Anyone who has inside information about fraud or illegal behavior might consider turning this information over to a supervisor. When this happens and the company does not correct the unethical behavior or other violations, the employee might be able to initiate a claim as a whistleblower through the False Claims Act.
Whistleblowers are those people encouraged to come forward and share their evidence or good faith belief that something illegal has occurred. In exchange for doing so, the government affords various protections to individuals in this situation. If an employer violates those protections and instead discriminates against the employee, fires them, or otherwise violates the law with regard to treatment of that worker, a separate legal claim over retaliation could be brought.
Yet many potential whistleblowers hold back on a possible claim because of their lack of clarity about whistleblower protections. It can be hard to tell when enough evidence has been collected to constitute protected activity, which is the kind that means an employer cannot retaliate against the worker.
Understanding Basic Whistleblower Rights
Anyone who is thinking about taking the next step in a qui tam case or case involving fraud must be aware of their basic rights. Speaking with a dedicated whistleblower protections lawyer is important for a party in this situation to understand the duties and rights that come with making a good faith fraud claim.
While plenty of employees might be concerned about coming forward with a claim against an employer due to suspected fraud, whistleblower laws are in place to help give employees an avenue for a legal response if something happens.
A person who initiates a whistleblower claim often wants their identity protected. This can happen in the early stages of a fraud case to allow the government to investigate and discover the severity of the issue in question. This is when the government decides whether or not to intervene in the lawsuit. However, the person’s identity can only stay a secret during the phase of the case when everything is under seal. There is a good chance that the whistleblower’s identity will become public at some point in the case, especially if the questions asked during the investigation phase give the employer a reason to suspect a certain worker.
Most whistleblowers try to rectify things by going to a superior at the company first. This means that it can also be simple for the employer to determine the source of the whistleblowing once the case has progressed. The complaint becomes unsealed after the case goes from investigation to litigation and at that point, the whistleblower’s identity is revealed.
What Are False Claims Act Protections?
Although the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act are in place to protect whistleblowers, they can be confusing for an employee to understand. The False Claims Act refers to 31 U.S.C. Sections 3729 through 3733. This allows people who have inside information about fraud against government contracts or federal programs to sue the wrongdoer in place of the government. The government can decide to get involved in the case, but in either situation, the employee remains entitled to a portion of the recovery obtained through any litigation.
You cannot bring your own lawsuit as a whistleblower if the federal government has already begun their own legal case against that same party. This is why it can be extremely important to hire a whistleblower protections lawyer at the outset of a case to fully understand the role played by an employee making an argument of fraud. Knowing whether or not the issues raised in your own case have already been broadly shared with other sources is also important for determining whether or not you are eligible to recover compensation as part of a False Claims Act case.
What Happens to the Whistleblower After the Complaint Becomes a Case?
It is not uncommon for management of the company to be upset with the employee, but this should not lead to harassment. Whistleblowers are protected from retaliation by management, but sadly, far too many employees who tried to do the right thing end up the victims of denied promotions, demotions, firings, or suspensions.
Federal whistleblower protections prohibit companies from taking any of those actions against a worker who brought allegations under the False Claims Act. An employee might be worried about making a connection between the illegal activity violating their protections, but the key fact in these cases is whether or not the protected activity was at least a partial cause in the employer’s activity. The response does not have to be the complete cause.
So long as the employee can show that he or she was involved in protected activity under the False Claims Act, that the employer knew about the qui tam action, and that the employer used that qui tam action as a reason to terminate, demote, or otherwise discriminate against the employee.
What Can an Employee Do About Retaliation?
Employees are within their rights to bring legal action against an employer who violates whistleblower protections. This means that the employee who was mistreated or terminated is allowed to be reinstated to the former position as if they had never left the company. The employee could also receive up to two times the amount of back pay that would have otherwise been receive in addition to compensation for special damages and interest.
Special damages can help to compensation for the expenses and costs of bringing the lawsuit.
In addition to False Claims Act protections, many states also have their own laws on the books about what a worker can do when that person has made an effort to raise awareness about an instance of fraud and the employer instead retaliates. Wrongful discharge or other employment laws could help to protect a whistleblower at the state level. Knowing which of these apply and how to proceed with your case could be discussed with an experienced whistleblower protection lawyer in your area. Counsel prior to bringing your formal complaint is strongly recommended due to the complexity of the law.