By J. Denise Diskin, Teller & Associates, PLLC
In December 2013, the Seattle City Council and ?the? Ethics ?and ?Elections ?Commission (?SEEC?) significantly amended the City?s Whistleblower Protection Code.??? ?The new protections went into effect January 16, 2014. Seattle?s Whistleblower Protection Code may be found at SMC 4.20.800 through 4.20.880. The most significant changes to the Code relate to retaliation.?? ?Under the new Code, employees may report wrongdoing to their supervisors or others in their chain of command, not? ?just? ?the? ?SEEC,? ?and? ?are? ?protected? ?from retaliation when they do so.?? ?Whistleblowers? are now not simply defined as employees reporting improper activity or waste, but also employees who are perceived to have done so, or who ?participate? in ?an ?investigation. Additionally, investigations will be performed by the SEEC ? previously the responsibility of the mayor?s office which typically asked the employee?s own department to investigate.
Employees who experience retaliation in relation to a whistleblower complaint must make a? complaint ?to ?the? Executive? Director? of? the SEEC within 180 days of when they knew or reasonably should have known the retaliatory action occurred.? ?The reporting period was previously only 30 days.? ?The SEEC must investigate sufficient complaints within 90 days, and where it finds reasonable cause to believe retaliation occurred, the SEEC shall provide the opportunity for the involved City agency and the reporting employee to reach a joint settlement. Failing that, the employee may opt to pursue a streamlined ?review ?hearing? with ?a ?City Examiner.?? ?At any time after making the complaint, the employee may instead opt to pursue a civil claim.?? Damages in either forum may consist of future pay, emotional distress up to $20,000, and reasonable attorney?s fees up to $20,000.?? ?Previously employees were only entitled? to? reinstatement? and? reasonable attorney?s fees.
The SEEC reported to the Seattle Times in December 2013 that only ten complaints of whistleblower retaliation were reported in the previous four years. ?Because employees are now allowed to report retaliation to supervisors and not just the Ethics Commission, WELA members may see that? more City employees? follow? the correct reporting procedure, thereby preserving their retaliation claims.? ?Similarly, the previous 30 day reporting deadline may have barred the complaints of employees who did not clearly understand their legal rights in the time allotted. Allowing? employees ?6 ?months ?to ?report retaliation instead gives them time to talk with an attorney and decide what their best course of action is, and is a time period more in accord with other agency reporting periods.? ?Finally, by putting investigatory duties and enforcement in the hands of the SEEC or the courts, which are independent of the reporting employee?s own department, the hope is that more employees will report improper activity and seek recourse for retaliation.
As WELA members, we may see an increased number of City employees contacting us to bring retaliation claims, and with these favorable Code ?changes, ?we ?can ?do ?more ?to ?help? them. Many thanks to WELA members Jack Sheridan, Kathy Barnard, and Lorena Gonzalez for their advocacy in achieving these worker-friendly amendments.