Workers in California and throughout the country are protected from retaliation by their employers if they become whistleblowers. Protecting them can be important to employee safety, as unsafe workplaces kill more than 4,000 workers each year. In New York, a man had raised issues with his company regarding its disposal of asbestos. He took pictures of the asbestos at the work site after it was closed and took a bag from the site containing the hazardous material. His employers then fired him. Several weeks later, the company also filed a lawsuit against him for defamation.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration filed a lawsuit on the man’s behalf. According to OSHA, both the lawsuit against the man and his termination were done in retaliation and were violations of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The man was awarded $50,000 in punitive damages, $20,000 in compensatory damages and $103,000 in back wages. For procedural reasons, the court did not issue a ruling about the retaliatory nature of the defamation lawsuit. However, the motion for summary judgment stated that previous court cases have supported the idea that lawsuits filed to punish or dissuade an employee are adverse actions and cited three cases.
There are several other reasons that a firing could be illegal, and several are related to retaliation. For example, a company might fire a worker in retaliation for reporting harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Firing a worker might also be part of the actual harassment or discrimination itself. For example, a worker might be fired for refusing sexual advances or simply because of the worker’s race, religion or sex. Employees who believe they have been fired for illegal reasons may want to talk to an attorney about their rights and how to proceed.