Whelan's unassuming personality belies the tiger within that eviscerates "the bad guys" on behalf of "the good guys." From Whelan's point of view, the "bad guys" are companies that concoct false excuses to get rid of long-term employees or employees in "protected classes" like women, minorities, and people with disabilities or workers over the age of 40.
"A typical situation is when an employer makes false excuses to terminate long-term employees and protected class employees in an attempt to avoid lawsuits, and in the process the employer creates a defamation case," says Whelan.
Many lawyers have followed Whelan's lead over the years in this complicated area of employment law. While there is never a typical case, there are some common threads.
Large private sector companies that make the mistake of thinking they get away with trashing employees when it suits their purposes are Whelan's bread and butter. The word "concocted" comes up a lot in Whelan's conversation when describing the reasons employers use for unfairly disposing of employees.
"Employers see a potential lawsuit and they concoct some false attack on the employee's performance to justify the termination," says Whelan. "Long-term employees are accused of incompetence or of being trouble makers. Employees will be accused of theft, using drugs or anything that can be used to attack their performance in the workplace to justify the termination. Really their employers just want to get rid of the person because of their age or their disability–and they are just trying to create an excuse."
The proof of discrimination/defamation in employment usually becomes apparent through the depositions. "You might have an employee who has had excellent reviews for years, and then they blow the whistle on something, or object to some illegal conduct. Then all of a sudden they become terrible, useless employees and drug abusers?" Whelan says with an incredulous tone in his voice.
"It is interesting that a person who has a 30-year career with this company is suddenly incompetent – and useless!" says Whelan.
One of Whelan's most successful verdicts came against Foundation Health. A subordinate so mangled the office reputation of his boss that the company decided to dismiss the senior employee. "With that the subordinate was able to get rid of my client and assume his position," says Whelan. "The company offered to settle the case at pre-trial for 200K, but my client was a good loyal employee." In the end, Whelan won a stinging $7.5 million for his client.
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Whelan is frequently asked to speak at conventions and has received a number of awards including Advocate of the Year by the Sacramento Association of Consumer Lawyers in 2001, and is listed as a California Super Lawyer. He will be a featured speaker in November at the Consumers Attorneys of California in San Francisco.
Christopher Whelan received a bachelor's degree in economics from UCLA in 1974, and his law degree from Hastings in 1977. Since 1981, his practice has focused on discrimination and defamation in employment. He is a member of the National Employment Lawyers Association, California Employment Lawyers and American Trial Lawyers Association.