims Act
The False Claims Act is a federal law instituted in 1863. The Lincoln administration enacted the law in response to widespread fraud by companies that provided supplies to the Union army during the Civil War. The law exists today in a form very similar to its original one, although protecting the employees of contractors that overcharge or otherwise defraud the military is only one of its applications.
The False Claims Act outlines the procedure for a qui tam lawsuit. The Latin phrase “qui tam” means “on behalf of himself” and is an abbreviation of a longer phrase that means “bringing the claim on behalf of himself as well as of the government.” If your employer is engaged in misconduct that involves misappropriation of money from the government, and thus from taxpayers, then, with the help of your whistleblower claims lawyer, you should notify the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice will not notify your employer for another 60 days, during which time it will do a preliminary investigation and decide if it wants to take action against your employer. If the government sues your employer and recovers damages, you are entitled to a percentage of the damages, usually 15 to 25%. The following are some types of misconduct for which whistleblowers have brought qui tam lawsuits:
- Medicare and Medicaid fraud
- Inflating the prices of goods and services provided to a government agency
- Intentionally selling defective products to the government
- Using government funds for a purpose other than the one specified in a contractual agreement
The Minnesota Whistleblower Act and How it Achieved its Current Form
Even though the federal False Claims Act has been in place for more than a century, Minnesota only enacted its own Minnesota Whistleblower Act in the 1980s. It was initially a response to a case where a gas station employee, who had been hired on an at-will basis (meaning that she was free to quit at any time and her employer was free to fire her) refused to fuel a customer’s car with leaded gasoline when the customer’s vehicle could only take unleaded fuel. Her employer fired her, and she sued. The Minnesota Whistleblower Act in its original form was vague, and it has undergone several amendments.
Until several years ago, the law was written in such a way that it often resulted in summary judgments in favor of the employer, meaning that the court would rule in the employer’s favor before even hearing the evidence from both sides. Employers often argued that the employee was about to be fired for poor performance anyway and was only bringing the whistleblower claim out of sour grapes. In the current form of the law, whistleblowers have a chance to present their evidence as long as they can demonstrate that they reasonably believe that their claims are accurate. Whether you are bringing a whistleblower claim under the state law or the federal law, acting a whistleblower means putting your job at risk, so it is best to work with a lawyer from the beginning.
Contact a Minneapolis Whistleblower Claims Lawyer
If your employer’s conduct violates the False Claims Act or the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, you should speak up about it, with the help of your lawyer. Contact the Minneapolis whistleblower claims lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP to set up a consultation.