Whistleblowing and Compliance

One of the featured stories on Employment Law This Week – Epstein Becker Green’s new video program – is the SEC reminder that their bounty program applies to external whistleblowers.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has awarded $700,000 to a whistleblower who was not employed by the company he exposed. The external whistleblower discovered the issue when he ran a detailed analysis on the company. The agency explained that analysis from “industry experts” is as valuable as insider information. The whistleblower program began after the Dodd-Frank Act was passed and has now yielded $55 million in awards. This latest award raises new questions, including how the SEC will define “industry experts.”

See below to view the episode or read more about this important decision in an earlier post on this blog.

As we mentioned before the holiday, I was recently interviewed on our firm’s new video program, Employment Law This Week.  The show has now released “bonus footage” from that episode – see below.

I elaborate on my recent post with Jason Kaufman, “2nd Circuit Expands Dodd-Frank Anti-Retaliation Protection to Cover Internal Whistleblowing.”

Employment Law This Week – Epstein Becker Green’s new video program – features an interview with attorney John Fullerton, a founding contributor to this blog.

Mr. Fullerton discusses the lack of clarity on what constitutes a whistleblower. Marketing firm Neo@Ogilvy has decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that would have tested the definition of a whistleblower under the Dodd-Frank Act. At issue is whether an employee can be eligible for anti-retaliation protection under the Dodd-Frank Act even if he or she does not provide information of corporate wrongdoing directly to the SEC. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit says “no,” but the Second Circuit disagrees.

Click below to view the episode and also see our earlier post “2nd Circuit Expands Dodd-Frank Anti-Retaliation Protection to Cover Internal Whistleblowing.”

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 April 1, 2015, the SEC issued its first-ever enforcement action against a company for using overly restrictive language in one of its confidentiality agreements in violation of SEC Rule 21F-17(a).  We posted previously regarding the settlement order between the SEC and KBR, Inc.  In that Order, KBR, Inc., agreed to include the following language in its confidentiality agreements:

“Nothing in this Confidentiality Statement prohibits me from reporting possible violations of federal law or regulation to any governmental agency or entity, including but not limited to the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Congress, and any agency Inspector General, or making other disclosures that are protected under the whistleblower provisions of federal law or regulation. I do not need the prior authorization of the Law Department to make any such reports or disclosures and I am not required to notify the company that I have made such reports or disclosures.”

In the following video clip from a recent webinar, I discuss this whistleblower carve-out language and whether it should be included in all confidentiality agreements:

Can an employee who blows the whistle on alleged securities law violations within the company (and is therefore protected by the anti-retaliation provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act), but does not blow the whistle externally to the SEC, also invoke the more advantageous anti-retaliation protections of the Dodd-Frank Act in a private lawsuit?  Or is Dodd-Frank limited to protecting external whistelblowers? There is a growing split of authority on this question among various federal appellate and district courts.  On June 17, 2015, the Second Circuit heard oral arguments on this issue in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC, 14-4626 (2d Cir.); a decision should be forthcoming this year that may or may not deepen the divide.

In the following video clip from a recent webinar, I discuss the split of judicial authority on this issue, the reasons behind it and what is ultimately at stake:

See more of my videos here.

The number of whistleblower complaints is on the rise, according to the 2014 Annual Report to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program, and defending against them can be costly and disrupt business operations. Taking appropriate steps in response to internal complaints can go a long way toward minimizing the risk that the issue becomes an external dispute at OSHA or in court.

Understanding the Objectives A prompt investigation and an understanding of the objectives of the investigation are paramount. Employers should decide, for example, whether the goal is to create a factual record, prepare an investigative report addressing a particular inquiry or legal consideration, provide a basis for decision making, or serve as a defense in anticipated litigation—or any combination of these objectives. These considerations will determine whether the investigation should be undertaken by a non-attorney or by corporate counsel or outside counsel, or both. For example, if the goal is simply to correct a problem internally, perhaps corporate counsel is appropriate. If, on the other hand, there is a high likelihood that the employee’s complaint will lead to full-blown litigation, outside counsel may be more appropriate. In addition, employers must have a basic understanding of the privileges afforded to attorney work product and attorney-client communications. This is because the choice of investigator can impact whether, and to what extent, these privileges apply to the information adduced during the investigation, which, in turn, will determine whether such information will be protected from disclosure to third parties.

