Washington_state_sealIn a jury verdict issued on March 26, 2015, a supervisor for the nation’s largest ferry system was awarded $1 million because the jury concluded that his employer demoted him as an act of retaliation in violation of the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act because he was believed—albeit inaccurately—to be a whistleblower.  Chaussee v. State of Washington, Wash. Super. Ct., No. 11-2-01884-6, 3/26/15. 

Plaintiff, a carpenter shop foreman for the Washington State Ferry System, informed his supervisor of a co-worker’s alleged practice of attending baseball games and practices in a state-owned vehicle while the co-worker was on-the-clock.  While the supervisor said he would conduct an investigation, he failed to do so.  Two months later, an anonymous whistleblower—someone other than Plaintiff—filed a whistleblower complaint regarding the same conduct.  After that complaint, Plaintiff began receiving performance-related warnings, allegedly based on his supervisor’s belief that Plaintiff was the anonymous whistleblower.  Following a year-long investigation, the co-worker was suspended.  However, Plaintiff was ultimately demoted, purportedly for the performance issues that arose only after the whistleblower complaint.

Plaintiff brought a claim under the Washington State Employee Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects both actual and “perceived” whistleblowers (defined as “[a]n employee who is perceived by the employer as reporting, whether they did or not, alleged improper governmental action … .”).  At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found that Plaintiff had, in fact, been retaliated against for being perceived as a whistleblower, and awarded Plaintiff $1 million.

Our loyal readers will recall that we recently posted on an arguably similar instance where a California court found in favor of a “whistleblower” who never even blew the whistle.  Though these cases may appear as outliers at first blush, they serve to signal that the risks continue to grow for employers and any adverse employment actions that may be based on or related to actual or even perceived whistleblowing will, at a minimum, be subject to serious scrutiny.

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Photo of Steven J. Pearlman Steven J. Pearlman

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular…

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular focus on defending companies against claims of employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment; whistleblower retaliation; restrictive covenant violations; theft of trade secrets; and wage-and-hour violations. He has successfully tried cases in multiple jurisdictions, and defended one of the largest Illinois-only class actions in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He also secured one of only a few ex parte seizures orders that have been issued under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, and obtained a world-wide injunction in federal litigation against a high-level executive who jumped ship to a competitor.

Reporting to boards of directors, their audit committees, CEOs and in-house counsel, Steven conducts sensitive investigations and has testified in federal court. His investigations have involved complaints of sexual harassment involving C-suite officers; systemic violations of employment laws and company policies; and fraud, compliance failures and unethical conduct.

Steven was recognized as Lawyer of the Year for Chicago Labor & Employment Litigation in the 2023 edition of The Best Lawyers in America. He is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.  Chambers describes Steven as an “outstanding lawyer” who is “very sharp and very responsive,” a “strong advocate,” and an “expert in his field.” Steven was 1 of 12 individuals selected by Compliance Week as a “Top Mind.” Earlier in his career, he was 1 of 5 U.S. lawyers selected by Law360 as a “Rising Star Under 40” in the area of employment law and 1 of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch” selected by Law Bulletin Publishing Company. Steven is a Burton Award Winner (U.S. Library of Congress) for “Distinguished Legal Writing.”

Steven has served on Law360’s Employment Editorial Advisory Board and is a Contributor to Forbes.com. He has appeared on Bloomberg News (television and radio) and Yahoo! Finance, and is regularly quoted in leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has engaged Steven to serve as lead counsel on amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal circuit courts of appeal. He was appointed to serve as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois in employment litigation matters. He has presented with the Solicitor of the DOL, the Acting Chair of the EEOC, an EEOC Commissioner, Legal Counsel to the EEOC and heads of the SEC, CFTC and OSHA whistleblower programs. He is also a member of the Sedona Conference, focusing on trade secret matters.