Understanding public sector whistleblower protection in Florida

Under the Florida Whistleblower Act, employees have rights when it comes to disclosing information regarding an agency's illegal activities.

People who work for a government agency may find themselves transitioning into the office culture, building strong relationships with co-workers and identifying themselves with their work. However, when an agency does something illegal or engages in other specified misconduct, workers may find themselves trapped in an ethical dilemma. Some employees may think that if they tell an outside source of the agency's wrongdoings, they might lose their job. Some agencies may even threaten workers with possible consequences if they give out crucial information regarding the agency's activities. The employee may feel obligated to stay and participate in or remain quiet about the illegal activity for fear of retaliation.

What is a whistleblower?

People who inform law enforcement officials - or even higher-ups within their government agency that the agency they work for is engaged in an actual or suspected illegal activity, gross mismanagement or waste of public funds, misfeasance, malfeasance, gross neglect of duty or Medicaid fraud or abuse are whistleblowers. Florida statutes prohibit government agencies from punishing, firing or otherwise retaliating against an employee, former employee applicant for employment or even outside contractor who discloses certain information about governmental misbehavior.

Florida Whistleblower's Act

Under the Florida Whistleblower's Act, people are protected against retaliation by their agency if they can prove:

  • they voluntarily disclosed information in a written signed complaint, or
  • they were requested to participate in an investigation, hearing, or other inquiry conducted by any agency or federal government entity, or
  • they refused to participate in any retaliatory action prohibited by the law, or
  • they initiated a complaint through the whistleblower's hotline or the hotline of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of the Department of Legal Affairs, and
  • the employer was engaged in an actual or suspected illegal practice or other activity covered by the Act, and
  • the agency retaliated against the employee because of the disclosure.

If a state agency terminates or takes other adverse employment action against a whistleblower because of disclosures protected by the Act, the employee can file a complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations. This complaint must be filed within 60 days of the adverse action. A mediation appointment may then be scheduled to resolve the situation out of court. If a resolution cannot be reached after the mediation session, however, an investigation will take place.

After the investigation, the commission reports its findings and recommendations. If the commission finds no violation of the Act, or if it finds a violation, but the state agency fails to correct it, the employee can pursue further administrative remedies or file a civil action in court within 180 days after receipt of notice from the commission of the outcome of its investigation.

Employees of local governments and public educational institutions are protected under the same law, but different procedures must be followed. A separate law protects persons employed by private companies.

Legal assistance may be vital

In a case where an employee is fighting for their rights to receive fair treatment under the Whistleblower Act, an attorney may play an instrumental role. Not only does an attorney know of Florida state whistleblower and employment laws, but they are familiar with the legal process. During this stressful and overwhelming time, it may be helpful to have personalized legal counsel fighting in your corner. A lawyer may ensure that your rights are being upheld in a Florida court of law.

Keywords: Whistleblower, employee, retaliation