California Supreme Court strengthens whistleblower protections

Under both California and federal laws, workers are protected from retaliation after they report something unlawful in the workplace. For example, an employer can’t fire or demote a worker in retaliation for the worker’s reporting of hazardous working conditions, sexual harassment, environmental law violations or illegal business practices.

This protection from retaliation is a very important right for California workers, but, as with so many things, applying the law to the unique facts of each case can be difficult.

Recently, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in a retaliation case that clarified how the law applies in some situations. The ruling will strengthen whistleblowers’ rights.

The case

The case involves a bartender in Orange County who complained to her employer that she had not been paid for three shifts she had worked at a nightclub. The employer then fired her, threatened to report her to immigration authorities and told her to never return to the nightclub.

The bartender complained to the state Department of Labor Standards Enforcement. The DLSE found that the employer had illegally retaliated against her, and sued to recover damages.

A trial court and an appeals court ruled for the employer, finding that California’s whistleblower law requires that the employee disclose something that the employer doesn’t already know (or that the employee reasonably believes the employer doesn’t already know). Because both the employer and the bartender in this case knew she had not been paid, these courts said, she had not met the disclosure requirement under the whistleblower law.

The California Supreme Court overruled those decisions. It held that the purpose of the disclosure was to alert others to a problem that they could help to correct, regardless of whether the person hearing the complaint knew about it or not. Under this interpretation of the law, for the purposes of the whistleblower protection law,  it doesn’t matter that the employer already knew that he had not paid the bartender. When the nightclub owner fired her, threatened her and banned her from the nightclub, he violated her rights under the law.