California Whistleblower Bill Passed in State Senate
September 11, 2009
Last month, the California State Senate approved legislation that will provide employees of University of California the same legal rights and protections as other employees in the state who file whistleblowing complaints in the workplace.
Written by Senator Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco and San Mateo County, the legislation gives UC employees the right to sue the University for damages if they are fired for reporting wrongdoing or health and safety concerns in the state workplace. The legislation passed in the Senate with a 22-12 vote, and will be presented to Governor Arnold Schwarzenagger for a signature of approval.
Currently, if a UC Employee files a complaint, it is reviewed by the university internally, giving the UC executives the power of both judge and the jury in cases regarding monetary claims. According to the The Daily Californian, Senator Yee stated that this was not the intent of California's Whistleblower Law. Yee stressed the immediate importance of having the Governor sign the bill to correct the statute, so UC workers will be protected in the future from wrongful retaliation when filing a complaint.
The California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) defines a whistleblower as an employee who discloses employer violations of state or federal statues, employer noncompliance with state or federal regulations, or disregard to employee safety and health.
Senator Yee introduced the bill last year in response to a July 2008 ruling against two former UC Berkley employees by the California Supreme Court. The employes claimed wrongful termination and retaliation after complaining about workplace safety in a university-managed research laboratory.
In 2003, computer scientists Luciana Messina and Les Miklosy reported multiple workplace health and safety concerns to UC supervisors while engaged in a nuclear weapons project at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The supervisors fired Miklosy in February of 2003, and Messina resigned three weeks later. Messina and Miklosy filed internal whistleblowing complaints, accusing the university of wrongful termination and retaliation for reporting safety and health issues, which led to the California Supreme Court ruling in 2008.
According to the Supreme Court findings, the California Whistleblower Protection Act prohibits state employees from engaging in unfair retaliation against employees who report fraud, waste, abuse of authority, violation of law, or threat to public health to law enforcement authorities. The Act authorizes "an action for damages" to redress acts of retaliation. But The California Supreme Court ruled that UC employees who experience retaliation as a result of whistleblowing are unable to sue for damages under the state's Whistleblower Protection Act, unless the employee first files a complaint with a UC officer, and the university fails to reach a timely decision on the retaliation complaint. This ruling exposed an oversight in the Legislature's amendment of the Act in 2001--which provided all California state employees the legal right to seek damages--except UC employees.
If approved by the Governor, the new law will change the statute currently exempting UC employees from the same protections as other state employees.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, although UC officials opposed the measure, they were in agreement with the idea that whistleblowers should have the same rights as other state employees--they should be able to sue over retaliation and be protected in the workplace.
Legislature OKs Protections for UC Workers, San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 2009
State Senate Passes UC Whistleblower Bill, The Daily Californian, August 25, 2009
California Legislature Approves Protections for Whistle Blowers at Universities, Chronicle.com, August 24, 2009
UC Whistle Blower Protection Act Passes Senate, California Progress Report, August 27, 2009
Assembly Approves Bill to Protect UC Whistleblowers, California State Senate Press Release, July 13, 2009
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