Thinking About Bringing a Whistleblower Case Against Your Employer? What Should You Know?

If you're like many workers, you likely just want to put in your hours at work and go home—which can make observing or becoming inadvertently aware of illegal activity being perpetrated by your employer all the more unsettling. Finding yourself facing a tough decision between reporting this information to the appropriate enforcement authority (whether the Internal Revenue Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, or even the Department of Justice) or ignoring it and hoping you're not caught in the midst of a later police raid.

However, blowing the whistle on an employer's illegal activities can often set you up for a major payday, or at least a clear conscious. Read on to learn more about qui tam lawsuits and what you'll be able to expect when pursuing a whistleblower retaliation claim under the False Claims Act. 

What is a qui tam lawsuit?

Unlike most civil lawsuits, which require plaintiffs to file on behalf of themselves (or other plaintiffs) against a public or private defendant ("private right of action"), a qui tam lawsuit requires plaintiffs to submit a whistleblower claim directly to the government. Rather than receiving a monetary judgment awarded by a judge or jury, the plaintiffs are instead able to recover a portion of the money or assets recovered by the government during its investigation of the alleged illegal activities. A qui tam plaintiff doesn't have any right of appeal to the government's recovery (or issuance of funds), unlike in most civil cases.

Qui tam lawsuits can be deemed riskier for the plaintiff than other types of civil lawsuits in large part because of the lack of any degree of control over the process; however, in many situations that lead to whistleblower claims, the plaintiff may find that doing anything but going to the authorities to report this crime could subject them to accomplice liability if the illegal conduct is eventually discovered by someone else. In addition, blowing the whistle on a multi-million dollar scam could result in a substantial payday if you're the first person to come forward.

What will you need to do to pursue compensation under the False Claims Act?

Under the False Claims Act in particular, only the first whistleblower is entitled to an award of any later recovered funds. This means that reporting your claim early is crucial -- in theory, a coworker who hears about you being fired earlier that day for standing up to your employer's illegal activity could submit a whistleblower claim and recover funds even though you were the one who actually suffered harm by taking a stand.

This means that consulting an attorney as soon as you learn about your employer's activities is crucial. Allowing time to go by could eliminate your ability to recover anything, even if you're later subject to retaliation due to suspicions that you've consulted the authorities (or even your unwillingness to participate in illegal activities yourself). In many cases, a business engaged in systemic illegal activities can have its assets frozen or seized, essentially eliminating any private right of action you might have against them for wrongful termination or other tort violations they committed against you.

You'll also want to gather as much evidence as you can without putting yourself in danger or breaking the law yourself. This can mean copying information onto USB drives, emailing documents to yourself, or sometimes even taking photographs of sensitive documents to turn over to the relevant enforcement authority. Once you begin actively compiling evidence that your employer is breaking the law, you may be putting your employment at risk, an additional motivator for filing a qui tam claim as early as you can.

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