When other employees are caught stealing from the job, misusing equipment, or discriminating against fellow co-workers, they may be fired or reprimanded. However, when an employee reports other workers participating in illegal activities, the law protects that employee from retaliation at the hands of the employer. A former snow plow worker has been awarded $1.5 million in a whistleblower and discrimination lawsuit against the department of transportation.
DeMarco Nichols supervised snowplow crews with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) in 2008. When he allegedly witnessed two employees stealing state property, including tools and road salt, he reported their illegal activities to his supervisor. He also reported the employees were claiming hours for which they never worked. However, instead of reprimanding the employees, Nichols' supervisor told him to “mind his own business.”
After that, Nichols said things continued to get worse for him at work. Nichols, who is Muslim, later asked the same supervisor permission to pray in a quiet area during his lunch break. After taking the issue higher up in the IDOT, his request for prayer time was denied.
Nichols informed the labor relations department that one of the employees he'd accused of stealing was threatening him, and he would defend himself, if necessary. After no response, Nichols again reported the employee theft to the Illinois Inspector General's Office. However, Nichols was placed on administrative leave because his supervisors said the letter constituted a threat of violence. Nichols was later fired.
Nichols took his complaint to the union and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). During a meeting with the director of personnel and a union representative, the director told Nichols he would have to withdraw his EEOC complaint first; however, Nichols refused.
An investigation by the EEOC found “substantial evidence” that Nichols was the victim of discrimination based on his religion and retaliation for reporting employee wrongdoing. He filed a lawsuit in 2012 against the IDOT, alleging violations of the Illinois Whistleblower Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964.
After a 9-day trial, the jury found in favor of Nichols. The jury awarded Nichols with $1.5 million in emotional harm. He may also be awarded back pay from the time he was fired in June of 2008.
Under the Illinois Whistleblower Act, employees are generally protected when disclosing certain information to government or law enforcement agencies. This includes information that an employee has reasonable cause that he believes may be a violation of a state or federal rule, law or regulation. An employer is also prohibited from retaliating against an employee who participates in an investigation with law enforcement, government agencies, or other proceedings.
If you have been retaliated against for speaking out against wrongdoing in the workplace, you may be protected by Illinois whistleblower laws. You should speak with an experienced attorney who understands that you cannot be retaliated against for doing the right thing. At Benassi & Benassi, we are committed to getting our clients the justice they deserve and equal treatment under the law.