If you have suffered wrongful retaliation under the VWPA, you may be eligible for compensation for lost pay and benefits; reinstatement to a position from which you were fired; an injunction that prevents your employer from taking any further action against you; and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.
As with all legal claims, deadlines are crucial. Under the VWPA you must file a complaint within one year of your firing or other retaliatory action. The retaliation must have occurred on or after July 1, 2020 in order to be covered by the VWPA — but even if it happened earlier, you may have other legal options.
I believe I am a Virginia whistleblower. Am I protected by this law?
Effective on July 1, 2020, you are protected under the VWPA from punishment for your actions if, as an employee:
- Acting in good faith, you report a violation of any federal or state law or regulation to a supervisor, or to any governmental body or law-enforcement official; or
- You refuse to engage in a criminal act; or
- You refuse an employer’s order to perform an action that violates any federal or state law or regulation (so not just a criminal act) and you tell your employer that’s the reason for your refusal.
See below for an exception to the law’s coverage, however.
If the VWPA applies, what is my employer forbidden from doing to me?
The VWPA makes retaliatory firings illegal, but it also covers most other forms of workplace punishment, including:
- Demotion or failure to promote
- Denial of benefits
- Discipline, including notes to your “file”
- Threats of discipline
- Any other act that affects your compensation, terms, conditions, location, or privileges of employment
If my employer takes illegal action against me, what might a court award me?
The VWPA offers a wide range of remedies, including:
- An injunction to stop your employer from taking any further action against you;
- Reinstatement to the same position you held before, or its equivalent, if you were fired, demoted, or moved;
- Compensation for any lost wages and benefits, and possibly other remuneration, including interest; and
- Reasonable attorney fees and legal costs
Is the VWPA really that different from previous Virginia law?
Very much so. Virginia didn’t previously have a general statute that outlawed retaliation against workplace whistleblowers. As a result, employees could seek relief only under a few laws with strict requirements, such as the Virginia Taxpayers Against Fraud Act, or under Virginia tort law, which forbids “wrongful discharge” in violation of public policy — a common-law concept that was narrowly limited by courts.
The new law, by contrast, covers possible violations of either Virginia or federal laws. Moreover, unlike the wrongful-discharge tort, which applies only to firings, the VWPA covers actions that fall short of termination but still affect the terms and conditions of employment.
Are any employees excluded from protection under this law?
Yes. Federal government employees who work in Virginia aren’t protected by the VWPA. They are protected under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act, however, and may have other protections depending on circumstances.
I know of some wrongdoing in my workplace. How can I blow the whistle in such a way that I’m protected by the VWPA?
The rules for Virginia aren’t much different than they are for other places with good whistleblower protection laws. In general, follow these best practices:
- Tell your boss or another supervisor about your suspicions. Under the VWPA, your report to anyone else may not protect you from retaliation.
- Make your report immediately. Many employees are required to do so by law or company policy, and following such rules demonstrates good faith. Under the VWPA, a good-faith report is protected even if you turn out to be mistaken about the illegality of what you report.
- Report your concerns in writing and be specific. If you’re refusing an order because you believe it may be illegal, say so.
- Cooperate in any resulting investigation. Provide the names of other employees who can confirm the illegal conduct.
- Ask your employer for the results of its investigation.
- If your employer retaliates against you — or even threatens to do so — make use of the law. The VWPA exists to deliver justice for whistleblowers like you, and to prevent injustice from happening to anyone else.
- Seek the advice of an experienced lawyer. Under the VWPA you must bring suit within one year of your employer’s retaliation, and you must file your case in the correct court. Make sure that your attorney is familiar with all of Virginia’s new workplace laws: The VWPA is just one of many employee-friendly changes that took effect on July 1, 2020. Some of the other laws may apply to your situation, too.