Whistleblowers serve a valuable function in society by drawing attention to unsafe or unlawful conditions in the workplace. Sometimes this is the only thing that stops a large company from using its vast resources to conceal potentially dangerous situations from the public.
While whistleblowers should be celebrated for their courage and service to others, too often, they are marginalized, treated like pariahs, or worse. When an employer retaliates against a worker for engaging in protected whistleblowing activities, the company is acting unlawfully.
Luckily, there is legal recourse in place for an employee who blows the whistle on unlawful employment practices. And with the help of a good employment lawyer, whistleblowers can recover financial compensation from companies that retaliate against legally protected employee activities.
Continue reading to learn a case involving a physician employed by UC Irvine Medical School, a radioactive gas leak he attempted to expose, and a lawsuit that goes all the way to the California Court of Appeals. If you identify with this whistleblower’s story, or you have other questions about employment law, contact our office to schedule a consultation. We’re here to help.
Doctor Attempts to Expose Dangerous Radiation Leak, Heads to Court
In May 2018, the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth District issued a ruling on a lawsuit filed by Dr. Carl Taswell, an expert in nuclear medicine. The appeals court reversed a lower court’s ruling that dismissed Taswell’s complaint against the University of California Irvine (UCI).
Taswell, a board-certified physician, began working in 2012 with the UCI medical school’s radiology department. He was employed as a “specialist,” a temporary position given him while the University “processed” a professorship position for him. The chair of the radiology department, Dr. Scott Goodwin, informed Taswell that the specialist title was merely a temporary step before he was given a full professorship. According to Taswell’s complaint, Goodwin assured Taswell that he “had his back,” and would “protect him from any blowback.”
Early in his tenure as specialist, one of Taswell’s fellow physicians presented information to the medical school regarding potential safety compliance issues at the imaging center. These issues included a leak that was releasing radioactive gas onto the campus, as well as research volunteers who were being injected with tainted compounds.
Taswell notified the UC whistleblower hotline as well as Michael Arias, the school official in charge of whistleblower complaints. Arias informed Taswell that investigations into the complaints would begin, but informed Taswell that he should not investigate the complaints himself or discuss them with others.
However, Taswell reported his concerns to both the Department of Public Health, as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On March 22, Taswell, along with a group of other University employees entered a radiochemistry lab adjacent to the imaging center and began taking photos of potential safety violations. A researcher in the laboratory demanded to know if the group was authorized to be in the facility. Taswell believed he was, and informed the researcher that he had been invited by the school’s radiation safety committee.
On April 2,Taswell was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. University officials notified him that his contract as a specialist would not be renewed. Taswell sued the University under the state’s whistleblower protection laws. A lower court ruled in favor of the University stating that Taswell, among other things, didn’t produce any triable issues of material fact. He appealed the court’s decision, and the appellate court sided with Taswell. As for the question of whether triable issues of material fact existed, the appellate court wrote:
“It is undisputed that Taswell was placed on paid leave pending investigation of whether his entry into the laboratory was unauthorized and, that same day, he was informed his contract with the University would not be renewed. Both actions constitute adverse employment actions.” The article continued, “A triable issue of fact existedregarding whether a causal connection could be drawn between Taswell’s whistleblowing actions and the adverse employment actions he faced.”
The appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision and awarded Taswell costs on appeal.
University Has Dealt with Whistleblowers Before
Taswell isn’t the only UC Irvine employee to accuse the school of whistleblower retaliation. A 2014 article published in the Orange County Register noted that two other physicians from the school of medicine also accused the college of retaliation.
Dr. Dennis O’Connor, a former professor of anesthesiology blew the whistle on the school’s practices regarding patient care back in 2008. He told federal investigators that the school was falsifying patient care records, and in some cases administering anesthesia in buildings where no anesthesiologists were presents (a violation of regulations). In 2013, the University agreed to settle a federal law suit related to the claims surrounding poor patient care for $1.2 million, of which $120,000 went to Dr. O’Connor.
What the Law Says About Whistleblowing
There are laws at both the federal and state level that protect workers who draw attention to unsafe or unlawful employment practices. California Labor Code §1102.5(a) states that an employer shall not prevent an employee from:
“Testifying before any public body conducting an investigation, hearing, or inquiry, if the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of state or federal statute, or a violation of or noncompliance with a local, state or federal rule or regulation.”
The law further states:
“An employer…shall not retaliate against an employee for disclosing information, or because the employer believes that the employee disclosed or may disclose information, to a government or law enforcement agency, to a person with authority over the employee or another employee, to a person with authority over the employee or another employee who has the authority to investigate, discover or correct the noncompliance.”
Healthcare Whistleblowers Have A Law Designed Specifically for Them
California law recognizes that healthcare workers deal directly with issues of public safety, and as a matter of policy, encourages workers to notify the authorities whenever that safety is compromised. Health and Safety Code 1278.5(b) et. al. states that no health facility shall retaliate against any patient, employee or member of the medical staff because that person: “has initiated, participated, or cooperated in an investigation or administrative proceeding related to the quality of care, services or conditions at the facility that is carried out by an entity or agency responsible for accrediting or evaluating the facility or its medical staff, or government agency.”
Whistleblowing Law Covers More Than Safety Violations
In addition to safety concerns, such as those raised by doctors in the cases discussed in this article, a whistleblower might also draw attention to other types of violations. These could include workplace discrimination, or harassment. If you’re an employee who notices a fellow co-worker experiencing harassment, perhaps on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation, and you call attention to this harassment and experience retaliation as a result, you might have a case worth pursuing. If you have questions about such a situation, consider scheduling a consultation with our office.
A Good Lawyer Can Make All the Difference in Your Case
Employment law is complex. It would be impossible to dissect the nuances of the UCI cases discussed in this article as well as the laws used in each case. The important takeaway from this page should be: If you discovered an unsafe condition or violation of law at work, notified someone about this danger, and were punished because you spoke up, then you might have a case and should contact an attorney.
It Could Be Worth the Effort
Employees who suffer retaliation as the result of whistleblowing activities could be entitled to:
- Back Pay
- Lost Wages
- Pain and Suffering
- Punitive Damages
Many employment attorneys, including the attorneys at this office, will take cases on a contingency basis. The client doesn’t pay out-of-pocket legal expenses. Rather, the client pays the attorney with a portion of the settlement or judgment at the conclusion of the case.
Contact our Office with Questions
It’s unfortunate that folks who draw attention to workplace injustices, or public safety threats are subject to retaliation at all. They should be treated as heroes. Sadly, this isn’t how the world works. Sometimes, it takes help from a good lawyer to get any justice at all. But that’s why we’re here.
If you called attention to a violation of law in your workplace, and were terminated or otherwise punished as a result, contact the office of Odell & Freeze to discuss your case. Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.