I think my boss is breaking the law. What should I do? What can I do? And can I get fired for it?
Well-intentioned employees in Ohio often assume that when they blow the whistle on a coworker or boss for breaking the law that the company will thank them. Many do, but sometimes, it’s the whistleblower who gets fired. Before you blow the whistle in Ohio, you should know your rights.
Ohio law is a minefield for whistleblowers. Under Ohio law generally, employees may be fired for any reason or no reason, but not an illegal reason. Most people assume that retaliation for whistleblowing is an illegal reason in Ohio, but it is not always. Under the Ohio Whistleblower Act, only whistleblowers who report conduct they believe is a criminal offense that endangers people, a felony, or an improper campaign solicitation are legally protected from retaliation. Even then, if they report the conduct only verbally, and not in writing, their employer may legally retaliate against them in many cases. In addition, if a worker complains to law enforcement without first making a written report to their employer, Ohio law may not protect them from retaliation.
A recent case from the Ohio Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County demonstrates the traps for whistleblowers in Ohio. In Janezic v. Eaton Corp., 2013-Ohio-5436 (Ohio Ct. App., Cuyahoga County Dec. 12, 2013), the employee was fired after complaining that his employer, an aircraft manufacturer, was breaking FAA law. The Court of Appeals denied the employee the right to have a jury decide his case because the Court held his email complaining about misconduct was not detailed enough to comply with the Ohio Whistleblower Act.
In addition to the Ohio Whistleblower Act, there are many other Ohio and federal laws that provide limited protection for workplace whistleblowers. For example, it is illegal to retaliate against an Ohio nursing home employee who complains about or reports patient abuse or neglect or theft from a patient. It is illegal to retaliate against a worker who reports fraud against the federal government. It is illegal to retaliate against a worker who complains to OSHA that the workplace is unsafe. It is also illegal to retaliate against a worker who complains of illegal employment discrimination or harassment. All of these statutes have different filing deadlines (known as statutes of limitation), and provide different types of damages to the wronged worker.
Whistleblower protection laws exist because we want employees to report misconduct in the workplace. The protection is not always absolute however. To protect yourself, contact an employment lawyer before complaining. An experienced employment lawyer will be able to advise you of your rights, suggest ways to alert your employer to the misconduct while protecting yourself, and discuss what you can do if your rights are violated.