Workers in New York and around the country have an obligation to inform the proper authorities when they learn that their employers are engaging in dangerous, unethical or illegal activities. Whistleblowers in the workplace are protected from retaliation by laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the National Labor Relations Act, and employers can face severe penalties when they fire, harass or otherwise mistreat employees who step forward to report wrongdoing.
A recent case dealing with these issues involved a worker at a New York demolition company who raised concerns over the way that asbestos was being removed from a Jefferson County high school. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the worker by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged that the company responded to his concerns by firing him and suing him for defamation, and these arguments were persuasive enough to convince a jury to award him $174,000 in damages. The award was made up of $103,000 in back wages, $50,000 in punitive damages and $20,000 in compensatory damages.
The case is notable because the Secretary of Labor’s motion for summary judgement clarified OSHA’s position on retaliatory lawsuits filed against workplace whistleblowers. The courts have long held that lawsuits initiated to punish or intimidate workers are a form of adverse action, and employers have been held accountable when they have pursued baseless litigation against employees they considered troublesome.
This case reveals how severe the penalties can be for retaliating against whistleblowers, and attorneys with experience in wrongful termination cases may point these sanctions out when representing workers who have been treated unfairly after raising concerns about inappropriate behavior. Attorneys could urge employers to settle these matters quickly not only to avoid being ordered to pay punitive damages, but also to prevent possible irreparable harm being done to their corporate reputations.