On November 6, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit handed down a decision that impacts employers across all industries, including the financial services industry. In a “win” for employers, the Tenth Circuit ruled that “…the False Claims Act’s anti-retaliation provision unambiguously excludes relief for retaliatory acts which occur after the employee has left employment.” Potts v. Center for Excellence in Higher Education, Inc., No. 17-1143 (10th Cir. Nov. 6, 2018).

The False Claims Act (“Act”) imposes liability on any person who knowingly defrauds the federal government. See 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a). The Act also contains an anti-retaliation provision protecting whistleblower employees from certain retaliatory acts by their employers. In Potts, the Tenth Circuit determined that the Act’s term “employee” includes only persons who were current employees at the time of the alleged retaliation.

The case involved Debbi Potts who resigned from her position as the campus director of an educational organization in July 2012. In connection with her resignation, Potts entered into a separation agreement with her employer in which she, among other things, agreed to not disparage the organization or “contact any governmental or regulatory agency with the purpose of filing any complaint or grievance.” Notwithstanding the agreement, and well after her resignation, Potts sent a disparaging email and filed a complaint to the organization’s accreditor alleging deceptions in maintaining accreditations. The organization brought a breach of contract claim against Potts for violating the agreement. Potts countersued alleging retaliation because the organization’s claim violated the False Claims Act since her complaint was protected activity.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Potts’s retaliation claim by finding that “the False Claims Act, by its list of retaliatory acts, temporally limits relief to employees who are subjected to retaliatory acts while they are current employees.” The Tenth Circuit relied on established statutory interpretation canons in reaching its conclusion. Accordingly, in the Tenth Circuit, a former employee cannot engage in protected activity after termination of employment and as a result cannot maintain a cognizable claim under the Act for purported retaliation for such protected activity. This approach is consistent with the interpretations of other courts which have considered this same issue.

While the decision may provide some relief to employers, they should still proceed with caution in taking action against employees for raising violations of the False Claims Act or other laws. Moreover, there are regulatory opinions and actions which employers should carefully consider with their employment counsel in drafting separation agreements as certain regulators prohibit employers from having separation agreements that contain overbroad restrictions (i.e., restrictions that may impinge on employees’ rights to report unlawful practices or occurrences to the SEC or other governmental agencies).

On June 25, 2018, President Trump signed into law the Whistleblower Protection Coordination Act (the “Act”), permanently reinstating the Whistleblower Ombudsman Program, which was created in 2012 to encourage employees of federal government administrative agencies to report wrongdoing but expired on November 27, 2017 due to a five-year sunset clause.

The Act, which Congress passed with bipartisan support, reauthorizes a “Whistleblower Protection Coordinator” at each administrative agency’s Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) to educate agency employees about their rights to blow the whistle on suspected wrongdoing and the remedies available to them should their employers retaliate against them for doing so. Additionally, the Coordinator is tasked with ensuring that the OIG handles such whistleblower complaints promptly and thoroughly and coordinates with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Congress, and other agencies to address the allegations appropriately.

While the Act is specific to federal government employees and has no impact on the anti-whistleblower retaliation protections of the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Acts, it is notable that the Trump administration passed the Act rather than letting the Whistleblower Ombudsman Program remain expired. This executive action suggests that the Trump administration does not currently appear to be intent upon rolling back legislative efforts to encourage employees to report suspected legal violations and to protect those that do from retaliation by their employers.

This post was written with assistance from Cynthia Joo, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Featured on Employment Law This Week:  The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) recently issued the largest whistleblower awards under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) in history.

Affirming the payout of over $49 million to two whistleblowers and over $33 million to a third for information that led to successful securities law prosecutions. Dodd-Frank established the whistleblower “bounty” program in 2010, and the SEC reports that it has awarded more than $262 million so far, to 53 whistleblowers.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

On March 19, 2018, the SEC issued an Order jointly awarding two whistleblowers more than $49 million, and awarding a third whistleblower more than $33 million, for reporting information to the SEC that led to its successful prosecution of an enforcement action against the perpetrators of securities violations.

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act amended the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to include Section 21F, entitled “Securities Whistleblower Incentives and Protection.” Among other things, Section 21F established a whistleblower “bounty” program that entitles 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 to receive an award of between 10 and 30 percent of the total sanctions collected.

The awards announced earlier this week are the largest awards issued to whistleblowers since the inception of the whistleblower “bounty” program. The previous record was set by a $30 million award in 2014. To date, the SEC has awarded more than $262 million to whistleblowers.

