Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform

On September 10, 2015, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC that an employee who reports an alleged securities violation only to his or her employer, and not to the SEC, is nevertheless covered by the anti-retaliation protections afforded by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (“Dodd-Frank”).

Berman, a former finance director of Neo@Ogilvy, claimed that his employer and its corporate parent, WPP Group USA, Inc., violated the whistleblower protections of Dodd-Frank by wrongfully terminating him for raising concerns internally about business practices that allegedly constituted accounting fraud.  The companies moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that Berman was not a whistleblower subject to protection under Dodd-Frank because he did not report the alleged violations to the SEC.  The District Court agreed.

In a 2-1 decision, the Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision on appeal.  The Court found that the provisions of Dodd-Frank are ambiguous as to whether an employee who reports an alleged violation internally, but not to the SEC, qualifies as a whistleblower.  On the one hand, Section 21F(a)(6) of Dodd-Frank limits the definition of “whistleblower” to include only those individuals who provide information relating to an alleged securities violation to the SEC.  Yet, on the other hand, Section 21F(h)(1)(A) of Dodd-Frank’s retaliation protection provision prohibits retaliation against individuals who make disclosures that are, inter alia, required or protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”), and SOX protects employees who make internal complaints of suspected securities laws violations without reporting them to outside agencies.

Finding that these were conflicting statutory provisions, the Court deferred to the SEC’s interpretation of the statute, under which an individual is a “whistleblower” if he or she provides information pursuant to Section 21F(h)(1)(A) of Dodd-Frank, which, as explained above, prohibits retaliation against employees for making internal complaints that would be protected by SOX.  Accordingly, the Court held that under SEC Rule 21F-2, “Berman is entitled to pursue Dodd-Frank remedies for alleged retaliation after his report of wrongdoing to his employer, despite not having reported to the Commission before his termination.”

Judge Dennis Jacobs, dissenting, opined that Dodd-Frank is “unambiguous”:  Section 21F(a)(6) is controlling because it defines who is a “whistleblower” under the relevant section of the statute and expressly provides that only those who report to the SEC can qualify.   Judge Jacobs pointed out that Dodd-Frank Section 21F(h)(1)(A), which the majority found creates ambiguity by incorporating protections provided by SOX, does not expand the statutory definition of whistleblower under Dodd-Frank, but instead identifies which acts done by whistleblowers are protected by Dodd-Frank.  In other words, according to Judge Jacobs, Section 21F(h)(1)(A) does not apply to protect a person unless he or she qualifies as a “whistleblower,” as the term is defined by Section 21F(a)(6).  Judge Jacobs criticized the majority for disregarding the plain text of Dodd-Frank’s definition of whistleblower and creating an ambiguity in the statute that does not exist solely to expand the reach of the anti-retaliation provisions of Dodd-Frank.

Notably, the Second Circuit’s decision creates a split in authority with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which came down the opposite way when faced with the same issue in 2013.  As a result, this issue is almost surely headed to the Supreme Court for resolution. Further, in holding that Dodd-Frank provides a private right of action for those who report violations only internally, the Second Circuit’s decision may lead to significantly more whistleblower retaliation claims in the future because, in comparison to the SOX whistleblower protections, Dodd-Frank offers a much longer statute of limitations, double back pay damages, and no administrative exhaustion requirement.

On August 4, 2015, the SEC issued an “Interpretation of the SEC’s Whistleblower Rules Under Section 21F of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.” (pdf).  Unsurprisingly, and consistent with the position that it has been taking in amicus briefs on the issue, the SEC states that a whistleblower need not report suspected wrongdoing to the Commission in order to be protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of Dodd-Frank.  Rather, internal whistleblowing that is protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is protected activity sufficient to state a claim under Dodd-Frank, according to the SEC.  We recently posted a video discussion of this very topic (here), noting that there is currently a sharp split of judicial authority on this critical question, and that the issue may well be headed to the Supreme Court for resolution.  The Fifth Circuit held in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC, 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013), that a Dodd-Frank whistleblower must report wrongdoing to the Commission to be protected by that statute; a decision from the Second Circuit on the issue is pending in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC, 14-4626 (2d Cir.).  Ultimately, of course, it is the job of the courts to determine what Congress intended in the Dodd-Frank Act, but if the issue does indeed reach the Supreme Court – and in every federal district and appellate court case until that time – those favoring a broad interpretation of the definition of a “whistleblower” under the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provision will surely be citing the SEC’s new interpretation of its regulations.

