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Can A Whistleblower Keep Work Documents If She Is Terminated?

Employees who report illegal conduct by a company may be whistleblowers. A whistleblower may be entitled to substantial monetary awards for reporting fraud and is generally protected from retaliation. If whistleblowers do experience retaliation, they may have additional legal claims.

Frequently, when an employee discovers fraud at work or by their employer, they may seek to copy or retain documents to prove the fraud or seek legal advice. There are many documents that may be relevant, even necessary, to prove a whistleblower claim. Emails, invoices, statements, letters, or many other types of documents could show that a company acted unlawfully and may be able to prove a whistleblower claim.

However, the law is complicated regarding what information a current or former employee may be allowed to retain or copy. First, most employees have some type of agreement prohibiting them from keeping company information (which is typically defined very broadly and could include nearly any company document). Employees should always review any agreement they signed to understand their obligations. If an employee keeps documents they are not allowed to have, they could potentially be sued by their employer.

Second, state and federal law may prohibit employees from making copies or retaining certain categories of documents. Examples include trade secrets or communications protected by the attorney-client privilege. There are many more examples and the law in this area is complex.

While there are many agreements and laws that limit what documents or information employees are allowed to retain, whistleblowers have special protections. One example includes the “whistleblower immunity” contained in the U.S. Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (“DTSA”). The DTSA contains an express carve-out for whistleblowers who disclose trade secrets to attorneys for the purpose of seeking advice about potential whistleblower claims. Under the right circumstances, an employee cannot be liable under the act for doing so.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Charles Grassley, explained: “Too often, individuals who come forward to report wrongdoing in the workplace are punished for simply telling the truth. The amendment I championed with Senator Leahy ensures that these whistleblowers won’t be slapped with allegations of trade secret theft when responsibly exposing misconduct. It’s another way we can prevent retaliation and even encourage people to speak out when they witness violations of the law.”

At the same time, employees must be very careful about what information they retain, the manner in which it is retained, and to whom they disclose any such information. We strongly encourage employees and whistleblowers to seek legal advice from an experienced attorney before taking any action or retaining any documents that could be protected, trade secret, confidential or the like. If you have questions or would like to learn more, contact us today.

Minnesota Supreme Court Affirms Broad Protection for Whistleblowers

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of employees, holding that the Minnesota legislature intended to overrule caselaw that limited Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act (MWA) when it amended the law in 2013. The case, Freidlander v. Edwards Life Sciences, centered around the definition of “good faith.” The MWA protects employees from retaliation if they report illegal conduct in “good faith.” Prior to 2013, the statute provided no definition for the term “good faith.” Beginning in 2002, the Minnesota Supreme Court limited that definition in several cases. The effect of the court’s narrow definition was to limit protections for employees, leaving no legal recourse for many employees were fired for reporting unlawful conduct. These decisions undermined the purpose of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act by making it it much more difficult for employees to report unlawful activity without losing their jobs. Consequently, in 2013, the Minnesota Legislature took action, defining “good faith” as any report that is not knowingly false or in reckless disregard of the truth. By doing so, the Legislature restored the broad protections of the MWA.

Several companies, including Edwards Life Sciences, and the Chamber of Commerce, disagreed with the Legislature’s intent and argued that the judicially-created, narrow definition of “good faith” still applied, even though the legislature changed the law. In a case that affects virtually every employee in Minnesota, the Supreme Court rejected this argument, and held that the legislature intended to change the definition, stating that the employer’s reading would “render the ‘good faith’ definition section of the 2013 amendment superfluous, and run afoul of our presumption that the Legislature intends to change the law when it amends a statute.”

The decision was unanimous, with Chief Justice Gildea authoring the opinion. The decision solidifies the Legislature’s effort to ensure that employees are protected from being fired or retaliated against if they report violations of law, or suspected violations of law, to their employer or to third parties. Employees must make such reports in “good faith,” which means that they are not protected if they lie or make reports in reckless disregard of the truth.

