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Chicago, Illinois and Federal Whistleblower Laws Provide Incentives, Protection




Whistleblowers not only have financial incentives to report certain types of wrongdoing, but as a recent Chicago Sun-Times article underscores, whistleblowers in general also enjoy protection from employer retaliation.

According to the Sun-Times, a worker at a Northwest side plant company has filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming he was fired for reporting his employer to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In particular, the worker claims that he was fired after he filed a complaint with OSHA, alleging that the employer permitted workers to apply pesticides despite being unlicensed to do so, and after he pointed out to a supervisor that using pesticides while telling customers they were a “green” company could amount to false advertising.

The takeaway: If you believe that you have been fired for engaging in a “protected activity” such as reporting illegal conduct, state and federal laws give you the right to pursue reinstatement of your job, back pay and other damages – much like this worker has done.

Let’s take a closer look at how this protection from a “retaliatory discharge” applies in terms of false claims act cases, which differ slightly from the scenario above.

Incentives to Report Misconduct

The City of Chicago, State of Illinois and the federal government all have false claims act laws. Broadly speaking, these laws allow state employee or private citizen “whistleblowers” to bring claims on behalf of the city, state and/or federal government when fraudulent misuse of taxpayer dollars is suspected.

(Note: As you can see, a false claims act case involves alleged fraud against the government, which is different from what is alleged in the story reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.)

These are commonly called qui tam actions. The process for pursuing these actions varies slightly between the city, state and federal laws.

However, generally speaking, you must first file a disclosure statement with the government that details the fraud you are alleging, along with supporting evidence. The government entity then determines if it will take part in your lawsuit, or intervene. If the government stays out, you can pursuit it on your own.

The incentive: If a party is found guilty of the alleged fraud, the government can recover from that party up to three times the amount it has been defrauded plus penalties. The whistleblower can receive anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of that total recovery.

Protections for Reporting Misconduct

Whistleblower lawsuits often involve misconduct such as fraudulent billing in the healthcare, construction or energy industries. Often, the whistleblowers are reporting fraud that has been committed by their employers.

In recognition of the fact that these employees may be fired in retaliation for reporting misconduct – or may suffer other adverse employment actions such as suspension, demotion or denial of a promotion or transfer – the Chicago, Illinois and federal laws provide key protections.

Generally speaking, if you have complied with specific administrative procedures and the matter has still not been resolved, you may be able to file a complaint in court. To prevail, you would need to show:

  • You were engaged in a protected activity (such as reporting billing fraud);
  • Your employer knew or suspected you were engaged in the activity;
  • Your employer took an adverse employment action; and
  • Your engagement in a protected activity motivated or contributed to your employer’s adverse action against you.

If you prevail, you could be eligible to receive certain relief. For instance, both the Chicago and Illinois whistleblower protection laws provide for:

  • Reinstatement to the position you had before the retaliation
  • Two times your amount of back pay
  • Reinstatement of all of your fringe benefits and seniority rights.

The bottom line: If you believe that you have observed acts of fraud being committed against the city, state or federal government by your employer, you should seek help from an attorney. The attorney can explain and take actions to protect your right to compensation as well as to be free from retaliation.