Whistleblower Protections Extend to Additional Reporters

Many people have availed themselves of whistleblower protections in reporting abuses or illegal behaviors in order to avoid retaliatory behavior that makes their job difficult or causes them to lose the position entirely. A recent ruling in California has confirmed that those protections extend to those who report the serious misconduct after another individual already has stepped forward with information or allegations. Earlier court rulings had not discussed whether the protections extended when other employees already had reported the alleged violations of laws, so the report was not novel or unknown information.

Underlying Facts of the Case

The case of Hager v. County of Los Angeles, No. B238277 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 19, 2014) arose out of the termination of a deputy sheriff, Darren Hager, who alleged that he lost his job after informing the assistant sheriff that another deputy sheriff, Richard Engels, might have been involved in the illegal narcotics business in the area, as well as the disappearance of another deputy sheriff who went out for a run and never returned. Hager did not come into his suspicions on his own, but rather was informed about the possible wrongdoing of Engels. Hager was asked to investigate the potential wrongful acts of law enforcement officers, which he did. He informed his supervisors about his belief that Engels was involved in the narcotics operation, as well as the disappearance of the other deputy. After an investigation into the allegations, the sheriff’s department determined that Engels was not involved in any wrongdoing and terminated Hager for making false statements to his supervisors. One of the important issues in this case involved the fact that Hager was asked to investigate the potential involvement of Engels and other “dirty” deputies, so he was not the person initiating the report.

The Legal Action

Hager brought suit against the department based on California Labor Code for wrongful termination in retaliation for the allegations that Hager made about Engels. Section 1102.5(b) of the California Labor Code protects an employee from being terminated or otherwise retaliated against after reporting specific types of information to a law enforcement or government agency. In order to avail himself of the protections under this whistleblower provision, Hager had to demonstrate that he reported the information in accordance with the protections of the law and suffered from adverse actions relating to his employment as a direct result of his reporting. In order to overcome the case established by Hager, the department had to show that the termination of Hager’s employment was not related to the reporting of the information about Engels. Hager had the opportunity to rebut the department’s assertion by showing that the explanation did not accurately reflect the situation.

In order to be protected by the whistleblower law, the employee must demonstrate that he or she reported a potential violation of a law, and that this violation was hidden or not known at the time of the report, according to interpretations of earlier court rulings. In challenging the ruling of the lower court, attorneys for the sheriff’s department argued that the retaliatory protections of the whistleblower law did not apply to Hager because the sheriff’s department already were aware of the allegations about Engels. The Hager court analyzed whether the report actually had to be a first report in order to fall within the protections of section 1102.5 of the California Labor Code. In reaching its decision, the court determined that ruling that the report has to reveal hidden information defeats the intention behind whistleblower laws. Employees would be afraid to report something for fear that they were not the first to have disclosed the information, thereby risking the potential for retaliatory behavior without adequate protections.

Another argument raised by the sheriff’s department in the appeal was the fact that the whistleblower laws were intended to apply to wrongful corporate acts, rather than the actions of fellow employees that might violate applicable laws. The Hager court determined that this legal argument was in contravention to the language of the statute.

Based on its analysis, the court in Hager v. County of Los Angeles affirmed the lower court’s holding in favor of Hager, but did reduce the amount of damages that were awarded, holding that the calculation of the lost pay was too speculative. This ruling is important to ensuring that employees feel secure in reporting violations of the law to their employers.

If you have been subjected to retaliatory behavior after reporting corporate or employee wrongdoing, contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside, and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.