Best Ohio Whistleblower Employment Attorney Answer: Can I be fired for reporting an unlawful act that my boss knows about, but is doing nothing to stop? Does my employer have an obligation to investigate the unlawful acts of its customer? Does the Whistleblower Protection Act protect me even though the unlawful acts I’m reporting aren’t just by my manager?
What is a whistleblower? A whistleblower can be any employee who reports illegal or dangerous conduct to his or her employer, the proper authorities, or even a media outlet. Because blowing the whistle is viewed a being good for public welfare, Ohio’s whistleblower laws were enacted to make it against the law for employers to retaliate against employees who report such unlawful or improper conduct.
When employees call our employment law lawyers regarding being wrongfully terminated or retaliated against for reporting unlawful conduct, it’s always tricky business. Our employment law attorneys have blogged about whistleblower protection (see Whistleblower Law Blog) but these situations are even more fact specific than most. The statute is very strict regarding the requirements an employee must meet before getting any protection for reporting an illegal act. That means you need to know exactly what you are getting into before you report, which is why you should consult an experienced attorney as early as possible.
In order for you to get the protection of the Whistleblower laws, you have to satisfy a two-part test. First, you have to prove that the whistleblower law applies to your situation. The statute applies if (1) you become aware while you are on the job that a state or federal law is being violated; (2) your boss has the authority to correct the violation; and (3) you reasonably believe that by violating the law your employer is engaging in a criminal act that is likely either to cause immediate physical harm to someone or is a threat to public health and safety.
If you think the Whistleblower Act applies to your situation, the next step is properly reporting the illegal activity that you have observed. You have to go to your boss first – you cannot immediately tell the police, or some other outside authority. After you tell your boss what you’ve observed, you need to follow up with him in writing, with as much detail as possible. If, after 24 yours, your boss hasn’t made a good faith effort to correct the violation, then you can notify outside authorities.
If you follow that two part step, and your boss fires you or otherwise retaliates against you, then you will be protected by the whistleblower act and can bring a suit against him. However, when it comes to whistleblower protection, often it’s true that no good deed goes unpunished. That’s because Ohio courts are very stingy regarding the situations in which they find that the act applies, which is again why you should consult an attorney as you are reporting problems.
The Ohio Supreme Court recently re-affirmed its strict stance on the whistleblower statute in a case called Lee v. Village of Cardington. Following its earlier precedent, the Court held that “an employee must ‘strictly comply’ with the reporting requirements [of the whistleblower statute] to obtain whistleblower protection.”
Donald Lee worked for the Village of Cardington. He supervised the operation of the village’s wastewater treatment plant. Starting in 2000, Lee began to notice that someone was discharging a hazardous chemical that was passing through the wastewater treatment plant and into the village’s water supply. He notified the local representatives of the Ohio EPA about his concerns.
By the spring of 2007, the problems had gotten significantly worse. Lee again talked to the Ohio EPA, and asked them to investigate the source of the unknown pollutant. The Ohio EPA ruled out the wastewater treatment plant as the source of the pollutant, and found that the plant was satisfying the conditions of its operating permit. They discovered that the pollutant was glycol, and that the source of the pollutant was an automotive parts manufacturer in town, Cardington Yutaka Technologies (which also happened to be the village’s biggest employer). The United States EPA agreed with the Ohio EPA’s findings.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, Lee continued to voice his concerns about glycol in the water supply with his supervisor, the village administrator. Lee clashed with the administrator regarding how to address the issue, and Lee made their disputes pubic at various village council meetings.
In 2009, the village terminated Lee, citing insubordination. Lee sued, and invoked the protection of the Ohio whistleblower statute. Lee alleged that the village had retaliated against him for reporting the problems with the wastewater treatment plant and for supporting the work of the EPA. The village argued that the whistleblower statute did not protect Lee, because Lee had only reported Cardington Yukata Technologies’ wrongdoing, not anything illegal that the village of Cardington had done.
The Ohio Supreme Court found that even though glycol contamination in the water was a very serious public health hazard, and even though Lee was “instrumental” in exposing the crimes of Cardington Yutaka Technologies, he did not qualify for whistleblower protection. First, even though he had spoken to his boss about the issue myriad times, Lee had never followed up those conversations with written complaints as is required by the Whistleblower statute. And second, Lee had gone to the Ohio EPA before notifying his boss about the glycol contamination. In addition – and most importantly – none of the illegal acts that Lee had reported were perpetrated by his employer, the village of Cardington. The Village wasn’t contaminating the water – Cardington Yutaka Technologies was. The Ohio Supreme Court held:
R.C. 4113.52(A)(1) applies when an employee “becomes aware in the course of the employee’s employment of a violation of any state or federal statute or any ordinance or regulation of a political subdivision.” R.C. 4113.52(A)(1)(a). The violation must be one that the “employer has authority to correct” and that the “employee reasonably believes * * * is a criminal offense that is likely to cause an imminent risk of physical harm to persons or a hazard to public health or safety, a felony, or an improper solicitation for a contribution.” Id.
To report a violation, the employee must start with his or her employer. The employee must orally report the violation to his or her supervisor or other responsible officer and “subsequently shall file with that supervisor or officer a written report that provides sufficient detail to identify and describe the violation.” Id. If the employer does not correct or make a good faith effort to correct the violation within 24 hours, the employee may then notify outside auhorities. Id.
Lee did not satisfy the statute’s written-report requirement. There is no written report in the record
None of this feels very “fair” – wasn’t Lee doing the right thing? Maybe, but he didn’t do it the right way. If you have observed something illegal at work, and you want to make sure that you are protected in case your boss terminates you for reporting the illegal act that you’ve observed, the best course of action is to call the right attorney. At the Spitz Law Firm, you will meet with an employment lawyer who will be able to tell you what your legal rights are and the best way to protect them. Ohio law provides job protections to those employees that report or oppose illegal or unsafe conduct or work conditions, such as OSHA violations, embezzlement, unlawful discrimination, or patient abuse, to name a few. However, in order to have the protections under the law, there are a lot of steps that each employee must take. That is why it is absolutely critical for any employee confronted with illegal or unsafe conduct or work conditions at work to immediately consult with employment law lawyers in order to make sure that everything is done right. If you wait until you are fired, you may have already lost your claim. Do not wait. If you have seen any illegal or dangerous conduct on your job, then the best thing you can do is call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation at 866-797-6040. The Spitz Law Firm, and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting Ohio employees from retaliation after blowing the whistle on unlawful and hazardous activities at work.
The materials available at the top of this whistle blower claims page and on this employment law website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. If you are still asking, “what should I do if I am being harassed for reporting…”, “how do I …?”, “Am I …?”, “what should I do if…” or “can my boss fired me for …”, it would be best for you to contact an Ohio attorney to obtain advice with respect to particular whistleblower claims questions or any particular employment law issue. Use and access to this employment law website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The legal opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual lawyer and may not reflect the opinions of The Spitz Law Firm, attorney Brian Spitz, or any individual attorney.