 

On June 10, 2015, the much-anticipated joint final standards (“Final Standards”) issued by six federal agencies (“Agencies”) in accordance with Section 342 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (“Act”) for assessing the diversity policies and practices of the entities that they regulate (“Covered Entities”) were published and became effective.   Covered Entities include financial institutions, investment banking firms, mortgage banking firms, asset management firms, brokers, dealers, financial services entities, underwriters, accountants, investment consultants, and providers of legal services.  In issuing the Final Standards, the Agencies stated that their goal is to provide a framework for an entity “to create and strengthen its diversity policies and practices . . . and to promote transparency of organizational diversity and inclusion.”

My colleagues Lauri Rasnick and Dean Singewald have written an Act Now Advisory describing the Final Standards and explaining important steps financial services employers should take now.

Read the full Act Now Advisory here.

Last week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Whistleblower, created in 2011 pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, released its mandated report to Congress on operations for Fiscal Year 2014, ending on September 30, 2014.  A number of interesting facts, statistics and developments were reported.  Here is a selection of particularly relevant highlights:

  • FY 2014 was the most active year yet in terms of whistleblower awards. The SEC has made awards to 14 whistleblowers since inception of the program, including 9 in 2014 alone.
  • “To date, over 40% of the individuals who received awards were current or former employees;” another 20% were company consultants or contractors, or had been solicited to act as consultants.
  • According to the SEC, over 80% of those receiving awards reportedly raised their concerns internally to supervisors or compliance professionals before going to the SEC, which means nearly 20% are still skipping internal whistleblower reporting policies and systems.
  • “Several of the cases in which a whistleblower received an award concerned firms involved in the financial services industry, with some involving broker-dealers.”  Alleged wrongdoing included on-going Ponzi schemes, false or misleading statements in offering memoranda or marketing materials, and false pricing information.
  • On September 22, 2014, the SEC authorized payment of its largest whistleblower award to date — over $30 million.  This was the fourth overseas whistleblower to receive an award, highlighting that whistleblowers around the world are eligible for awards and the importance for employers of implementing whistleblower and compliance policies globally.
  • On August 29, 2014, the SEC authorized its first award to a compliance or audit professional – over $300,000 to an auditor who blew the whistle internally and waited 120 days before reporting to the SEC, during which time the company had taken no action on the allegations.  The auditor therefore satisfied one of the exceptions to exclusion from eligibility for awards for compliance and audit professionals.
  • On July 31, 2014, the SEC issued an award of over $400,000 to an independent agent of an insurance company, who had “aggressively worked internally to bring the securities law violation to the attention of appropriate personnel in an effort to obtain corrective action” regarding misleading descriptions of financial products.  Although the SEC did not disclose the name of the whistleblower or the company, the whistleblower himself went to the press after receiving the award, identifying himself as well as his employer in telling his story.
  • On June 16, 2014, the SEC exercised its own anti-retaliation enforcement authority for the first time, charging a hedge fund advisory firm with retaliating against its head trader for reporting prohibited principal transactions to the SEC.  The alleged retaliatory acts included removing the whistleblower from his position and making him a compliance assistant, stripping him of supervisory responsibility, and making him investigate the very wrongdoing he reported to the SEC without any meaningful resources to do so.  The firm and its owner paid $2.2 million to settle the charges – with full disclosure by the SEC of, and publicity regarding, the identity of the firm and its owner.

The full report is available on the SEC’s Office of Whistleblower website – click here.

One of many changes wrought by passage of the Dodd-Frank Act is that employers cannot compel potential whistleblowers to report known or suspected unlawful activity to the company before reporting such information to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC).  Employees are eligible for a bounty award from the SEC even if they do not first – or ever – report internally. The SEC’s position is that mandatory internal reporting could discourage at least some potential whistleblowers.  Consistent with that position, SEC Whistleblower Rule 21F–17 provides:

No person may take any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the Commission staff about a possible securities law violation, including enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a confidentiality agreement (other than agreements dealing with information covered by [certain sections of the rules]) with respect to such communications. (17 C.F.R. § 240.21F-17(a)) (emphasis added).

In the following video clip from a recent webinar, I discuss some of the actions employers can take to try to encourage and incentivize employees to report wrongdoing internally:

 

For more of my comments on whistleblowers, see my Videos page.

 

At the Firm’s 33rd Annual Labor and Employment Client Briefing, Lauri Rasnick and John Fullerton spoke on the financial services industry panel about the impact of increased compliance obligations on the employment relationship and developments in the areas of applicant screening, whistleblower complaints, internal investigations, and diversity and inclusion.