These recent awards are a good reminder that employers must be more diligent and cautious than ever when it comes to securities compliance and investigating internal complaints by would-be whistleblowers, as the awards available to tipsters under the “bounty” program are a tremendous incentive to report to the SEC. This is likely the reason why the program has been steadily gaining traction, with the number of whistleblower tips submitted to the SEC increasing every year since its inception. Indeed, in its last Annual Report to Congress on the Whistleblower Program, the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower reported that from FY 2012 to FY 2017, the number of whistleblower tips received by the SEC had grown by almost 50 percent.

Last August, we reported on two significant cease-and-desist orders issued by the SEC that, for the first time, found certain language in the confidentiality and release provisions of separation agreements to violate the SEC’s Rule 21F-17(a), which precludes anyone from impeding any individual (i.e., a whistleblower) from communicating directly with the agency.[1] Since then, the SEC has continued its aggressive oversight of separation and confidentiality agreements, with substantial repercussions for some employers. These orders, a select number of which we summarize here, have companies engaging in a serious review and rethinking of their confidentiality restrictions and other relevant provisions in their agreements and handbooks, and considering whether and what remedial steps to take proactively to cure any issues with the language in these key documents.

In Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (Sept. 28, 2016), the company entered into a separation agreement in late 2012 with a specific employee after his termination and subsequent mediation of various alleged employment law claims. The separation agreement contained provisions (i) prohibiting the employee from disclosing confidential or proprietary company information, with no carve-out for reporting to government agencies; (ii) prohibiting the employee from disclosing the substance of the separation agreement; and (iii) imposing a $250,000 liquidated damages provision in the event that the employee breached the confidentiality provisions. After signing the agreement, the employee, who had been voluntarily communicating with SEC in connection with an ongoing investigation, ceased doing so.

The cease-and-desist order—which is a negotiated resolution of the matter once the SEC determines that a company has violated its rules or regulations—did not require the company to make any additional changes to its separation agreements because, in September 2015, the company had amended separation agreements to state:

I understand and acknowledge that notwithstanding any other provision of this Agreement, I am not prohibited or in any way restricted from reporting possible violations of law to a governmental agency of entity, and I am not required to inform the Company if I make such reports.

The order required the company to contact only certain former employees identified by the SEC to inform them that they were not prohibited from providing information to the SEC, rather than all employees who had signed separation agreements since the rule was implemented in August 2011, as has been required in other cases. In addition, unlike other cases, it appears that there was no separate monetary penalty against the company for violating Rule 21F-17(a).

In NeuStar, Inc. (Dec. 19, 2016), the company’s severance agreements included a non-disparagement clause with the following language:

Except as specifically authorized in writing by NeuStar or as may be required by law or legal process, I agree not to engage in any communication that disparages, denigrates, maligns or impugns NeuStar . . . including but not limited to communication with . . . regulators (including but not limited to the Securities and Exchange Commission . . .) [emphasis added].

Any breach of this clause by the employee resulted in the required forfeiture of all but $100 of the severance paid under the agreement. The SEC found that “at least one” former employee was impeded by this clause from communicating with the agency—although the SEC does not hesitate to find violations of Rule 21F-17(a) even where there is no evidence that anyone has actually been impeded.

To settle the matter, the company agreed to pay a civil penalty of $180,000 and to contact 246 former employees to inform them that the severance agreements they signed between August 12, 2011, and May 21, 2015, did not prevent them from communicating concerns about potential violations of law or regulation to the SEC. No remedial revisions to the company’s template severance agreement were required because the company had voluntarily, after commencement of the investigation, removed the reference to “regulators” from the non-disparagement clause and included a more common provision that stated, “In addition, nothing herein prohibits me from communicating, without notice to or approval by NeuStar, with any federal government agency about a potential violation of a federal law or regulation.”

Most recently, in HomeStreet, Inc. (Jan. 19, 2017), certain severance agreements used by the company had contained common waiver language used, in form and substance, by many employers:

This release shall not prohibit Employee from filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or discussing any matter relevant to Employee’s employment with any government agency with jurisdiction over the Company but shall be considered a waiver of any damages or monetary recovery therefrom [emphasis added].

The SEC previously found that employees might interpret such waivers as applying to the agency’s whistleblower monetary incentive award program and, therefore, would unlawfully impede employees from coming forward to the SEC or reporting potential violations of the securities laws. The SEC reached the same conclusion in this case.

