September 19, 2020

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COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Bill Introduced Into Congress

On June 15, 2020, Senator Kamala Harris and Representatives Jackie Speier and Jamie Raskin introduced the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act (the “Act”), which seeks to provide protections for employees who blow the whistle on employers who misuse federal funds received through various measures enacted by Congress aimed at mitigating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.  (The text of the proposed bill can be found here.)  Many of the whistleblower protections in the Act echo those contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – the economic stimulus bill signed by President Obama in the wake of the Great Recession.  (Our article on that bill can be found here).

Retaliation

If passed, the Act would prohibit employers from taking reprisals against protected individuals for “disclosing, being perceived as disclosing, or preparing to disclose . . . to an officer or entity [designated under the statute] information that the protected individual reasonably believes is evidence of misconduct that violates, obstructs, or undermines any statute, rule, or regulation with respect to any Coronavirus pandemic-related program, project, or activity,” including, among other things, gross mismanagement of agency contracts, grants, and covered funds, dangers to public health or safety, abuse of authority, and violations of laws, rules, or regulations.

In addition, the Act would prohibit employers from retaliating against any protected individual who refuses to obey orders that the individual “reasonably believes would require that individual to violate a statute, rule, or regulation with respect to any Coronavirus pandemic-related program, project, or activity.”  Under the Act, a “reprisal” is defined as “an action (or, as applicable, inaction) that is discharging, demoting, blacklisting, or acting or failing to take an action in a manner prejudicial against, or otherwise discriminating against in any way (including in the hiring process and including by the threat of any such action or inaction) a protected individual.”

The Act’s protections also extend to individuals who assist in disclosing or are preparing to assist in disclosing such information as well as employees who make such disclosures in the ordinary course of their duties.  Notably, the bill takes an expansive approach with respect to the types of individuals it protects, defining a “protected individual” as an employee, former employee, or applicant for employment.  Moreover, the bill defines an employee as “an individual performing services on behalf of an employer, including any individual working for an employer under a contract with such employer (including a contractor, subcontractor, or agent of an employer).”

The Act defines the phrase “Coronavirus pandemic-related program, project, or activity” as a “program, project or activity of the executive branch . . . authorized or carried out using amounts made available under an Act to respond to or to provide aid or assistance to address, relief from, or funding to address the outbreak of COVID-19 that is enacted before, on, or after the date of enactment of this Act.”  The phrase expressly includes programs, projects, or activities that are funded by any of the following: (i) the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act; (ii) the CARES Act; (iii) the Families First Coronavirus Response Act; or (iv) the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020.

Officers and entities to whom individuals can report include, but are not limited to, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, an inspector general, including the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Relief, the Congressional Oversight Commission, the Comptroller General of the United States, a member of Congress, and a congressional committee.

Administrative and Judicial Relief

The Act provides that protected individuals who believe they have been subjected to a reprisal may submit a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor within 3 years after learning of the alleged reprisal.  The employer may then file an answer to the complaint within 60 days.  In evaluating the claims brought by a protected individual, the Secretary of Labor must determine whether the individual’s disclosure or protected activity was a contributing factor in the alleged reprisal.  If the Secretary of Labor does not issue a final decision within 180 days of the filing of the complaint, the individual may bring an action in federal court and is entitled to a jury trial.

Available relief includes reinstatement, compensatory damages, liquidated damages for double back pay, and attorneys’ fees and costs.

The Act also provides that pre-dispute arbitration agreements requiring arbitration of disputes under the Act will not be valid or enforceable.

Implications for Employers

This bill comes as no surprise, as whistleblower protections have proliferated in connection with a broad range of legislation.  Although the bill is only at the earliest stages of the legislative process, the right to a jury trial and availability of substantial damages raise significant risks for employers if the bill is signed into law.

© 2020 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume X, Number 170

TRENDING LEGAL ANALYSIS


About this Author

Steven J Pearlman, Labor Employment Law Firm, Proskauer Law firm
Partner

Steven Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the firm's Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group, resident in the Chicago office. Steven’s practice focuses on defending complex employment litigation involving claims of discrimination and harassment, wage-and-hour laws and breaches of restrictive covenants (e.g., non-competition agreements). He has successfully tried cases to verdict before judges and juries in Illinois, Florida and California, and defended what is reported to be the largest Illinois-only class action in the history of the U.S....

312-962-3545
Lloyd B Chinn, Financial, Whistleblower Attorney, Proskauer Law Firm
Partner

Lloyd B. Chinn is a Partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group. He litigates employment disputes of all types before federal and state courts, arbitration tribunals (e.g., FINRA, JAMS and AAA), and before administrative agencies in New York and across the country. Lloyd's practice ranges from litigating compensation disputes to defending whistleblower, discrimination and sexual harassment claims. Although he represents employers in a wide range of industries, including law, insurance, health care, consulting, media, education and technology, he focuses a substantial portion of his practice on the financial services sector. He has tried to final verdict or arbitration award substantial disputes in this area.

212-969-3341
Pinny Goldberg Labor and Employment Lawyer Proskauer Rose Law Firm
Associate

Pinny Goldberg is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Pinny represents employers in a broad array of matters before federal and state courts, FINRA and other arbitration panels, and administrative agencies, including the EEOC and its state equivalents, and in pre-litigation negotiations. Matters he works on include discrimination and harassment, wage and hour, wrongful discharge, whistleblowing and retaliation, covenants not to compete, breaches of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, and tort and contract claims. 

In...

212.969.3074
Tony S. Martinez Labor & Employment Attorney Proskauer Rose Law Firm
Associate

Tony Seda Martinez is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department and assists clients in a wide range of labor and employment law matters.

Prior to joining Proskauer, Tony attended Rutgers School of Law. While in law school, he interned for the United States Attorney’s Office, the Honorable Judge Esther Salas of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, and the Honorable Chief Justice Stuart Rabner of the Supreme Court of New Jersey. In addition, Tony served as a senior notes and comments editor of the Rutgers Law Review...

212.969.3014