It is public policy in California to encourage employees to report incidents of employers violating the law or unsafe working conditions. Laws exist to protect those who are courageous enough to come forward. Some employers still try to punish employees who act as whistleblowers, despite these legal protections. An example of this is a doctor who has been involved in a legal battle with the hospital where he worked since June 2006, when he prevailed in a lawsuit stemming from his whistleblowing activities at the hospital.
Doctor targeted for voicing concerns over care
The situation began in 2005 when Integrated HealthCare Holdings, Inc. took over Western Medical Center, where the doctor worked as chief of the hospital’s medical staff. The doctor was concerned that the quality of care that the hospital provided would decline under the new management because IHHI had just defaulted on a $50 million loan. Conditions began to deteriorate at the hospital, with paint flaking off the walls, dirt and dust in areas that were supposed to be pathogen-free for patients’ safety and stained sheets and towels. Hospital officials admitted they were concerned about their ability to stock surgical supplies.
In May 2006 the doctor sent an email to colleagues voicing his criticisms of the state of the hospital and questioning IHHI’s financial stability. The company brought suit against the doctor alleging slander and interference with business practices, in an effort to intimidate the doctor into silence. The doctor effectively argued that his email was protected free speech and the financial information he discussed was already public information, so the court dismissed the suit.
IHHI officials retaliated against the doctor with bizarre acts such as planting a gun and drugs in his car, having him arrested on a fake allegation of road rage and slashing his daughter’s car tires. IHHI officials also tried to portray the doctor as paranoid to others at the hospital. The doctor eventually brought suit against IHHI to recover for the emotional distress caused by these actions. In February 2013, a jury awarded him $5.7 million in damages. However, a judge overturned that award in June 2013. An appeal has since been filed.
Laws protect whistleblowers
California has laws that protect employees who act as whistleblowers. People are protected when they report an employer violating federal or state statutes, rules or regulations and working conditions or practices that put employees’ safety at risk. The law forbids employers from retaliating against employees who act as whistleblowers or employees who refuse to participate in illegal activities. Employers may not adopt policies that discourage employees from acting as whistleblowers and may not discriminate against employees for acting as whistleblowers in previous employment.
Many who see illegal activities at work are uncertain about how to proceed. They worry that they will be putting themselves at risk if they speak up. If you have seen something illegal at your workplace, consult a skilled employment law attorney who can advise you on the best course of action and help protect your rights.