What Laws Protect California Whistleblowers from Retaliation?

There are two general sources of law protecting employees in California against retaliation: (1) common law protections; and (2) statutes.

Common Law Protections

An employee can have a case for retaliatory discharge in cases where the employee suffers an adverse employment action because of some activity that is protected by some important public policy. Where the employee’s activities are undertaken in furtherance of those important public policies, and the employee is retaliated against for engaging in those activities, the employee may state a claim for retaliation and bring a lawsuit. Courts have held that there must be a “nexus” between the protected activity and the retaliatory action by the employer. In other words, the adverse employment action must have been precipitated by the protected activity. Also, the Courts have held that the issue that is raised by the employee must involve the public interest. In other words, the statute, law, or constitutional provision at issue must involve the public interest at large, not just private interests, and infraction of those laws must result in a harm to the public generally, not just harm to an individual or group of individuals.

Provided the statute involves a public policy, an employee in the State of California may not be subjected to an adverse employment action because he/she has refused to violate a statute, performed a statutory duty, exercised a constitutional right, or reported a statutory violation to the employer or an outside government agency or body.

For a further discussion of this issue of whistleblower retaliation, the leading California cases on the issue of wrongful termination in violation of public policy are:

Statutory Protections for Whistleblowers

In California, whistleblowers are protected by specific statutes that prohibit retaliation against employees for reporting illegal conduct to their employer or to an outside agency. The statute also protects employees who refuse to participate in illegal activities.

The primary purpose of these laws is to encourage employees who witness illegal or fraudulent activity to report the illegal conduct so that it stops. The laws are designed to make the employees feel more comfortable that their employers will not engage in retaliatory conduct in reprisal for them making the complaints. If the employer does retaliate, the employee has the right to proceed with a lawsuit, making retaliation something that the employer will suffer for.

Some of the statutes that protect whistleblowers from retaliation are called “qui tam” statutes. The whistleblower statutes originate back to the Dark and Middle ages, when kings and landowners lacked sufficient resources to properly monitor the activities of their subjects. In the 13th century, the English crown encouraged its subjects to come forward with reports of crimes through a process called “qui tam pro domino rege quam pro seipso“—which roughly translated “one who acts as much for the king as for himself.” In qui tam actions, private citizens bring lawsuits against another private party who has allegedly defrauded the state. By so doing, the private party stands to benefit not only the King, but also him/herself.

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