Prior to the investigation, however, the company had voluntarily revised its standard severance agreement to substitute the following:

Employee understands that nothing contained in this Agreement limits Employee’s ability to file a charge or complaint with any federal, state or local government agency or commission (“Government Agencies”). Employee further understands that this Agreement does not limit Employee’s ability to communicate with any Government Agencies or otherwise participate in any investigation or proceeding that may be commenced by any Government Agency including providing documents or other information without notice to the Company. This Agreement does not limit the Employee’s right to receive an award for information provided to any Government Agencies [emphasis added].

Thus, the cease-and-desist order did not require further revisions to the severance agreement because the foregoing language largely tracks revised language that the SEC had required in one of the previous orders issued last summer. Notwithstanding its proactive revisions to its agreements, the company still had to agree to a $500,000 civil penalty and to contact certain former employees who had signed the agreement to provide a link to the order and inform them that severance agreements did not prevent them from reporting information to the SEC or seeking and obtaining a whistleblower award from the SEC.

The NeuStar and HomeStreet orders serve to highlight that, even when a company has revised its agreements voluntarily to comply with Rule 21F-17(a), the SEC may still impose monetary penalties and potentially burdensome and undesirable obligations to contact former employees who have signed problematic separation agreements to inform them that, notwithstanding the money they were paid in conjunction with their separation agreements, they remain free to report any company wrongdoing—real or perceived—to the SEC.

What Employers Should Do Now

Companies wishing to avoid SEC scrutiny should do the following:

  • Review current separation and severance agreement templates to determine whether they are in compliance with Rule 21F-17, which would include a review of provisions such as, among others,
    • future monetary waivers,
    • non-disclosure of confidential information, and
    • non-disparagement clauses.
  • If necessary, work with legal counsel to determine appropriate revisions or “carve-outs” to bring those agreement templates into compliance.
  • Discuss with legal counsel whether to take affirmative steps to remedy past uses of confidentiality or waiver provisions that would be unlawful under the SEC orders.
  • Review other types of confidentiality and waiver agreements with employees, in whatever form they are used, to ensure that those agreements do not similarly violate Rule 21F-17.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Employment Issues Under the New Administration That Financial Services Employers Should Monitor.”

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[1] See the Epstein Becker Green Act Now Advisory titled “SEC Finds Certain Separation Agreement Provisions Unlawful Under Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Rule” (Aug. 18, 2016).

Section 806 of SOX prohibits publicly traded companies, as well as their subsidiaries, contractors, subcontractors, and agents, from taking adverse personnel actions against employees for reporting activity that they reasonably believe constitutes mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, or a violation of any Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) rule or federal law relating to fraud against shareholders. In recognition of the legislative intent underlying SOX—to provide strong and broad-based protections for employees who report suspected securities violations and financial fraud—courts are increasingly applying lenient standards that favor employees in assessing the viability of a SOX retaliation claim in the face of a motion for pretrial dismissal. Fortunately for employers, however, recent decisions demonstrate that even in today’s whistleblower-friendly environment, courts will readily dismiss SOX retaliation claims that lack adequate evidentiary support.

For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in Nielson v. AECOM Tech Corp. that, in dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint, the district court incorrectly applied the “definitively and specifically” standard to find that the plaintiff had not engaged in activity protected by SOX. Under this originally well-accepted standard, an employee’s communications about a suspected violation are not protected unless they relate “definitively and specifically” to one of the categories of fraud or securities violations listed under Section 806 of SOX, and the employee must reasonably believe that each of the legally defined elements of a suspected violation occurred. Applying this standard, the district court held that the plaintiff’s complaints to his managers (that certain fire safety designs were not properly reviewed) were not protected.

