An employee’s report to police that a coworker stole her ring at work was protected and could not be used as the reason for her termination, ruled a California court of appeal. An employee received an expensive ring for her anniversary and consistently wore it to work, leaving it in a specific pocket on her uniform. One day, after putting the ring in its usual location, the ring went missing and the employee suspected one of her coworkers. After making a police report, the police came to the office on at least two occasions to investigate. The employer then told the employee that she was being let go because the situation was causing significant tension among the staff.
The court, interpreting a specific California statute that protects whistleblowers, decided that the report to the police was protected. The statute (Labor Code 1102.5(b), which has since been expanded) stated that, “An employer may not retaliate against an employee for disclosing information to a government or law enforcement agency, where the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of state or federal statute….” In this case, the employee believed that state or federal law was violated and so the report could not be the basis of her termination (Cardenas v. M. Fanaian, D.D.S., Inc., Cal App, October 2015).
Tips: We often think of whistleblowing protections in the context of reporting violations of state or federal law committed by people in the course of their work. This case is a reminder that whistleblower protections can extend to reports of criminal behavior that are personal, or unrelated to the actual work that an employee is performing on behalf of the employer. It’s important for employers to be thoughtful when terminating an employee who has reported violations of the law, making sure that the termination is not based on the reporting itself, but instead on a job-related issue. Contact your Vigilant employment attorney if you have concerns about an employee who may have engaged in protected activity, and see our Legal Guide, “Handling Workplace Protests and Complaints”.
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