The Employment Law Group’s © Managing Principal R. Scott Oswald and former Principal Jason Zuckerman have published a whistleblower article in the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. Daily Labor Report titled “D.C.’s Amended Whistleblower Protection Act: The Gold Standard for Public Sector Whistleblower Protection.”
The article highlights changes to Washington D.C.’s recently amended Whistleblower Protection Act (D.C. WPA); changes which make it the “strongest public sector whistleblower protection statute in the country” and a model for other states to follow. Messrs. Oswald and Zuckerman point out that in order “to encourage public sector employees to blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse, states must provide robust whistleblower protections to employees.”
These changes were brought about after the D.C. Council investigated Harriette Walters, a former employee at the Office of Tax and Revenue, and discovered she had embezzled over $48 million over the course of 18 years. Her co-workers remained silent the entire time because they feared reprisals for blowing the whistle.
Now, “the D.C. WPA protects any current or former employee, applicant for employment, as well as employees of independent and subordinate agencies….[Furthermore,] authorizing actions against individuals is critical to deterring retaliation against whistleblowers.”
Changes to the D.C. WPA include:
- Broad Scope of Protected Conduct: The D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act protects an employee who lawfully discloses information which he or she reasonably believes evidences gross mismanagement, waste of public funds, abuse of authority in connection with the administration of a public program or the execution of a public contract, a violation of law, regulation, or contractual term, or a substantial danger to public health and safety. The D.C. WPA also protects and employee’s refusal to comply with an illegal order…. [Defined as] a directive to violate or assist in violating any federal, state, or local law, rule, or regulation.
- Protecting ‘Duty Speech’: The amended D.C. WPA also eliminated the “duty speech” loophole. Foreseeing the assertion of the “duty speech” defense from Garcetti v.Ceballos, the D.C. Council clarified that employees are protected even if their disclosure is made during the course of performing their job duties.
- Prohibited Types of Retaliation: The D.C. WPA forbids a wide range of retaliatory adverse actions, including “recommended, threatened, or actual termination, demotion, suspension, or reprimand; involuntary transfer, reassignment or detail; referral for psychiatric of psychological counseling; failure to promote or take other favorable personnel action.
- Causation Standard and Burden-Shifting Framework: The D.C. WPA applies a causation standard and burden shifting framework that is mare favorable to employees than Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s McDonnell Douglas standard. To prevail under the D.C.WPA, an employee must show by a preponderance of the evidence that her protected conduct was a contributing factor in the adverse employment action.
- Statute of Limitations and Right to Jury Trial: Under the D.C. WPA, a whistleblower may seek a trial by jury within three years after a violation occurs or within one year after he or she first learns of the violation, whichever comes first.
- Remedies: Remedies available to a whistleblower include injective relief, reinstatement to the same or equivalent position with all seniority rights and benefits, back pay, interest, compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.
- Financial Incentive for Whistleblowing: The District is encourage employees to become whistleblowers by creating financial incentives while simultaneously prohibiting retaliation and holding those who participate in retaliation personally responsible for their acts.
- Protection for Employees of D.C. Contractors: The District extends similar protections to the employees of District contractors and instrumentalities.
Messrs. Oswald and Zuckerman conclude that more states should adopt whistleblower protection statutes similar to the District of Columbia’s because strong whistleblower protection laws like the D.C. WPA will incentivize more people to come forward and blow the whistle.