On appeal, the Second Circuit deferred to evolving interpretations of SOX articulated by the Department of Labor’s (“DOL’s”) Administrative Review Board during the Obama administration. The Second Circuit jettisoned the “definitively and specifically” test in favor of the more relaxed “reasonable belief” standard, under which the plaintiff has engaged in protected activity as long as (i) he has a subjective belief that the reported conduct violates a law covered by SOX and (ii) his belief is objectively reasonable for a person in his position. Nevertheless, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal because, although the plaintiff alleged that he reported what he believed constituted, inter alia, shareholder fraud, he did “not plausibly allege, on the basis of assertions beyond the trivial and conclusory, that it was objectively reasonable for him to believe that there was such a violation[.]” As a result of the Nielson decision, district courts sitting in the Second Circuit now apply the more relaxed “reasonable belief” standard in determining whether a plaintiff has engaged in protected activity under SOX.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit released a decision in Wiest v. Tyco Elecs. Corp. on February 2, 2016, that affirmed the dismissal of a plaintiff’s claim that he was unlawfully terminated in violation of SOX for reporting suspected securities fraud pertaining to improper accounting practices. Notably, the Third Circuit had previously reversed the district court’s prior dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim because the district court erred and applied the “definitively and specifically” standard to find that the plaintiff had not engaged in protected activity. On remand, the district court, affirmed by the Third Circuit, dismissed the plaintiff’s SOX claim on summary judgment because, regardless of whether the plaintiff had engaged in protected activity, there was no evidence that it was a factor contributing to his termination. The Third Circuit discussed the leniency of the contributing factor test, which requires only that the plaintiff show that his protected activity affected in any way the decision to terminate. Nevertheless, the Third Circuit found that the plaintiff failed to meet even this low threshold and that the defendant established that it would have terminated the plaintiff in the absence of any protected behavior.

On January 4, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Yang v. Navigators Group, Inc., dismissed a plaintiff’s claim that she was terminated for complaining to her superiors about improper risk control procedures that she believed constituted shareholder fraud and violated securities regulations. The court initially denied a motion to dismiss the claim on the pleadings, rejecting the defendant’s contentions that the allegations were insufficient to show that the plaintiff had engaged in protected activity or reasonably believed that the complained-of conduct was unlawful. In reviewing the evidence subsequently proffered at the summary judgment stage, however, the district court found that some of plaintiff’s communications to her superiors were not protected because they failed to indicate in any way that she believed a violation under Section 806 of SOX had occurred, and, in any event, that the plaintiff was clearly fired for poor performance and there was no evidence that the concerns she raised contributed to the decision to terminate her.

In sum, the number of SOX whistleblower retaliation claims is on the rise, and relaxed legal standards have made it more difficult for employers to obtain pretrial dismissal of these claims. Yet, as the above rulings indicate, employers are not left defenseless. Armed with a properly mounted legal defense, they are frequently prevailing against whistleblower retaliation allegations in the very same cases that are applying more lenient pleading standards.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter “Five Employment Law Compliance Topics of Interest to Financial Services Industry Employers.”

 

On March 5, 2015, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) issued its “Final Rule” establishing the procedures for handling retaliation complaints brought under Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”). Section 806, as amended by Dodd-Frank, protects employees of publicly traded companies, as well as employees of contractors, subcontractors, and agents of publicly traded companies, from being retaliated against for reporting fraudulent activity or other violations of SEC rules and regulations. The Final Rule addresses the comments that OSHA received in response to its interim rule, issued in 2011, and sets forth the final procedures for retaliation claims under SOX, including the procedures and timeframes applicable to employee complaints and OSHA investigations. While the Final Rule does not differ substantively from the interim rule, it crystalizes the SOX whistleblower complaint procedures and reflects an increasingly whistleblower-friendly landscape.

Verbal Complaints

One of the most important aspects of the Final Rule—and a subject of considerable concern to commenters—is its adherence to the interim rule provision permitting verbal SOX complaints. Prior to the interim rule, complaints had to be in writing and include a full statement of the alleged wrongful acts or omissions. The interim rule eliminated this requirement and permitted complaints to be made verbally and reduced to writing by an OSHA investigator. Commenters argued that this procedure transforms the investigator into an advocate for the complainant, lacks any standard for the investigator’s written complaint, and increases the risk that the complainant may attempt to change his or her allegations by contending that the claims were not accurately recorded by the investigator. OSHA rejected these arguments, concluding that allowing verbal complaints is “[c]onsistent with OSHA’s procedural rules under other whistleblower statues.”

Preliminary Reinstatement

The Final Rule also adopted the interim rule’s provision on preliminary reinstatement, i.e., reinstating the complainant to his or her former position during the pendency of a dispute. Commenters had suggested—without success—that OSHA include a provision that preliminary reinstatement should not be granted if the complainant is a security risk and that OSHA articulate specific circumstances under which preliminary reinstatement is appropriate. Instead, the Final Rule provides that, if there is a reasonable basis to believe that a SOX violation has occurred, a preliminary order will be issued that provides the relief necessary to make the complainant whole, including reinstatement to the position that he or she would have had but for the retaliation.