Whistleblowers in Compliance or Audit Functions Employers should also know how to respond to the challenge raised by complaints made by whistleblowers who work in compliance or audit functions or are otherwise responsible for receiving and investigating internal whistleblower complaints. These “trusted” whistleblowers are especially problematic because, while they should be working to investigate and correct the issue internally, they may also decide to blow the whistle themselves and report the matter to outside authorities. Further, while they are generally ineligible for financial awards under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower bounty program, these “trusted” whistleblowers can become eligible for an award if the business takes no corrective action within 120 days after they make an internal complaint. They are also protected by anti-retaliation provisions of Dodd-Frank and SOX.

Training Managers to Receive Complaints One of the most important considerations is making sure that supervisors and managers are trained and understand how to recognize and elevate a whistleblower complaint to the appropriate internal legal or compliance unit, and how to conduct themselves going forward to minimize the risk of a retaliation claim by an employee who blows the whistle. Issues are frequently first raised at the supervisory level, and the sooner that compliance and/or legal professionals receive information about a claim so that they can access the appropriate response, the sooner an internal investigation can commence, when necessary. Further, managing an employee who has made a whistleblower claim can present a host of challenges, particularly if the employee is under-performing and therefore has been or is becoming a candidate for corrective or even disciplinary action. If a current employee raises a whistleblower complaint, it is essential that the alleged wrongdoing is not compounded by retaliation against that employee (or by actions that give the appearance of retaliation). Thus, supervisors and managers should receive periodic training regarding the laws and company policies prohibiting retaliation. They should also understand the need to have any potentially adverse employment actions vetted by the legal department before taking action. Finally, supervisors and managers should be given appropriate support from the legal and/or human resources departments in terms of counseling and advice in dealing with the whistleblower on a day-to-day basis as issues arise, rather than trying to navigate these waters on their own.

On May 5, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Wiersum v. U.S. Bank, N.A. (pdf) that the National Bank Act (“NBA”), 12 U.S.C. §24 (Fifth), preempted a bank officer’s state law whistleblower claim that he was wrongfully terminated for opposing the bank’s alleged unlawful conduct. This was a first-impression issue for the Eleventh Circuit, and the majority concluded that the state law claim was preempted because it directly conflicted with the power Congress vested in federally chartered banks to dismiss officers “at pleasure.”

Wiersum, a former Vice President and Wealth Management Consultant for U.S. Bank, claimed that the bank had wrongfully terminated him in retaliation for complaining about, and refusing to participate in, the bank’s alleged unlawful practice of conditioning credit upon asset management (i.e., illegal tying arrangements). He alleged that his termination violated the Florida Whistleblower Act (“FWA”), which prohibits an employer from taking adverse personnel action against an employee because he or she objected to an activity of the employer that violates a law, rule, or regulation. The Eleventh Circuit, however, ruled that Wiersum’s claim was preempted by the NBA, which permits the board of directors of a national banking association to appoint officers, define their duties, and “dismiss such officers or any of them at pleasure.”

The Court analyzed the dispute as a question of conflict preemption – i.e., where state law is preempted because it conflicts with federal law such that a party cannot comply with both state and federal requirements, or conflicts with the objectives of Congress in enacting applicable federal regulations. The majority of the Court concluded that in this case the state law (FWA) conflicted with applicable federal law (NBA): on the one hand, the FWA would prohibit U.S. Bank from terminating an officer for objecting to alleged unlawful activities, while, on the other hand, the NBA grants U.S. Bank the full discretion to terminate an officer at will. Relying on decisions from the Fourth and Sixth Circuits that recognized the NBA’s preemptive power over state laws that divest a national bank of the right to terminate officers at pleasure, the majority held that the state whistleblower claim was in direct conflict with, and therefore barred by, the NBA’s at-pleasure provision.

In a dissenting opinion, Hon. Beverly Martin argued that the historical underpinnings of the  at-pleasure provision demonstrate that it was not intended to preempt state whistleblower law, and that the Fourth and Sixth Circuit decisions the majority relied upon have “very little supporting their broadly preemptive interpretation of the NBA” and have been criticized by other federal courts.  Judge Martin wrote that the consequences of the majority ruling are “worrying” because it denies bank officers protections afforded by state and local anti-retaliation laws.

The majority was unswayed, calling this a “straightforward case of conflict preemption” and finding the dissent’s concerns unfounded because bank officers would continue to be protected by federal laws that prohibit unlawful whistleblower retaliation (e.g., Dodd-Frank). The majority decision confirms the power afforded to national banks to dismiss officers “at pleasure” – at least for the time being in the Eleventh Circuit. Yet, for the reasons articulated in the dissent, the extent to which national banks can rely on the NBA’s “at pleasure” provision as a defense to whistleblower claims brought pursuant to state and local laws may be less certain unless and until the issue is squarely addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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.