In Killeen, Texas, two former city employees are alleging that they were wrongfully terminated after reporting misconduct by officials. According to a lawsuit filed in mid March, former Killeen Finance Director Barbara Gonzales was fired by the city manager because she reported to the police that he and other city officials were misusing funds. A separate lawsuit filed by former city mechanic John Acker alleges that he was fired by the city police chief after reporting that a sergeant in the police department had been misusing city equipment to do personal work.
While the outcome of the Killeen lawsuits remains to be seen, both are good examples of claims made under the Texas Whistleblower Act. This important piece of legislation protects public employees who make good faith reports of legal violations by their employer or another public employee to an appropriate law enforcement authority.
If allegations are made in good faith, employees are protected from retaliatory action
The Texas Whistleblower Act protects public employees from retaliatory personnel action taken because they reported illegal conduct by other public employees or officials. An adverse personnel action that may entitle an employee to relief could be a suspension, termination or transfer. It could also be any other action that negatively affects an employee's compensation, work assignment, performance evaluation or opportunities for promotion. Even reprimands or severe harassment may qualify as adverse personnel actions under certain circumstances.
To be protected under the Texas Whistleblower Act, the employee must have made the report of a legal violation in good faith. The employee must have subjectively believed that another public employee or a government entity violated the law, and that belief must have been objectively reasonable given all the facts and circumstances. In other words, the Texas Whistleblower Act protects employees who make well-founded claims of illegal activity that they legitimately believed had occurred.
It is also important to note that reports must be made to an appropriate law enforcement entity, which is one that the employee believes in good faith is authorized to regulate under or enforce the law allegedly violated, or to investigate or prosecute violations of criminal law generally. In the opinion of some Texas courts, an internal report of illegal activity to someone else within the public entity is not typically a report made to an appropriate law enforcement authority.
So what remedies are available under the Texas Whistleblower Act? An employee who is wrongfully retaliated against may be entitled to reinstatement to his or her former position, compensation for wages lost during the period of suspension or termination and reinstatement of fringe benefits and seniority rights. The four specific types of legal relief available are:
- Injunctive relief (the court will issue a legally enforceable order that makes its subject take or refrain from taking some action)
- Actual damages (payment for the amount of loss suffered by the employee due to the wrongful retaliation)
- Court costs
- Reasonable attorney fees
In addition, a supervisor who knowingly took an adverse personnel action against an employee in violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act may be personally responsible for a civil penalty of up to $15,000, payable to the state treasury.
Relief may be available under Texas Whistleblower Act, other whistleblower laws
The Texas Whistleblower Act is just one of the many laws designed to protect employees who report wrongful conduct in organizations. For instance, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act protects employees who report fraud, regulatory violations or securities violations of any company subject to SEC regulations.
Whether you work for a public company or a private entity, there may be laws in place that protect you when reporting illegal conduct by coworkers or your organization. If you have reported illegal activity as an employee and fear retaliation, or if you are considering reporting illegal activity, you should seek the advice of a Texas whistleblower claim attorney as soon as possible to get the full protection you are legally entitled to.