If your Ohio employer fired you because you complained about illegal behavior or asserted your legal rights, you may have a claim for wrongful termination. Federal and Ohio employment laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their workplace rights. In some situations, employees are also protected for whistleblowing: reporting that the company has broken laws unrelated to workers’ rights (such as laws regulating product safety or financial fraud).
Retaliation occurs when an employer fires an employee for exercising a legal right or for complaining about illegal workplace activity. Many employment laws—including laws prohibiting discrimination, requiring employers to pay minimum wage and overtime, and mandating a safe workplace—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. In response to a complaint, the agency might investigate, impose a fine, or even make an administrative finding that an employer has likely violated the law. However, the employee must bring a lawsuit to vindicate his or her rights.
Here are some types of employment laws that prohibit retaliation against employees who report violations:
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.
Ohio law also protects whistleblowers, in some situations. You are protected if you report to your supervisor, first orally and then in writing, that you reasonably believe your company or a coworker is committing a criminal offense that is likely to result in a felony, an improper solicitation for a contribution, an imminent risk of physical harm, or a hazard to public health or safety. You are also protected if your report to public authorities that you believe your employer is violating certain environmental protection and safety laws. However, you may be fired or disciplined if you make reports like these without first making a reasonable, good faith effort to make sure the information you are providing is accurate.
In Ohio, 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 there is a clear public policy violated by your termination, you can sue. For example, Ohio courts have found that it violates public policy to fire an employee for reporting that his employer had improperly refrigerated meat (which could result in harm to the public).
If your Ohio employer fired you for reporting illegal behavior or exercising your legal rights, you may have a wrongful termination claim for retaliation or whistleblowing. To find out, consult with an experienced employment lawyer.
Retaliation and whistleblowing claims can be legally complicated. 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.
To prepare for your meeting, make a timeline of events: the facts 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 key: The less time 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 of your protected activities.
Especially if you are out of work, you may worry about how you will pay a lawyer to represent you. Depending on your claims, 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 percetnage of the money you receive. Also, some retaliation statutes include an attorneys' fee provision, requiring a losing employer to pay the winning employee’s legal fees.
For certain retaliation claims, you may have to file a complaint with a government agency before you can 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.
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.
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:
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. And, 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.