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A.C.R. worked as a bartender at Kolla’s, Inc., a nightclub in Orange County. In 2014, A.C.R. complained to Gonzalo Estrada that she had not been paid wages owed for her previous three shifts of work. Estrada responded by threatening to report A.C.R. to immigration authorities, terminating her employment, and telling her never to return to the club.

In June 2014, A.C.R. filed a complaint against Estrada and Kolla’s with Department of Labor Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), which opened an investigation.

After determining that Estrada’s immigration-based threats and termination of A.C.R. violated California law, DLSE notified Estrada and Kolla’s of proposed remedies, including payment of lost wages to A.C.R., reinstatement of A.C.R.’s previous position, and payment of civil penalties to A.C.R. and DLSE. After Estrada and Kolla’s declined to accept DLSE’s proposed remedies, the Labor Commissioner sued them for violations of the Labor Code, including retaliation in violation of section 1102.5(b).

The trial court entered an order granting in part the Labor Commissioner’s application for default judgment but ruled against the Labor Commissioner on the section 1102.5(b) claim. The court held that the Labor Commissioner did not state a valid cause of action under section 1102.5(b) because A.C.R. reported her complaints to her employer rather than a government agency. The Labor Commissioner appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court had relied on an outdated version of section 1102.5(b) and that the current version of the law protects disclosures made to one’s employer. The Court of Appeal nonetheless affirmed the trial court’s judgment on the section 1102.5(b) claim, concluding that a private employee’s report of unlawful activity directly to his or her wrongdoing employer is not a protected disclosure under section 1102.5(b).

The Court of Appeal explained that Estrada, as the owner of the nightclub, “was at least aware of – if not responsible for – the non-payment of wages” and that an ” ’employee’s report to the employee’s supervisor about the supervisor’s own wrongdoing is not a “disclosure” and is not protected whistleblowing activity, because the employer already knows about his or her wrongdoing.’ ”

The California Supreme Court reversed and remanded, and held that a protected disclosure under section 1102.5(b) encompasses reports or complaints of a violation made to an employer or agency even if the recipient already knows of the violation. It further concluded that complainant A.C.R. made a disclosure protected by section 1102.5(b) in the case of P. ex rel. Garcia-Brower v. Kolla’s, Inc. – S269456. (May 2023).

The Legislature enacted section 1102.5 in 1984 to provide whistleblowers with protection from employer retaliation. In 2003, in the wake of a “recent spate of false business reports and other illegal activity by Enron, WorldCom and others,” the Legislature amended section 1102.5(b) to include several additional employee protections.

In 2013, the Legislature again amended section 1102.5(b), expanding its protections to include an employee’s disclosure made “to a person with authority over the employee or another employee who has the authority to investigate, discover, or correct the violation or noncompliance.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that section 1102.5(b) “reflects the broad public policy interest in encouraging workplace whistle-blowers to report unlawful acts without fearing retaliation.” (Green v. Ralee Engineering Co. (1998) 19 Cal.4th 66, 77 (Green); Lawson v. PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc. (2022) 12 Cal.5th 703, 709 (Lawson); Soukup v. Law Offices of Herbert Hafif (2006) 39 Cal.4th 260, 287.)

It is undisputed that the employer’s conduct was prohibited by the Labor Code. The question here is whether a report of unlawful activities made to an employer or agency that already knew about the violation was a protected “disclosure” within the meaning of section 1102.5(b).

The Supreme Court concluded that it was, noting that “Applying the Court of Appeal’s reasoning here would result in outcomes contrary to the Legislature’s purpose.”

And it disapproved Mize-Kurzman v. Marin Community College Dist., 202 Cal.App.4th 832 to the extent it is inconsistent with its opinion. Mize-Kurzman rested on federal precedent subsequently abrogated by Congress. In 2012, Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 (WPEA) (Pub.L. No. 112-199 (Nov. 27, 2012) 126 Stat. 1465), an update to the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), that “clarif[ied] the broad meaning” of disclosure to correct Federal Circuit precedent that had “wrongly accorded a narrow definition to the type of disclosure that qualifies for whistleblower protection.”