Wrongfully Terminated Due to Retaliation & Whistleblowing in North Carolina

Employees may not be fired for exercising their workplace rights or reporting illegal workplace activity.

Were you fired from your job in North Carolina because you complained about illegal behavior or asserted your legal rights? If so, you may have a claim for wrongful termination. Federal and North Carolina employment laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their workplace rights under these laws. In some circumstances, employees are also protected for whistleblowing: reporting that the company has broken laws unrelated to workers’ rights (such as laws regulating consumer safety or environmental protections).

What Is Retaliation?

Retaliation occurs when an employer fires an employee for exercising a legal right or complaining about illegal workplace behavior. Many workplace protection laws—including those that regulate workplace safety, wages and hours, and discrimination—include a prohibition on retaliation.

Government agencies, such as the Department of Labor or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are responsible for interpreting and enforcing these laws. But these agencies typically don’t conduct random audits of workplaces looking for violations. Instead, they rely on employee complaints that an employer has broken the law.

Once an agency receives an employee complaint, it might investigate, impose a fine, or even make an administrative finding that an employer has likely violated the law. However, the agency almost never files suit on an employee’s behalf. Instead, it’s up to the employee to go to court and vindicate his or her rights.

Here are some types of employment laws that prohibit retaliation against employees who report violations:

  • Laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the job. Your employer may not fire you for complaining, whether to your employer or to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, about discrimination prohibited by federal or North Carolina law. You are also protected if you participate in an investigation or give testimony on behalf of another employee.
  • Wage and hour laws. You may not be fired for complaining, whether internally or to a government agency, that your employer has violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. For example, you are protected if you complain about your employer’s failure to pay minimum wage or overtime as required by law.
  • Leave laws. You can’t be fired for exercising your right to take time off work for family and medical leave, workers’ comp leave, voting or serving on a jury, or other legally protected reasons. (For more information, see Family and Medical Leave in North Carolina.)
  • Health and safety laws. You may not be fired for reporting, whether within your company or to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health and safety violations at your workplace.

The Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) is a North Carolina law that may provide additional protections. Under REDA, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for complaining about the employer’s violation of workplace laws relating to workers’ compensation, wages and hours, National Guard service, domestic violence, workplace or mine safety, genetic testing, sickle cell trait, or exposure to pesticides, among other things. Employees are also protected if they report that their employer is selling certain types of drug paraphernalia in violation of state law.

What Is Whistleblowing?

Whistleblowing occurs when an employee reports illegal conduct at work that is not directly related to workplace rights. For example, if you report that your company is filing false tax returns or lying to government auditors, you are a whistleblower.

An employer may not fire an employee for blowing the whistle on certain types of misconduct. Some federal laws that prohibit certain types of unethical or illegal corporate behavior explicitly protect employee whistleblowers. For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in 2002 to protect investors from corporate financial wrongdoing, includes whistleblower protections for employees who report financial irregularities and shareholder fraud.

In North Carolina, you may also have a legal claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, if your employer fires you for reporting or refusing to engage in illegal activity. If your termination violates a public policy that is clearly expressed in North Carolina statutes, or your employer’s actions create potential harm to the public, you may have a cause of action. Employees have successfully sued when they were fired for refusing to violate safety laws, for example.

If You Were Fired for Whistleblowing or Retaliation

If your North Carolina employer fired you for reporting illegal behavior or exercising your legal rights, you may have a wrongful termination claim for retaliation or whistleblowing. Because these cases are complex, your first step should be meeting with an experienced local employment lawyer.

Consult With a Lawyer

As you can see, a number of laws and legal theories protect employees who assert their rights or complain about misconduct. An experienced lawyer can help you figure out how best to proceed.

Get ready for your meeting by drafting a timeline: the events underlying your complaint or your report, when you complained or tried to exercise your rights, and what happened as a result. To prove retaliation or whistleblowing, you must show that your employer fired you because of your complaint or report. Timing is very important: The less time that passes between your complaint or attempt to exercise your rights and your employer’s action against you, the stronger your claim is. You’ll also need to show that the person who fired you (or made the decision to fire you) knew about your complaint.

If you’re still out of work, you may be concerned about how you’ll come up with the money to pay a lawyer. Depending on your claims, however, a lawyer may be willing to take your case on a contingency fee basis. In a contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer is paid only if you win, by taking a percentage of the money you receive. Also, some retaliation statutes allow the court to award attorneys' fees, which means your employer will have to pay an extra amount for your lawyer's services if you win.

Filing a Government Charge

For certain retaliation claims, you may have to file a complaint with a government agency before you go to court. For example, you may not file a lawsuit alleging retaliation for complaining of harassment or discrimination under federal law without first filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you want to sue for wrongful termination in violation of the Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower protections, you must first file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. If you want to sue for wrongful termination in violation of the REDA, you must first file a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Labor, Employment Discrimination Bureau.

Not all retaliation claims are subject to this rule, however. And, for some types of retaliation claims, you may—but are not required to—file an administrative charge before going to court. Your lawyer can help you figure out the requirements for your particular claim in your state, as well as the best strategy for proceeding if you have multiple options.

Damages Available for Retaliation and Whistleblowing Claims

The monetary damages available if you win a retaliation or whistleblowing case depend on the law underlying your claims and how strong those claims are. For most wrongful termination cases, an employee can ask for:

  • back pay (wages and benefits you lost as a result of being wrongfully fired)
  • reinstatement or front pay: you can ask the court to give you back your job or, if that’s not feasible, to award you the wages you will lose going forward until you find a new job
  • any expenses you had to pay out of pocket as a result of being fired, such as the cost of searching for a new job, and
  • attorneys' fees and court costs.

In some cases, you might also be entitled to emotional distress damages, awarded to compensate you for the pain and suffering caused by your termination. Punitive damages, intended to punish your employer for particularly egregious misconduct, may also be available. (Under the REDA, for example, the court can require your employer to pay you triple damages—three times what you lost in wages, benefits, and so on—if it finds that the employer intentionally violated the law.)

In some whistleblower cases, you might be eligible for a fee or bounty for protecting the public from wrongdoing. (This might be a set amount per violation, a percentage of the total sanction against the employer, or some other amount determined by the statute or the court.) Your lawyer can explain what types of damages might be available in your case.

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