Here are a few takeaways from that session:

  • Eleven states have enacted legislation prohibiting the use of consumer credit reports in making employment decisions.  There has been a dramatic increase in state and local “ban the box” legislation prohibiting inquiry into criminal history on employment applications, as 13 states and over 70 cities and counties now have “ban the box” laws.  Most of these statutes, however, provide important exceptions for certain types of financial services industry employers, and / or recognize that financial services employers may have certain criminal background screening obligations imposed by federal law or FINRA
  • The pace of monetary awards by SEC under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) whistleblower program has increased in 2014; the most recent of which, and the largest to date, was an award of over $30 million to a single whistleblower.  As this incentive program receives increasing attention and publicity, it creates tremendous tension for employers seeking to encourage employees to report any alleged compliance issues or violations internally before reporting them to the SEC, without impeding employees from reporting to the SEC if they so choose.
  • In light of the diversity and inclusion assessment standards proposed in October 2013 by the Federal Reserve Board, CFPB, FDIC, NCUA, OCC, and SEC, pursuant to Section 342 of Dodd-Frank, it is important that financial services industry employers promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  There is increasing pressure on employers who do not otherwise have an obligation to do so (as the result, for example, of being a federal contractor) to create concrete diversity and inclusion policies, use metrics to track diversity in their workforces, and incorporate diversity considerations into strategic plans for hiring, retention, and promotion.
  • Complaints from employees or third parties have the potential to lead to costly, protracted litigation.  Accordingly, it is critical that internal investigations are handled properly.  Employers conducting internal investigations should: appropriately define the objectives of the investigation at the outset; select the right investigator (considering the investigator’s relationship to the complainant, relationship to decision-makers, ability to assert privilege against disclosure of information obtained, etc.); control communications among witnesses that could taint the investigation or give rise to more complaints; keep an accurate and complete factual record; and prepare a comprehensive investigative report that takes into account the applicable legal considerations.

For more on the client briefing generally, we welcome you to review the following articles for a summary of the remarks given by guest speakers M. Solicitor Smith, Solicitor of Labor of the U.S. Department of Labor, and Victoria Lipnic, Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: 3 Top Labor and Employment Enforcement Priorities – Corporate Counsel; DOL’s Smith Says Proposed OT Rule is Still Months Away – Law360; and Don’t Expect Wellness Program Guidance: EEOC Commish – Law360.

 

By John F. Fullerton III and Jason Kaufman

Almost four years after it was enacted in 2010, the full impact of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) on the enforceability of predispute arbitration agreements is not completely clear.  Some whistleblower retaliation claims are still subject to mandatory arbitration agreements, while others plainly are not, depending upon when the arbitration agreement was executed, the statute under which the claim is brought, and the jurisdiction in which the employer and employee find themselves.

First, prior to the passage of Dodd-Frank, courts had held that whistleblower retaliation claims filed under Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”) could be compelled to arbitrate under mandatory arbitration agreements between an employer and employee.  Dodd-Frank amended Section 806 to include an explicit ban on agreements to arbitrate SOX claims: “No predispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable, if the agreement requires arbitration of a dispute arising under this section.”  There is a split in authority, however, regarding whether this provision applies retroactively to invalidate arbitration agreements executed before Dodd-Frank was enacted.  Federal courts in Massachusetts and New York [pdf] have reasoned that retroactive application is appropriate because congressional intent as to the temporal scope of the statute is unclear, and because the right to arbitrate is jurisdictional – i.e., relates only to the forum in which claims can be heard – rather than substantive.  Courts in New Jersey (most recently) [pdf], Nevada, Colorado, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia, on the other hand, have rejected this rationale based on the well-settled presumption against statutory retroactivity, and their determination that the right to arbitrate is not merely a question of jurisdiction, but a vested contractual right that cannot be withdrawn retroactively absent clear congressional intent.  Thus, in the latter jurisdictions, some SOX claims remain arbitrable if the arbitration agreement pre-dates Dodd-Frank.

Second, there is also a question, at least, as to whether agreements requiring predispute arbitration of whistleblower retaliation claims made under the Securities Exchange Act are enforceable in the post-Dodd-Frank era.  Dodd-Frank amended both the Commodity Exchange Act and the Securities Exchange Act, in very similar terms, to include incentives for whistleblowers to report violations to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Securities Exchange Commission, as well as provisions protecting them from retaliation for doing so.  Although the Commodity Exchange Act was amended expressly to invalidate predispute arbitration agreements in language identical to that now contained in Section 806 of SOX, as explained above, no such language was added to the anti-retaliation provision of Section 21F of the Securities Exchange Act.

