Forced to Perform Illegal Act by an Employer: Legal Rights and Issues

If your employer fires you for refusing to do something illegal -- or for reporting illegal activity -- you may have a wrongful termination claim.

If you are fired because you refused to do something illegal at work or because you reported illegal activity, you may have legal claims against your employer. A number of laws intended to protect the public from dangerous or illegal activity, from environmental dumping to fraudulent accounting practices, also protect employees from retaliation for blowing the whistle. Even if no law directly protects you from termination, you may still have a legal claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

Whistleblower Laws

The term “whistleblower” is used to describe an employee who reports illegal employer activity. There are a number of state and federal whistleblower laws in place to protect employees from retaliation for reporting employer misconduct (for example, to a government agency or oversight board) or refusing to engage in illegal workplace activity.

Whistleblower laws typically protect employees in certain industries from retaliation for reporting illegal or dangerous employer conduct. For example, employees are protected if they report nuclear safety issues, certain environmental hazards (such as violation of laws providing for clean air and drinking water), accounting fraud, misconduct by financial firms and rating agencies, and fraud committed against federal agencies or in connection with federal contracts.

Each whistleblower law has its own rules and procedures for reporting illegal conduct. For example, some laws protect employees who report illegal conduct internally, to company management; others protect employees only if they bring problems to the attention of a government agency. Similarly, some of these laws protect employees who are disciplined or fired for refusing to commit illegal acts, whether or not the employee reports the employer misconduct.

Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy

Even if no law specifically protects whistleblowers in your field, you may still have grounds to sue your employer for wrongful termination if you are fired for reporting illegal conduct or refusing to engage in it. Under a legal theory called "wrongful termination in violation of public policy," a fired employee may sue the employer for terminating the employment relationship because the employee wouldn't break the law -- or reported the company's illegal activity. Not every state recognizes these lawsuits, and different states have different rules as to the types of claims covered. Depending on your circumstances, this may offer you a way to seek redress for being fired.

Example: John creates online and print advertising for a drug store. His manager instructs him to create an ad offering customers "two for one" of a popular product. When John asks how the store will make money off the promotion, the manager tells him that the company has ordered only a small amount of the product. When customers come in to take advantage of the ad, they will be told the store is sold out, and redirected to similar items that are much more expensive. John knows that this practice violates state laws prohibiting deceptive advertising, as he explains to his manager. John refuses to write the ad, and his manager fires him. Even if the deceptive advertising laws in John's state don't include a whistleblower provision, John may have a legal claim for wrongful termination if his state allows employees to sue for public policy violations.

Getting Legal Help

If you believe you were terminated for blowing the whistle or refusing to commit a crime, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer right away. In fact, it's a good idea to talk to a lawyer as soon as you learn of, or are asked to participate in, illegal activity at work. That way, you can learn your rights and get some help figuring out the best way to proceed. For example, if you must report this type of wrongdoing to a government agency in order to be protected, a lawyer can help you weight the pros and cons of that approach.

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