What to Know About the Ohio Whistleblower Protection Act

A silhouette blowing in a whistle - whistleblower protection act concept

Illegal activity in the workplace can not only harm an employee’s career, but it can also potentially leave them exposed to incurring criminal liability. If you have learned during the course of your employment that your employer has engaged in illegal activity that harms other employees or the public, reporting such wrongful conduct is vital. Importantly, Ohio has strict laws in place that protect workers from retaliation by their employers for “blowing the whistle.”

What is a Whistleblower?

Whistleblowing constitutes more than simply making a complaint about the workplace to an employer. A whistleblower is a person who has inside knowledge of illegal activity or dangerous conditions within a company and reports such conduct to the authorities. These individuals are provided with crucial legal protections. By law, a person should not be terminated or treated unfairly in the workplace for reporting specific types of wrongdoing.

What is Ohio’s Whistleblower Law?

The Ohio Whistleblower Act provides a safeguard to employees who report illegal conduct committed by their employer or a coworker. Under the statute, a whistleblower is protected for reporting what they believe to be a criminal offense likely to cause a risk of bodily harm to another or a hazard to public safety, a felony, or an improper solicitation for a political contribution. However, it’s important to understand that a worker is only afforded these legal protections if certain criteria are met.

To qualify for the protections of the Ohio whistleblower statute, each of the following requirements must be satisfied:

  1. The employee must be reporting a violation of a state law, federal statute, or municipal ordinance;
  2. The employee must have the reasonable belief that the violation is likely to result in an imminent risk of physical harm, is a hazard to the public health, or is an improper solicitation;
  3. The employee must notify their employer in writing of the violation, describing it in sufficient detail.

Once a whistleblower reports a violation, an employer is expected to act promptly. Under the Ohio Whistleblower Act, an employer has 24 hours or until the close of the following business day to provide the employee with notice of the steps they are taking to correct the issue — or that they have determined there is no violation. In the event the employer fails to make a good faith effort to correct the violation within that time period, the employee may make a written report with the appropriate agency. Depending upon the facts and circumstances, this might be the local police, an agency with regulatory authority, or any other appropriate official.

How Might an Employer Retaliate Against a Whistleblower?

Pursuant to the Ohio Whistleblower Protection Act, an employer is prohibited from taking retaliatory actions against an employee who reports illegal conduct. There are several ways in which an employer could potentially retaliate against a whistleblower. Specifically, an employer may not:

  • Terminate or suspend the employee
  • Demote the employee
  • Withhold pay or benefits
  • Transfer or reassign the employee
  • Refuse to promote the employee
  • Reduce the employee’s pay

In addition to the protections offered by the Ohio statute to workers who report on criminal activity and violations of the law, Ohio workers also receive protections under the common law from termination for reporting unsafe working conditions and suspected illegal conduct. There are also whistleblower protections available under federal law — but these are typically limited to reports made in connection with specific statutes.

When Can an Employee Bring a Wrongful Discharge Claim?

A whistleblower who was fired after reporting illegal conduct in the workplace may be entitled to bring a legal action for wrongful termination. Under the Ohio Whistleblower Protection Act, there are a wide variety of remedies available to employees who suffered retaliation as a result of reporting illegal activity in the workplace. For instance, they may be able to recover payment of backpay, interest on backpay, reinstatement of their position, and attorney’s fees. But it’s essential to be aware that the statute of limitations for such cases is very short — a whistleblower only has 180 days from the retaliatory action to file a lawsuit against the employer.

In some cases, an employee might not qualify for protection under any specific state or federal law. However, even if an employer’s conduct isn’t legally actionable under a statute, it doesn’t mean that an employee doesn’t have recourse. If an employee can show that the employer’s decision to terminate them was in violation of the public policy that Ohio law upholds, they may still be eligible to recover their monetary damages.

Contact an Experienced Ohio Employment Attorney

Ohio’s whistleblower protection law is extremely complex and it’s critical to have the counsel of a knowledgeable attorney. Located in Westlake and providing representation to clients throughout Ohio, employment law attorney Chris Lalak is dedicated to fighting for the rights of employees who have reported wrongdoing in the workplace and have been retaliated against. Contact Lalak LLC today to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation and learn how we can help.