When an individual learns about unethical or illegal doings within their company or government, they are faced with a choice: They can either go along with what is happening or report and/or refuse to participate in it. When a person chooses to report these questionable actions, they are referred to as a “whistleblower.”
Laws regarding whistleblowers stem back to the era of President Lincoln, who encouraged individuals to report fraud against the government. As a result, the False Claims Act was passed in 1863. It included provisions that encouraged private citizens to bring lawsuits against individuals and companies who were defrauding the government. If successful, the whistleblower could receive a percentage of what the government recovered.
Types of Cases
Whistleblower cases can be for any kind of illegal activity and are not exclusive to governmental fraud. Most claims under the False Claims Act involve fraud related to military contractors, health care (Medicare and Medicaid), and other government spending programs. Other types of claims involve violations by entities against laws regarding the environment, security, and taxes. Some examples include reports of:
- Defense contractors selling faulty equipment to the military
- Financial organizations committing accounting fraud
- Companies illegally dumping toxic waste
There are federal and state whistleblower laws that were designed to protect individuals from retaliation by their employers. The False Claims Act has provisions to protect whistleblowers who report fraud committed against the government, while the Whistleblower Protection Act protects federal employee whistleblowers who report misconduct perpetrated by the government.
Other federal laws that could provide protection to whistleblowers include the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Sarbanes Oxley Act. Additionally, the Occupations Safety and Health Act strives to protect individuals who engage in an activity related to workplace safety and health, the environment, corporate fraud, and other areas. Employees who believe they have been retaliated against should file a complaint under the Occupations Safety and Health Act within the applicable timeline.
These laws strive to protect whistleblowers against retaliation by their employer, including firing, demotion, harassment, and pay cuts.
The role of the whistleblower lawyer is to help represent the whistleblower and to determine if the person has a cause of action to file a claim. If a cause of action exists, the lawyer evaluates the facts, documents, and evidence provided by the whistleblower to determine how it fits with the False Claims Act or other whistleblower laws.
Once the claim is ready, the lawyer will file it under seal with the U.S. Attorney and additional steps will be taken to protect the whistleblower. These cases are unique, as they do not enter the public record unless or until the government declines to pursue the case. Cases under the False Claims Act are often lengthy, so whistleblowers should plan for the legal proceedings to take time.
If the government declines the case, the whistleblower and legal team have the option to continue with a private lawsuit that would be made public record.