Whistleblower Actions in Pennsylvania
In the state of Pennsylvania, whistleblowers have certain protections granted to them by both state and federal laws. Whether you are reporting information about a government agency, a healthcare provider, a financial institution, or any variety of private companies, you may be legally protected from retaliation. However, not every type of whistleblowing is protected, and it’s important to carefully review your options and protections before making decisions that can impact your job.
What is a whistleblower?
A whistleblower is an individual who reports information about a company’s wrongdoing to a government entity, law enforcement agency, or other organization who can stop the wrongdoing. The information provided by a whistleblower is usually related to illegal activities, unethical actions, or failure to comply with regulations. In most cases, some form of waste, fraud, corruption, abuse of power, or danger to public safety has occurred.
Why blow the whistle?
In most cases, an employee or individual who sees corruption will decide to blow the whistle for any of the following reasons:
- Exposing illegal behavior—Businesses are not immune to committing fraud, practicing discrimination, or participating in other illegal or unethical activities. Whistleblowers will often provide information in an attempt to stop those activities.
- Protecting public safety—Improper disposal, harmful products, and unsafe practices can all create threats to public health or safety. Whistleblowers may come forward to put a stop to these types of practices.
- Correcting wrongdoing—Whistleblowers may choose to blow the whistle when their employer commits an injustice, like workplace discrimination or harassment.
- Fulfilling ethical obligations—Most people who choose to expose their employers do so out of a moral obligation. This is especially true if the wrongdoing goes against their personal values.
- Improving systems or processes—Whistleblowing may also be motivated by a desire to improve existing systems or processes. By calling attention to certain flaws, whistleblowers are able to work toward a better system that will benefit everyone involved.
While whistleblowing can be a noble act, it has been known to come with significant personal consequences. There are some laws in place to protect individuals who decide to expose fraud and other illegal or unethical practices. Unfortunately, whether you are protected as a whistleblower depends on the circumstances of your specific situation, including who you “blew the whistle” to and what the nature of the underlying corruption was.
Even where there are laws to protect you, those laws do not always stop businesses from attempting to retaliate against whistleblowers. If the law does protect you in your specific situation, you may be entitled to damages in a lawsuit for:
- Lost wages and benefits
- Loss of future earnings
- Job reinstatement
- Out of pocket losses (like the cost of finding a new job)
- Emotional distress
- Punitive damages
- Attorneys’ fees and costs
It’s important to speak with an experienced attorney before taking any actions against your company—and even before blowing the whistle. An attorney, like the ones at Cornerstone Law Firm, LLC, can help you file your report to the proper channel and ensure that you are protected against illegal retaliation.
If you have witnessed wrongdoing by your employer and want to report them, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. Our attorneys can help you file a complaint to the appropriate body and ensure that you are protected from retaliation.
Protections for whistleblowers
The U.S. government has long recognized the important role whistleblowers play in holding organizations accountable and stopping fraud and other crimes. Because of this, several laws have been enacted to protect whistleblowers and, in some cases, reward them for their brave actions. Below are brief summaries of some of those laws.
False Claims Act
An early example of a whistleblower law is the False Claims Act. It was first enacted by President Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s during the Civil War. The False Claims Act protects whistleblowers who choose to report information about fraud committed by the federal government. Individuals may file a qui tam action on behalf of the government and may be able to collect between 15% and 30% of any collected sanctions. The False Claims Act also allows whistleblowers to file a complaint about any retaliatory actions taken by the company for up to 3 years.
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, often shorted to Dodd-Frank Act, protects individuals who report financial wrongdoing. This act was put into place in 2010 to reduce corruption in the financial sector. Any wrongdoing must be reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Whistleblowers who are protected by Dodd-Frank are often banking employees, accountants, consultants, or other people with proof of wrongs committed by a financial entity. Under Dodd-Frank, whistleblowers are entitled to a percentage of collected sanctions and a jury trial in the event of retaliation.
In the 1980s, Stark Law was enacted to prevent Medicare and Medicaid fraud. Stark Law prohibits healthcare providers from referring patients with Medicare and/or Medicaid to facilities or services that would financially benefit themselves or their relatives. Whistleblowers protected by Stark Law are often doctors, nurses, or other employees in the medical field.
Whistleblower Protection Act
Around the same time that Stark Law was enacted, the Whistleblower Protection Act was also put into place. This act protects federal employees who report illegal activities or abuses of power within their workplace. These activities often take the form of violations of the law, waste of funding, gross mismanagement, and threats to public health and safety. Whistleblowers are protected from employer retaliation under this act.
Along with the federal protections, Pennsylvania also offers protections to whistleblowers. The Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, found in 43 P.S. § 1421 through 1428, protects employees who work for a “public body.” In this case, a “public body” includes employees of the state and local government and employees of government-funded businesses or organizations. Under these statutes, whistleblowers may file a report against their employer either verbally or in writing.
Famous examples of whistleblowers
One example of a famous whistleblower is Edward Snowden. Snowden worked as a contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) for 4 years. During his time there, he discovered that the NSA was conducting mass-scale surveillance programs that collected user data from companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google. They were also in the process of collecting data from phone service providers, like Verizon, as well. Snowden felt as though these programs were in violation of Americans’ right to privacy and he gathered evidence to expose this. In June of 2013 Snowden traveled to Hong Kong, where he then turned over that evidence to Western reporters from The Washington Post and The Guardian. After the news broke, the United States government charged Snowden with violating the Espionage Act and theft of government property. Snowden fled to Russia, the U.S. revoked his passport, and he has been living in Moscow ever since.
This particular example of whistleblowing is an interesting one, and it shows that choosing to expose delicate information can often come at great personal cost. While many regard Snowden’s actions as heroic, others still consider him to be a traitor. Although it is thought to be unlikely that his charges will be resolved any time soon, measures were taken to address the privacy concerns raised by these surveillance programs. President Obama announced proposed reforms in August of 2013, a panel of outside experts examined the surveillance programs, and new regulations were put into place through the USA Freedom Act.
Another example of a well-known whistleblower is Joshua Harman. Harman co-founded two construction services and previously worked with Trinity Industries, Inc. In 2012, Harman filed a qui tam lawsuit against Trinity, claiming their ET-Plus guardrails were modified without the approval of the Federal Highway Administration. The modifications cut down on the amount of materials used in the production of the guardrail heads. This caused the guardrails to malfunction when struck by vehicles and often added extra hazards. Harman accused Trinity of making these modifications as a means of saving money and bolstering sales, as the heads of the guardrails were often unusable after one accident. One of the major selling points of the ET-Plus was its reusability, so Harman alleged that Trinity was committing fraud.
The Court initially sided with Harman in 2014. The judge awarded him 30% of the overall damages, totaling $199 million, plus another $19 million in attorneys fees. There were post-trial crash tests done with the ET-Plus guardrail to determine if they should be replaced. The tests cleared them for use, and Trinity sought legal recompense. The verdict was overturned in 2017 by the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals as they found no evidence of fraud.