[COLUMN] Remedies for employees fired due to whistleblowing retaliation

Teresa Brooke was hired by Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital as its Chief Nursing Officer in May 2016. The hospital provides in-patient care, partial hospitalization, and outpatient mental health care for patients ranging from teenagers to adults. Teresa has 30 years of experience in the field of nursing and hospital management.

During her short tenure as a chief nursing officer, Teresa discovered that there were several and pervasive Cal-OSHA and Labor Code violations at her hospital. Teresa reported to management several dangerous conditions that she found existed at the facility.

Teresa reported severe staff shortages resulting in injuries to both patients and staff. Both staff and patients were being subjected to regular punching, kicking, choking, and other violent conduct. There were high rates of patient self-harm, and several occurrences of sexual violence to patients, some of whom were minors. Employees were not provided with meal and rest breaks and with suitable seats.  Teresa alleged that the constant staff shortages was a result of the meager budget provided by company leadership because of its priority on profits over patient care and safety.

Teresa reported her findings to management and to a government agency. She was then fired in November 2016. Teresa sued her former employer and claimed that she was wrongfully terminated in response to her complaints both internally and to a government agency about her findings.

Teresa also filed a Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) enforcement action against the employer for violations of California labor laws occurring from April 29, 2016 to June 4, 2021. The lawsuit sought to recover monetary penalties on behalf of Teresa and fellow employees and the State of California. She also asked for the court to order the employer to change its business practices and correct the violations.

The California Whistleblower Protection Act specifically protects employees from being retaliated against after reporting to a government agency that their employer has violated the law. The Act also protects employees who report of a suspected violation internally (for instance, to a supervisor within the organization) or externally to “any public body” conducting a hearing or investigation. Employees are protected if they truly believed the conduct they complained about was unlawful, even if it was not. The employer is also prohibited from retaliating against an employee who refuses to participate in activities that violate the law.

Another relevant claim Teresa made in her case is under PAGA, which is an enforcement action against the employer for violating labor laws. PAGA is especially unique to California and was enacted to maximize compliance with California’s labor laws. Instead of the State of California pursuing penalties against an employer, the law gives a private citizen (such as an employee) the right to recover these penalties and seek to stop the employer’s violations suffered by current and former employees.

After several rounds of failed settlement discussions, the parties finally agreed to settlement. The employer agreed to pay $2,850,000 damages (of which $2,046,750 is paid to the State of California; and $682,250 is paid to Santa Rosa hospital employees). The settlement also includes changes regarding the rights of employees and the hospital’s policies to improve working conditions.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]

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