California Supreme Court Interprets Employee Whistleblower Statute in Broad Manner: What This Means for Employers
On May 22, 2023, the Supreme Court of California rendered a decision in the case of People ex rel. Garcia-Brower v. Kolla’s, Inc. As a unanimous opinion by the state’s highest court, the ruling both clarifies and expands the rights of whistleblower employees under state law. Here, our Riverside County employment lawyer for employers provides an overview of the decision and discusses the implications for employers in California.
Case Analysis: People ex rel. Garcia-Brower v. Kolla’s, Inc.
California law (Labor Code Section 1102.5) protects the rights of employees who disclose violations by an employer. Specifically, LC 1102.5 prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who made protected disclosures—either to regulators or internally within the company—about workplace violations. In People ex rel. Garcia-Brower v. Kolla’s, Inc., a bartender at Kolla’s, Inc. (an Orange County nightclub) notified her manager about a wage violation. She was reportedly threatened based on her immigration status and subsequently terminated. She filed a whistleblower complaint against the nightclub.
The Legal Issue
The core legal issue in this case was whether or not the bartender (employee) actually made a protected disclosure at all. She reported a wage and hour violation to her boss. However, her boss was already fully aware of the situation. A lower court determined that her conduct did not constitute a disclosure because “nothing new” was shared with her boss.
The California Supreme Court, however, overturned the lower court ruling and held that protected disclosures under Section 1102.5(b) of the California Labor Code include reports or complaints made only to an employer, even if the employer is already aware of the violation. The court rejected a narrow interpretation of “disclose” that would exclude as covered workers those employees who reported misconduct already known by the employer.
The court argued that such an interpretation would undermine the purpose of the whistleblower law, which aims to protect workers, encourage disclosure, and promote compliance with employment laws. Instead, the court defined “disclose” as bringing into view, in a particular context, information to which the disclosure has special access. This broader interpretation aligns with the text, legislative intent, and history of LC Section 1102.5.
Employers should be aware that California’s Supreme Court has effectively broadened the definition of the term “disclosure” by a whistleblower under Labor Code Section 1102.5. The decision re-emphasizes how crucial it is that employers take all employee complaints seriously. Even if the complaint itself is not well-founded, an employer should avoid retaliation. LC Section 1102.5 broadly protects workers who make good faith disclosures about suspected violations of law by employers.
Contact Our Riverside County Employment Law Attorney Today
At the Law Office of Karen J. Sloat, APC, our California employment law attorney provides proactive, solutions-focused legal guidance and support to businesses and nonprofit organizations. If you have any questions about an employment law matter, please call us now or contact us online for a fully confidential consultation. Our firm serves employers throughout California.