The case was successfully argued by Adam Hansen of Apollo Law, and the plaintiff is represented by Halunen Law and Nichols Kaster. Phillip Kitzer, Douglas Micko and Brian Rochel of Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel also participated on behalf of Minnesota NELA, who appeared as amicus curiae arguing in favor of the broader interpretation.

If you would like to learn more, or if you believe you have experienced retaliation at work, contact Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel today.

Doug Micko Presents on Updates to Whistleblower Law at Employment Law Institute

On May 23, 2017, Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel partner Doug Micko presented a continuing legal education seminar to his peers at the Upper Midwest Employment Law Institute. The Employment Law Institute, billed as “the Nation’s best employment law conference,” is a program that attracted approximately 1,400 lawyers and employment law professionals. Micko, together with his co-panelist Joe Schmitt, presented a session entitled “Blowing the Amended Whistle – Minnesota Whistleblower Litigation.” The discussion focused on Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act, some recent amendments to the Act, and how broad the Act protects employees from retaliation.

Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel’s attorneys regularly practice whistleblower law. If you believe you have been the victim of retaliation for whistleblowing, contact us today.

Minnesota Supreme Court Clarifies that Whistleblowers Have 6 Years to File Claim

What is the statute of limitations for a whistleblower claim in Minnesota?  That was the question posed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in  Ford v. Minneapolis Public Schools.  In a unanimous decision, the Court has ruled that whistleblowers have six years to bring a lawsuit against an employer under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act (“MWA”).  

In Ford, the employee reported unethical and illegal activity in her department and, shortly thereafter, on April 22, 2008, was notified that her position would be eliminated at the end of the school year.  Her last day of work was June 30, 2008, and she began her lawsuit on June 29, 2010.  The Minneapolis Public Schools sought to dismiss her case by arguing that a two year statute of limitations applies to the MWA and the clock began to tick the moment she learned of her termination.  The Supreme Court agreed that the statute of limitations began to run in April, the moment she learned of her termination, but that a six-year statute of limitations applies to the MWA.  The decision can be found here.

Every law that protects employees has its own statute of limitation, which can range from ten days to six years. Employees must take action within the appropriate statute of limitations or they likely will forfeit any opportunity to do so in the future.

If you feel you have been treated unfairly at work, do not risk a statute of limitations deadline and contact the attorneys at Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochele Micko for a consultation right away.

Whistleblowers Reveal Widespread Fraud at Large Twin Cities Mental Health Agency

Several whistleblowers have brought to light allegations of widespread fraud by Complementary Support Services (CSS). According to allegations from federal and state prosecutors, the mental healthcare provider defrauded Minnesota’s Medicaid program for millions of dollars and provided inadequate supervision of unlicensed practitioners. The state and federal prosecutors filed suit against CSS in November of 2015.

Several employees have come forward to blow the whistle and publicly report the fraud as well as retaliation and alleged blackmail of CSS employees. According to Naomi Davis, CSS threatened to withhold her paycheck if she did not agree to file false reports. Such claims could give rise to employment retaliation and whistleblower claims.

In addition, a qui tam, or False Claims Act (FCA) lawsuit was filed in 2013 against CSS, and both the United States and Minnesota governments have joined the suit. The lawsuit was initially filed under seal, as required by state and federal law, and was recently made public by the Court. The whistleblower lawsuit was filed by William Schwandt as a relator on behalf of both the United States and Minnesota.

These whistleblowers highlight the need for individuals to report government fraud, waste and abuse, and the important role that whistleblower reward laws–or qui tam laws, as they are sometimes called–play in stopping and correcting fraud in our community. There are robust laws that reward individuals who report fraud and even allow such individuals to file lawsuits on behalf of the government in order to recover the improperly-obtained money. In addition, there are many laws that protect employees who act as whistleblowers, preventing them from being retaliated against or fired for reporting or refusing to engage in fraud or other illegal conduct. In addition, some laws allow individuals to file confidential complaints in order to protect them from their employer or others of learning their identity.

Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel has a proven track record of representing whistleblowers. If you have questions or feel that you may be aware of government fraud, contact us today for a free consultation.