If you are the employee who is making a complaint about unlawful discrimination or blowing the whistle on some other form of unlawful activity at the workplace, the law protects you from retaliation from your employer. However, what protection do you have if you are a witness involved in a formal investigation or even a lawsuit?
Legally, you are generally just as protected when acting as a witness, as you would be if you were the person making the complaint. An employer cannot legally retaliate against an employee who tells the truth in an investigation or lawsuit. The protection against retaliation can be sometimes be found in statutory laws (that is, the formal legal codes enacted by your state or federal legislatures), or in the common law (the law derived from cases decided by judges). The protective measures found in legislative enactments are often part of the specific statutory scheme that an employee might rely on to make a complaint about unlawful activity. For instance, the sexual harassment laws contain specific anti-retaliation provisions that can be interpreted to apply to both a complaining employee and supporting witnesses.
If not by statute, you are protected by a claim of wrongful termination. That means that if an employer retaliates against you for cooperating with a complainant or investigator in regards to a complaint of unlawful activity, and the retaliation leads to termination, or creates work conditions so harsh that they effectively force you to quit, you may be in a position to file your own lawsuit.
In the case you are a witness to is being investigated by a government agency, they often have the power to fine or otherwise punish an employer for retaliating against you, even in situations that are less severe than a full-blown wrongful termination or constructive discharge case. If you are retaliated against in any way, or even threatened with retaliation, you should advise the investigator or even contact an attorney.
Why should you consider engaging an attorney if you are protected from retaliation under the law? Despite the protections against retaliation, employers sometimes ignore their obligations. As noted above, the stakes in employment cases can be very high for employers and employees. An employer unscrupulous enough to break the law that led to the underlying complaint may have no hesitation when it comes to retaliating against you for helping the complainant by offering truthful information.
If you believe you are likely to be a witness in a co-worker’s employment lawsuit and are worried about being retaliated against by your employer if you tell the truth about what happened, you should not hesitate to contact a reputable employment law firm. Because Douglas, Leonard & Garvey focuses its practice on representing employees, we can help protect you if you find yourself in this situation. Call us for a consultation or fill out our contact form.