As a result, agreements requiring arbitration of whistleblower retaliation claims brought under the Section 21F appear to remain enforceable although the same agreement would be unenforceable with respect to claims under the Commodity Exchange Act.  At the same time, the SEC regulations state that “employers may not require employees to waive or limit their anti-retaliation rights under Section 21F,” which some have interpreted as precluding predispute arbitration agreements as well.  In fact, some plaintiffs have argued that the omission of a predispute arbitration provision from Section 21F was simply a drafting error and that courts should read the SOX arbitration provision into Section 21F. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the SEC regulations, the few court decisions that have addressed the issue, including one from the Southern District of New York [pdf], have compelled arbitration of whistleblower retaliation claims under Section 21F of the Securities Exchange Act based on the plain language of the statute, i.e. the absence of any provision rendering pre-dispute arbitration agreements unenforceable.

Employers should therefore be aware that until these ambiguities are finally clarified – whether by Congress or the courts – it appears that a case-by-case determination will be necessary regarding when and where their mandatory arbitration agreements are enforceable with respect to whistleblower retaliation claims under these statutes.

My colleague Jason Kaufman and I put together “Five Hot Topics for Financial Services Industry Employers” in this month’s Take 5 newsletter.  Below is an excerpt:

The economy may be improving, but challenges remain for employers in the financial services industry. From ever-increasing whistleblower claims to new diversity and inclusion regulations and recent IRS determinations affecting bonus payments, financial services industry employers will have to navigate a number of new developments and potential pitfalls in 2014. Here are five issues to keep an eye on in the new year. …

  1. Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Programs
  2. Dodd-Frank Diversity Standards Proposed for the Financial Services Industry
  3. Pay Disputes in the Financial Services Industry
  4. IT Personnel: Independent Contractors or Employees
  5. Employer Deductions for Bonus Compensation

Read the full newsletter here.

With my colleagues Peter Stein and Dean Singewald II, I recently coauthored an advisory for employers in the financial services industry: Dodd-Frank Standards Proposed for Assessing Diversity Policies and Practices of Covered Entities in the Financial Services Industry.

Following is an excerpt:

Six federal agencies (“Agencies”) subject to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (“Act”) issued much-anticipated jointly proposed standards in accordance with Section 342 of the Act for assessing the diversity policies and practices of the entities that they regulate in the financial services industry. The proposed standards were published in the Federal Register on October 25, 2013. In issuing the proposed standards, the Agencies stated that their goal is to “promote transparency and awareness of diversity policies and practices” of the covered entities (“Covered Entities”), given the Agencies’ recognition that greater diversity and inclusion “promotes stronger, more effective, and more innovative businesses, as well as opportunities to serve a wider range of customers.”

The Agencies include the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Each of these Agencies was required, pursuant to Section 342 of the Act, to establish an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion (“OMWI Office”), headed by a Director responsible for all Agency matters concerning diversity in management, employment, and business. In turn, each Director was required to establish standards for assessing the diversity policies and practices of the entities regulated by the Agency. The Covered Entities include financial institutions, investment banking firms, mortgage banking firms, asset management firms, brokers, dealers, financial services entities, underwriters, accountants, investment consultants, and providers of legal services.

Proposed Standards

The proposed standards are divided into four assessment areas: (i) organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion, (ii) workforce profile and employment practices, (iii) procurement and business practices (or supplier diversity), and (iv) practices to promote transparency of organizational diversity and inclusion. The standards for each assessment area are as follows …

Read the full advisory here.

By Jason Kaufman

The Dodd-Frank Act created a comprehensive whistleblowing program by amending the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to include Section 21F, entitled “Securities Whistleblower Incentives and Protection,” and establishing the “Office of the Whistleblower” to enforce its provisions.  Individuals who voluntarily provide the SEC with original information that leads to a successful SEC enforcement action resulting in monetary sanctions greater than $1 million are entitled to an award of between 10 and 30 percent of the total sanctions collected.  According to the SEC’s 2013 Annual Report to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program, the incentives are working.

The SEC reports that since this whistleblowing program went into effect in August 2011, the number of complaints has increased each year.  During Fiscal Year 2013, the SEC received 3,238 complaints from across the county and around the world, reflecting an increase over the prior fiscal year of almost every type of allegation (e.g., offering fraud, insider trading, etc.).  Four whistleblowers received awards during Fiscal Year 2013, one of whom received a more than $14 million award representing the largest granted to date.  In total, the SEC paid approximately $14.8 million in awards to whistleblowers in Fiscal Year 2013, and, with more than $439 million remaining in the Investor Protection Fund from which the awards are paid, further awards seem likely.

Given the easy public access to information concerning the whistleblower program and the ability to submit tips and apply for awards on-line, the broad confidentiality and anti-retaliation protections afforded to whistleblowers, and huge potential payout, it is no surprise that the program is gaining traction and whistleblower complaints are on the rise.