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Can I Be Fired for Reporting My Employer’s Illegal Actions to the Government? Understanding California’s Protections for Whistleblowers


So, you’re an employee who has found yourself in an ethical dilemma. You strongly believe – or maybe you know – that your employer is engaged in illegal activity. But maybe you’re worried if you report it to the appropriate authorities, or even file an internal complaint with management, so will lose your job. So what can you do?

To help resolve this ethical conundrum, California law provides for strong “whistleblower” protections. Section 1102.5 of the state Labor Code expressly forbids employers from maintaining any rules designed to prevent an employee “from disclosing information” regarding a potential violation of the law. This includes not only disclosures made to “a government of law enforcement agency,” but also the employee’s immediate supervisor, or even a co-worker “who has authority to investigate, discover, or correct the violation.”

Section 1102.5 further prohibits any act of “retaliation” against the reporting employee. For example, the employee cannot be fired, demoted, or reassigned based on their decision to report illegal activity. Keep in mind, however, the employee must have “reasonable cause” to believe their disclosure was necessary to report an apparent violation.

Ex-Riverside Prosecutor’s Whistleblower Lawsuit Cleared to Proceed

The protections of Section 1102.5 also apply to government employees who have reasonable cause to suspect their own agencies are breaking the law. For instance, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal recently revived an illegal retaliation lawsuit brought by a former deputy district attorney in Riverside County. The plaintiff in this case, Ross v. County of Riverside, previously worked in the district attorney’s homicide unit.

In 2011, the plaintiff took over an active prosecution. According to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, another attorney in the office cautioned him the defendant was innocent and that a prior confession had been coerced. The plaintiff said he then ordered additional DNA testing, which confirmed the defendant’s innocence. The plaintiff came to believe the district attorney’s office “was violating the defendant’s due process rights by engaging in a malicious prosecution.”

Several months into the case, the plaintiff said his supervisor instructed him not to turn over the results of the DNA testing to the defense, even though the plaintiff had already done so. Later, the plaintiff said he was told not to turn over newly discovered witness evidence further exonerating the defendant.

Eventually, the district attorney’s office dismissed the case. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff left his job and sued the county, alleging he was constructively terminated in part as an act of retaliation for his actions in handling the above-described case.

The Fourth District, reversing a trial judge’s earlier ruling in favor of the County, said the plaintiff alleged a plausible claim under Section 1102.5 and could proceed to trial. While the plaintiff “did not expressly state in his disclosures that he believed the County was violating or not complying with a specific state or federal law,” Section 1102.5 “does not require such an express statement.” It was enough for the plaintiff to allege he “disclosed information” that he “reasonably believed disclosed a violation” of federal or state law. In this case, the plaintiff advised dismissing the criminal prosecution based on his belief the district attorney’s office violated a defendant’s constitutional rights, as well as the ethical rules governing prosecutors in California.

Get Advice If You Do Not Know What to Do

Even with whistleblower protections, many employees are still reluctant to come forward and report an employer. If you find yourself in such a position and are unsure how to proceed, your first step should be to contact a qualified California whistleblower attorney.



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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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