In tough economic times an unscrupulous employer may fudge the numbers or skirt environmental or labor laws, but South Texas College of Law professor Richard Carlson says the profit motive is always strong, even in good times, with some organizations going to great lengths to cut corners. And that often creates ethical dilemmas for workers.
“I think a lot of people endure violations of the law when they’re trying to save their job, particularly when it’s hard to get a job someplace else. But once the employer has laid them off or terminated them, it’s much easier to take on that fight.”
That fight is often a Whistle-blower lawsuit, designed to protect workers who report illegal activity such as consumer law violations, pollution, fraud, or non-payment of wages.
“Typically you file your charge with the Department of Labor, which will investigate the charge, try to resolve it between the employee and the employer. And if there is no resolution at that level you can sue in a federal court and collect, for example, back pay if you were fired. You might be able to get your job back, and you might be able to collect some other damages.”
But Carlson says despite those legal protections, someone may choose to stay quiet in a fragile jobs market. But a lot of people are losing their jobs, and once they’re out of work they may be prepared to assert their claims. Carlson says while someone may be portrayed as a disgruntled ex-employee, some workers have held off on complaints because they felt they had too much to lose.
“If you prove a good case you’re going to win, most likely, and you’re going to get some substantial damages, possibly punitive damages, because if there’s one thing that makes juries angry, it’s employers who break the law and then retaliate against employees.”
To make a strong case Carlson says an employee has to prove they reported a violation of the law, made that report in good faith, and didn’t make a frivolous claim in an effort to get protection.
This story orginally aired September 6, 2010.