Moreover, as an alternative to actual reinstatement, the Final Rule permits OSHA to order preliminary “economic reinstatement” during the pendency of a dispute, which allows the complainant to collect his or her same pay and benefits without having to return to work. Significantly, OSHA intentionally omitted any mechanism for employers to recover the costs of preliminary economic reinstatement if the complainant is ultimately unsuccessful on his or her claim.

Notice to Respondents

One helpful development for employers is OSHA’s decision to clarify in its Final Rule the notice that respondents must receive when a complaint is filed, as well as respondents’ right to receive the information that the complainant submits to OSHA during an investigation. The Final Rule expressly provides that, when a complaint is filed, OSHA must notify the respondent of the filing of the complaint, the allegations made, and the substance of the supporting evidence. The Final Rule also notes that OSHA “generally provides the respondent with a copy of its memorandum memorializing the complaint” and that the respondent can “request that OSHA clarify the allegations in the complaint if necessary.” In addition, the Final Rule makes clear that, during an investigation, OSHA will ensure that each party receives a copy of all of the other parties’ submissions to OSHA and is given an adequate opportunity to respond to those submissions.

In the light of these generally supportive and encouraging procedures for whistleblowers, it is more important than ever for employers to correctly identify, investigate thoroughly, and take appropriate steps to address internal whistleblower complaints before they become costly, full-blown whistleblower disputes.

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.

Our colleague Jang H. Im recently published an article, “The $34 Million Question: What All IT Consulting Companies Should Learn from the Infosys Settlement,” pointing out key lessons that all companies, including financial services employers may learn from InfoSys’ immigration issues with the U.S. Department of Justice and the precautionary measures employers should take.

The article is broken down as follows:

1) Beware the Whistleblower
2) Do Not Neglect the Legal Limits on the B-1 Visa Classification
3) Follow the H-1B Requirements Even After Approval
4) Follow the I-9 Verification Requirements

Read the full article here.

By John F. Fullerton III

A New York federal district court has become the second court to hold that the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provision, 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(a), which prohibits retaliation against a whistleblower who makes disclosures required or protected by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, among other laws, does not apply extraterritorially.  In Meng-Lin Liu v. Siemens A.G. (pdf), a judge of the Southern District of New York, consistent with a decision earlier this year by a Texas district court, held that a Taiwanese compliance officer working for a Chinese subsidiary of a German parent company, who complained within the organization of alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) occurring in China and Korea, and was subsequently discharged, could not sustain his whistleblower retaliation claim in the United States, and dismissed his complaint accordingly.

The court applied a well-settled principle of statutory analysis in finding that the Dodd-Frank Act’s silence regarding whether the Section 78u applies extraterritorially provides a “strong presumption” against its application to conduct outside of the United States.  This presumption against the extraterritorial reach of the anti-retaliation provision is bolstered by the existence of another section of Dodd-Frank that expressly permits the SEC to pursue enforcement actions for certain conduct or transactions occurring outside of the United States, which would be superfluous if the entire Act applied extraterritorially.  The court rejected the argument that because non-U.S. citizens working abroad for non-U.S. subsidiaries may be eligible for whistleblower bounty awards, they must therefore also be covered by the anti-retaliation provisions.  The court found that the only connection with the United States – that Siemens A.G. has listed American Depository Receipts on the New York Stock Exchange, and is therefore subject to securities laws within the United States – was insufficient to overcome the requirement that there be some sign of Congressional intent for the anti-retaliation provision to apply overseas.

Observing that the similar anti-retaliation provision of Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act also does not apply extraterritorially, the court dismissed the complaint for the additional reason that Section 806 does not “require or protect” disclosure of alleged FCPA violations, regardless of whether it applies extraterritorially.  Reporting violations of the FCPA simply does not fall within the scope of conduct which constitutes protected activity under Section 806.  The court also acknowledged that there is a split of authority among the federal courts regarding whether a Dodd-Frank whistleblower has engaged in protected activity if he or she only reports the misconduct internally, rather than reporting it to the SEC or other governmental agencies, but found that it did not need to resolve that issue in light of the other grounds for dismissal of the complaint.

The facts of this case weighed heavily in favor of the court’s decision, which has provided additional support for the general concept that the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provision does not apply extraterritorially.  It remains to be seen, however, what courts might decide in a more complicated scenario in which there were additional contacts and connections with the United States.