Articles Posted in Whistleblower Rights

Blogger Susan Fowler recently published an account of her time working at the world’s most successful startup, Uber. It wasn’t positive. The tech giant has been battling accusations of sexual harassment and other damaging reports this past year, but Fowler’s claim was especially concerning; her supervisor propositioned her for sex on the very day she joined his team.

And the claims don’t stop there. Fowler also wrote that HR employees treated her with hostility, and male employees were given free leather jackets while their six female counterparts were excluded. Up until recently, claims of sexual harassment, misogyny and gender discrimination in the tech industry were often downplayed. But the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Tuesday night is evidence that times are quickly changing, and the tech world is no longer an exception. A Boston employment law attorney can help you determine how to move forward if you’ve been the victim of workplace sexual harassment.

“Moving Uber Forward”

According to reports, Kalanick’s resignation was driven by several of Uber’s major investors. Five individuals came together and composed a letter, which they titled “Moving Uber Forward,” demanding the CEO’s immediate resignation. In a statement to the New York Times, Kalanick said, “I love Uber more than anything in the world and at this difficult moment in my personal life I have accepted the investors [sic] request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight.” Prior to his resignation, Kalanick oversaw the firing of 20 employees accused of sexual harassment. But it wasn’t enough. Fowler’s courageous choice to make her mistreatment public may have changed how gender bias and sexual harassment are handled in the workplace, especially with regard to the tech industry.

Money Talks

The Uber investors responsible for ousting Kalanick had invested billions into the tech superpower; they didn’t want to risk their investment. For them, the only way to turn around a year’s worth of negative press was to get rid of the guy who was steering the sinking ship. As they say in business, no press is bad press, and Uber’s recent actions are likely to dominate the headlines and restore its formerly-positive (or at least not negative) reputation. A MA employment law attorney can help you recover damages if you’ve been a victim of workplace sexual harassment.

The Ultimate Boycott

Beyond claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, Kalanick’s resignation may also remove the perceived link between Uber and Donald Trump. Several months ago, Uber lost customers when over 200,000 of them deleted the app following a controversy related to the president’s proposed travel ban affecting seven predominantly-Muslim countries. “For some people looking to dump Uber, the #deleteUber campaign simply sealed the deal,” read one headline. The extent of Kalanick’s connection to this controversy remains unknown, but when it comes to PR, perception is everything. Continue reading

If you are a public employee, and you believe that your employer may have broken the law, or is otherwise in violation of a rule or regulation, that puts the public health or safety at risk, you should feel comfortable reporting it without fear of any backlash from your employer (from a legal standpoint, at least). According to Massachusetts law, these “whistleblowing” actions should always keep the employee who is reporting the violation protected from termination, suspension, demotion, and any adverse employment action being taken by the employer in response.

In addition to protection from their state government, whistleblowers are protected through the federal government, which has several safeguards in place to ensure that a whistleblower’s future at the company is not at risk, despite reporting an employer’s violation of the law. The United States Department of Labor, through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has what is known as “The Whistleblower Protection Program”. This is designed to operate as a guide for anyone engaging or considering engaging in whistleblowing activity to know how to do everything from start to finish. This includes the initial step of actually filing the complaint (or understanding what constitutes a legitimate complaint in the first place), to understanding how their complaint may affect their employment status. The program provides a more detailed and specific list of what actually constitutes “adverse action” against a whistleblower.

If you report an employer’s violation, or are considering doing so, keep an eye out for any of the following actions, which, according to the government, are illegal to take against a whistleblower:

A former high-ranking employee of UnitedHealth Group Inc., a healthcare company based out of Minnesota, has gone public with a whistleblowing case against his former employer, alleging that they purposefully and knowingly gamed the country’s chaotic healthcare system in order to get more money from the federal government.

