"Whistleblower" is a term of art used to refer to the broader category of "employee protection" provisions of various laws. The Department of Labor adjudicates many, but not all, whistleblower disputes.
Whistleblower, or employee protection, complaints in cases adjudicated by the Department of Labor are initially filed with OSHA, the Wage and Hour Division, or OWCP, depending on the law involved.
The following discussion describes what you can expect after the investigating agency has completed its investigation and rendered a determination, and either you or the Respondent has requested a hearing.
Setting up the hearing
An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is assigned to a case shortly after it is docketed. ALJ hearings are generally set for the most practical place for a hearing, such as a town nearest to where most witnesses would be located. You will not have to travel to Washington, D.C. for the hearing unless that is the logical place for the hearing.
Discovery, motions, settlement negotiations
A whistleblower case proceeds much like any law suit: there is a pre-hearing period in which the parties conduct discovery, file motions with the ALJ, and work out the hearing schedule. Parties may engage in settlement negotiations. OALJ will provide a settlement judge or mediator to assist in any settlement negotiation if the parties jointly request. See Settlement Judges and Mediation Services.
At the hearing, witnesses will testify and evidence is submitted. This is the record upon which the case is decided, so it is important to put on all of your relevant evidence at this time, including evidence on damages (unless the ALJ has ordered a second hearing dedicated solely to this issue).
ALJ hearings are de novo, which means "from the beginning." Thus, the ALJ will independently consider the testimony and evidence to determine whether a whistleblower law has been violated, and if so, what relief is appropriate.
ALJ hearings are open to the public. ALJ and ARB decisions and selected orders are published on the DOL Web site. Thus, if you intend to introduce evidence or testimony that you do not wish to have open to public scrutiny, you must take steps before the ALJ to invoke whatever legal protections may be available to limit public access. An ALJ, however, is limited in his or her authority to restrict such access. See Public Access Notice.
Contacting the OALJ or the presiding ALJ
Improper ex parte communication with an administrative adjudicatory officer is prohibited by statute and regulation. If you make such a communication, including messages sent by e-mail, the agency is required to put that communication on the public record. See 5 U.S.C. § 557(d)(1)(C); 29 C.F.R. § 18.14.
Ex parte communications are communications, outside the knowledge of the opposing counsel or party, between an agency employee involved in the decision making process, e.g., the judge presiding in a case, and an interested person outside the decision-making process, e.g., one of the attorneys or parties to the case, about significant substantive issues of the case, i.e., facts in issue, or procedural issues, if that procedural communication could unfairly disadvantage other parties to the case.
Some ex parte communications are not improper. Communications, for example, for the sole purpose of scheduling hearings or requesting extensions of time are not considered ex-parte communications, except that all other parties should be notified of such request by the requesting party and be given an opportunity to respond thereto. No person at OALJ may give you advice on how to litigate your case.
The ALJ's decision
Once the record is closed, the ALJ will write a decision. Depending on the law involved, some decisions are automatically reviewed by the Administrative Review Board, and some are only reviewed if one of the parties requests such review. Some decisions are only reviewed by the ARB if a party petitions for review and the ARB decides to accept the case for review. The ALJ's decision will have a notice explaining the appeal process for the particular law involved.
How long does it take?
The length of the hearing process varies depending on how complex the case is. Thus, a case may be resolved within weeks of assignment to an ALJ, while some particularly complex cases may be pending for a year or more. A typical case takes about six months between assignment of an ALJ and the issuance of the ALJ's recommended or initial decision.
Attorneys and representatives
If your claim is referred to the OALJ for a hearing, you would be well-advised to obtain an attorney who is experienced in whistleblower cases to represent you. Parties in OALJ whistleblower cases are frequently represented by an attorney, and the law in this area can be complex. You may also elect to use a "lay representative," who is someone that is not licensed to practice law, to represent you, or you may choose to appear and represent yourself ("pro se"). If you do seek someone to represent you, it is important that you do so as quickly as possible. Your representative will need time to enter an appearance on your behalf and to prepare your case for hearing.
Please note that in STAA cases where the OSHA Regional Administrator found that the complaint had merit, the prosecuting party is the Assistant Secretary for OSHA, who is represented by the Office of the Solicitor. Thus, a DOL attorney may be taking a role that favors your position in a whistleblower hearing. Technically, however, the DOL attorney is representing OSHA rather than you. Thus, many STAA whistleblowers still retain their own attorney to assist in the prosecution of the case.
OALJ does not appoint counsel nor can it make attorney referrals. See 29 C.F.R. § 18.17. Various bar associations maintain a list of lawyer referral contacts that may be of help to you. See How to find legal representation.
The Secretary of Labor has delegated his responsibility to issue final agency decisions in cases involving the whistleblower provisions within the jurisdiction of OALJ to the Administrative Review Board. A party seeking review of an ALJ's decision must file a timely petition for review with the Board as provided in the relevant statute's implementing regulations.
The ARB may affirm, reverse or modify the ALJ's decision, or it may remand the case for further proceedings before the ALJ. The ARB's final decision ends all proceedings before the Department of Labor. Thus, after the ARB issues its final decision any further proceedings are in the federal courts.