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Whistle-Blower alert: Don’t warn against reporting alleged wrongdoing

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

What’s one of the quickest ways to a California Labor Code whistle-blower lawsuit? Discourage an employee from reporting to the government or law enforcement what she sees as possible illegal activity. If disciplinary action against a formerly good employee closely follows your discouraging words—watch out! Litigation won’t be far behind.

Recent case: Pamela Mokler worked for the Orange County Office on Aging and received rave reviews from her supervisor. But then that supervisor retired and the agency began reorganizing. Because the reorg might have violated state and federal funding rules, Mokler told upper management she was concerned.

That’s when her troubles began. First, her employer warned her not to raise her concerns with the California Department of Aging. Mokler called the agency anyway. That same day, the employer placed her on administrative leave. The agency then fired Mokler, ostensibly for being too close to the Hispanic organizations she worked with.

She sued, alleging whistle-blower retaliation. A jury agreed and awarded her $1.6 million. The trial judge reduced the award because Mokler got another job immediately and didn’t appear to have suffered any emotional or physical distress. But the Court of Appeal of California upheld the retaliation finding and ordered a new trial on the amount of damages due to Mokler. (Mokler v. City of Orange, et al., No. G036029, Court of Appeal of California, 4th Appellate Division, 2007)

Final note: The lesson here is simple—tell supervisors and managers that ordering someone to keep quiet about alleged wrongdoing is wrong. 

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