The situation is an incredibly tangled web of different organizations, government agencies and winding policy, but the crux of the matter is as such:

  1. Healthcare insurance providers, such as UnitedHealth Group, are given money through the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (C.M.S.)
  2. Insurance providers use this money to pay doctors, who bill the insurance companies for services rendered to their patients
  3. Insurers get paid more money by the government if they enroll people with worse health complications, an incentive to prevent sick people from being systematically denied coverage
  4. This system is known as “Medicare Advantage,” and was implemented by the federal government in the hopes that it would result in better care at a lower cost and help cover a $13 trillion funding gap for Medicare.
  5. However the whistleblower, Benjamin Poehling, alleges that insurance companies have been intentionally misreporting patient charts as a way to milk more money from the government, which is going directly into pockets and not helping patients in any way.

The lawsuit, filed under the False Claims Act, alleges that UnitedHealth Group would take patients with health complications such as diabetes and then explore every possible other condition they could have suffered as a result in order to boost that patient’s profitability to the company.

At the same time, the insurance provider would ignore possible complications such as high blood pressure, as these diagnoses did not carry a profitable incentive from the C.M.S. In short, the lawsuit alleges that UnitedHealth Group treated its patients as nothing more than a part of their profit margin, rather than treating them as human beings in need of care.

One particular email that was obtained in the lawsuit, as was reported by the New York Times, shows a disgusting, almost salesman-like attitude coming from a chief financial officer within UnitedHealth Group.

“You mentioned vasculatory disease opportunities, screening opportunities, etc., with huge $ opportunities,” the chief financial officer of Poehling’s division wrote. “Let’s turn on the gas!” Continue reading

In 2011, a railroad worker filed a complaint against Pan Am Railways, Inc., claiming he was subjected to retaliation after filing a Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) whistleblower complaint. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated the complaint against the North Billerica-based railroad and decided in favor of the employee. A federal appeals court has agreed, ordering the railway company to pay $260,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

The employee, who worked in a Waterville, Maine rail yard, was accused by his employer of dishonesty in connection to an injury-related whistleblower complaint. For their retaliatory actions, Pan Am Railways, Inc. was ordered to compensate the employee to the tune of $10,000, pay $40,000 in punitive damages, and take corrective actions so that a similar incident doesn’t occur in the future. The railway company appealed.

Appeals Denied, Punitive Damages Skyrocket

A supervisory special agent working within the inspector general’s office of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, referred to colloquially as Amtrak, has been reinstated and awarded a hefty sum of over $892,000 by the railroad company after he was terminated for raising safety concerns about a contractor hired by Amtrak.

The contractor in question had been convicted in a New York court in 2010 for committing fraud in its examination and testing of concrete used in building projects in the area of New York City, and had been contracted to conduct similar tests on some Amtrak tunnel projects as well. The investigator, concerned about safety and security of the tunnel projects given this fact, raised safety concerns about the contractor.

Subsequently, in October of 2010, the investigator supported a fellow employee who had been reprimanded for raising his own series of concerns about the contractor. A month later, the investigator received a negative performance review – the first he had received in his career with Amtrak.

In March of 2011, the investigator learned that his position was being eliminated as part of an “overall reorganization” of the company. Despite applying for other positions within the company, he was given no new position and was notified in June of 2011 that his employment was officially terminated with Amtrak.

The investigator then filed a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who opened an investigation into the issue. OSHA found that Amtrak had violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which protects employees who report potential safety concerns from being wrongfully discharged, demoted, suspended or otherwise reprimanded as a result of sharing their concerns.

“In this case, an employee was terminated for pursuing and reporting safety concerns. The employer’s retaliation is unacceptable and illegal,” said Jeffrey Erskine, OSHA’s acting New England regional administrator. “Federal law gives rail carrier employees the right to raise safety, health and security concerns with their supervisors without fear of retaliation. When retaliation occurs, it can have a chilling effect on employees and create a climate of silence where employees’ fear to speak up masks conditions that could impact their health and well-being, and that of their customers.”

OSHA has ordered Amtrak to do the following:

  • Reinstate the employee to a similar position as was held before the termination with the same rights, seniority and benefits as before.
  • Pay a total in $892,551 to the employee, comprised of $723,332 in back wages (plus $34,218 in interest), $100,000 in punitive damages, $35,000 in compensatory damages and attorney’s fees.
  • Remove all references to the employee’s dismissal from Amtrak’s records and make no adverse statements concerning his employment at Amtrak.
  • Post a notice to all railroad employees about their Federal Railroad Safety Act rights.

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