If you are one of the nearly quarter-million people employed by the State of California, you should feel safe reporting any improper or illegal activity that you see around you. These protections are found in a law called the California Whistleblower Protection Act (CWPA), and they apply to anyone working for the state government or the California State University system, as well as those appointed to a state board or commission. Cal. Gov. Code § 8547 et seq. The CWPA was enacted because “state employees should be free to report waste, fraud abuse of authority, violation of law, or threat to public health without fear of retribution” and because “public servants best serve the citizenry when they can be candid and honest without reservation in conducting the people’s business.” See § 8547.1.
In service of these stated policy goals, the CWPA provides state employee whistleblowers with broader protections from employer retaliation for reporting wrongful activity than the protections that exist for the average worker. As stated above, state employees are protected from retaliation for reporting any “improper government activity.” Unsurprisingly, this includes acts by a state agency or employee that violate state or federal law or regulation, Executive orders of the Governor, and policy or procedure in the State Administrative Manual or State Contracting Manual. This is unsurprising because all workers, regardless of whether they work for the state, are protected from employer retaliation for reporting or refusing to participate in conduct that violates local, state, or federal law, rules, and regulations. However, an “improper government activity” can also include conduct that is an abuse of authority, a threat to public health, or “is economically wasteful, involves gross misconduct, incompetency, or inefficiency.” See § 8547.2(c)(3). With plans to spend more than $190 billion in 2018, California is wise to have in place these broad legislative protections to encourage state employees to report conduct that may not be illegal but is costly to the government nonetheless. Even if the statute is somewhat self-serving, the CWPA benefits employees by expanding the scope of the wrongful conduct that state employees should feel safe to report.
In addition to being protected from employer retaliation, state employees are also protected from “actual or attempted acts of reprisal,  threats, coercion, or similar improper acts.” See §§ 8547.8, 8547.10. The CWPA also forbids the supervisor of a state worker from using his or her official authority or influence to intimidate, threaten, coerce, or command (or attempt to do any of those things) in an effort to prevent the state worker from reporting government misconduct. See § 8547.3.
The victim of this type of employer retribution or coercion is entitled to bring an employee retaliation lawsuit against his or her employer for damages, and the victim can even receive punitive damages if the wrongdoer acted maliciously. Additionally, if liability is established, the victim is entitled to have the wrongdoer pay for his or her legal fees. See § 8547.8(c). The CWPA does require state employees to jump through some hoops, such as filing a complaint with the State Personnel Board within 12 months, before filing any sort of lawsuit in court. So, if you are a California State employee and you believe you have been the victim of any sort of retaliation for reporting improper government activity, be sure to contact an experienced employment attorney. The attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp specialize in protecting employees in this sort of matter and would be happy to discuss your potential claims.