Whistleblowers perform an important public service. The information they provide can keep employees and consumers safer, stop theft and other corrupt practices, and even help protect the integrity of our political system. Of course, not all employers are happy to hear what whistleblowers have to say, let alone see that information shared with legal authorities.
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Ohio law protects whistleblowers from retaliation. But, the statute applies only to the reporting of certain types of actions and issues. And, in some cases, the whistleblower is required to follow a specific reporting procedure.
Here’s what you need to know about how Ohio law protects whistleblowers.
What is a Whistleblower?
A whistleblower is someone with inside knowledge who reports illegal or dangerous actions or conditions to the appropriate authorities. The term comes from the history of officials in various capacities, such as police and sports officials, blowing an actual whistle to call attention to violations of the law or rules.
However, it’s important to be aware that the Ohio whistleblower protection law doesn’t apply to everyone who reports conduct they find unacceptable. In fact, not all illegal conduct is sufficient to trigger whistleblower protections.
An expert tip from Doug Mann
Under Ohio law, a person may be protected as a whistleblower if they report:
- A criminal offense that is likely to cause an imminent risk of physical harm to people or a hazard to public safety or health,
- A felony, or
- An improper solicitation for a contribution
Whistleblower Reporting Procedures in Ohio
In most situations, the Ohio whistleblower protection law requires the whistleblower to give the employer an opportunity to address the situation before reporting to law enforcement or other officials. However, the employer is required to act quickly in response to the report. The employer has 24 hours or until the close of business the following business day (whichever is later) to notify the employee in writing that:
- The steps the employer is taking to correct the action or issue reported, or
- That the employer has determined there is no violation or hazard
If the employer fails to correct the violation (or make a good faith effort to do so) within 24 hours, the employee may file a written report with the appropriate law enforcement or regulatory agency. Depending on the violation, this may be:
- The local prosecuting attorney
- The local police or sheriff’s department
- An agency with regulatory authority over the employer’s industry
- Any other appropriate official with regulatory authority over the employer
In certain limited circumstances, the employee may skip reporting to the employer and waiting for a response. These include:
- Criminal violations of ORC Chapter 3704 (Air Pollution Control)
- Criminal violations of ORC Chapter 3734 (Solid and Hazardous Wastes)
- Criminal violations of ORC Chapter 6109 (Safe Drinking Water)
- Criminal violations of ORC Chapter 6111 (Water Pollution Control)
If the employee follows these procedures and makes a reasonable and good faith effort to determine the accuracy of the information reported, the employee is legally protected from retaliatory action.
What is Retaliatory Action Under the Ohio Whistleblower Law?
An Ohio employer is prohibited from retaliating against an employee for making a report authorized by this statute, or for asking questions or otherwise attempting to verify the accuracy of the information reported. Unlawful retaliation includes:
- Terminating the employee
- Suspending the employee
- Withholding raises or benefits
- Transferring or reassigning the employee
- Withholding a promotion
- Reducing pay
- Demoting the employee
What if My Employer Retaliates?
The Ohio whistleblower protection law provides a private cause of action for whistleblowers who have been harmed by employer retaliation. That means the whistleblower may file a civil lawsuit against the employer. However, the statute of limitations is short: the civil suit must be filed within 180 days of the retaliatory action. So, if you are a whistleblower and believe your employer has retaliated against you for your actions, it’s important to talk to an experienced Ohio employment lawyer as soon as possible.
In the lawsuit, you may ask the court to order your employer to make the situation right by reinstating you to your previous position, paying back wages, or a combination of remedies. If the court finds that your employer retaliated illegally, the judge can also order the employer to pay your attorney’s fees and other costs associated with bringing your claim.
Other Whistleblower Protections
Federal law also provides protection for whistleblowers in limited circumstances. For example, the federal Whistleblower Protection Act prohibits retaliatory action against employees and contractors of the federal government who disclose evidence of any legal or regulatory violation. This protection also extends to the disclosure of certain other information, such as evidence of abuse of authority, substantial danger to public safety, and gross mismanagement.
Other federal protections apply within specific industries. For instance, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act includes protection for employees of companies whose securities must be registered under federal law. These companies cannot retaliate against employees who cooperate in SEC investigations, or who report actions they believe violate certain specific federal laws and regulations. A similar protection is included in the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, and protects employees who report violations of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
You Can Fight Back
If you’re a whistleblower, you’ve already taken action to protect the public, your co-workers, or your employer’s customers. If your employer has retaliated against you, you should fight just as hard to protect yourself. An experienced Ohio employment lawyer can be your best resource in that battle. But, your time may be limited. Schedule your free consultation right now.
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