FEBRUARY 27, 2009
In a crucial victory for government whistleblowers, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that helps protect public employees who report wrongdoing at their agency.
The case involves a worker (Carole Arbuckle) in the licensing department of the state agency that regulates chiropractors, the Board of Chiropractic Examiners. The employee issued various citations—ranging from $100 to $5,000—over the span of a few months to chiropractors who had practiced without a license.
But when Arbuckle tried citing a well-connected chiropractor, who practiced with an expired license for months, she experienced retaliation. The chiropractor, Dr. Sharon Ufberg, happened to be the chairwoman of the state board at the time, a violation in itself since board members must possess a current license.
Arbuckle was repeatedly told by her superiors at the state agency not to cite Dr. Ufberg and she was eventually transferred to a different department. In the interim, Arbuckle confronted a stressful work environment and “numerous indignities.”
She eventually filed a retaliation complaint with the State Personnel Board, which got dismissed after an investigator concluded that Arbuckle had not proved the actions were a result of her whistle blowing. Arbuckle then filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court, which subsequently got dismissed by an appellate court that ruled state employees could pursue a lawsuit only if the State Personnel Board agreed with their claims.
The state Supreme Court disagreed this week, writing in its unanimous decision that whistleblowers who suffer retaliation have the right to sue for hefty damages even if they lose their case before the personnel board.
In the opening paragraph of its 17-page ruling, the High Court reminds that “the Legislature enacted the California Whistleblower Protection Act to protect the right of state employees to report waste, fraud, abuse of authority, violation of law or threat to public health without fear of retribution.”
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