Law360 Quotes TELG Attorney on DOL ARB Decision Clarifying Broad Scope of Protected Conduct for SOX Whistleblowers

Law360 Quoted The Employment Law Group® principal attorney Jason Zuckerman on the DOL ARB’s decision in Sylvester v. Parexel International LLC, which held that the Twombly/Iqbal heightened pleading standards do not apply to SOX claims initiated with OSHA and that a complainant need only express a “reasonable belief” of a violation to engage in SOX-protected activity.   See the earlier post on the other holdings of the ARB in Sylvester.  Mr. Zuckerman stated that SOX was turning into a “robust remedy for whistleblowers,” pointing to the ARB’s decisions in Sylvester and Johnson v. Siemens Building Techs. and the recent Dodd-Frank Act amendments to SOX.  “The ARB has now removed ridiculous hoops that SOX complainants were required to jump through, which hoops were plainly inconsistent with the plain meaning of the statute,” Zuckerman said.  For more information about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, click here.

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DOL ARB Clarifies Broad Scope of Protected Conduct for SOX Whistleblowers in Sylvester v. Parexel International LLC

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The DOL Administrative Review Board has issued a very significant en banc decision on the whistleblower provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) that significantly strengthens the statute by clarifying the broad scope of protected conduct.  The ARB’s opinion in Sylvester v. Parexel International LLC, ARB No. 07-123, ALJ Nos. 2007-SOX-039, 042 (May 25, 2011) represents a substantial departure from the extraordinarily narrow construction of SOX in the opinions issued by the ARB appointed by Secretary Chao.  Read in conjunction with the ARB’s recent Johnson v. Siemens Bldg. Techs. decision broadening the scope of SOX coverage and the recent Dodd-Frank amendments to SOX (exempting SOX whistleblower claims from mandatory arbitration, clarifying that SOX claims can be tried before a jury, broadening the scope of coverage, and increasing the statute of limitations), SOX is becoming a robust remedy for whistleblowers.  The primary effect of Sylvester will be a significant increase in the number of SOX retaliation claims that get past motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment.  The ARB has now removed ridiculous hoops that SOX complainants were required to jump through, which hoops were plainly inconsistent with the plain meaning of the statute.  And the decision will enable OSHA to rule for more complainants during the investigative stage.  Hopefully, federal courts will accord Chevron deference to the decision.  The ARB held:

  1. Twombly/Iqbal heightened pleading standards do not apply to SOX claims initiated with OSHA.
  2. A complainant need only express a “reasonable belief” of a violation to engage in SOX-protected activity,
  3. The reasonable belief standard requires an examination of the reasonableness of a complainant’s beliefs, but not whether the complainant actually communicated the reasonableness of those beliefs to management or the authorities.
  4. Protected activity need not describe an actual violation of law.  A whistleblower complaint concerning a violation about to be committed is protected as long as the employee reasonably believes that the violation is likely to happen. Such a belief must be grounded in facts known to the employee, but the employee need not wait until a law has actually been broken to safely register his or her concern and consistent with this line of authority, an employee’s whistleblower communication is protected where based on a reasonable, but mistaken, belief that the employer’s conduct constitutes a violation of one of the six enumerated categories of law under Section 806.
  5. The holding in Platone that an employee’s communication must “definitively and specifically” relate to the listed categories of fraud or securities violation under Section 806 “has evolved into an inappropriate test and is often applied too strictly.”  Instead, the focus should be on whether the employee reported conduct that he or she reasonablybelieves constituted a violation of federal law.
  6. SOX protected conduct is not limited to disclosures about shareholder fraud and instead includes disclosures about mail fraud, fraud by wire, radio, or television, and bank fraud.  When an entity engages in mail fraud, wire fraud, or any of the six enumerated categories of violations set forth in Section 806, it does not necessarily engage in immediate shareholder fraud. Instead, the violation may be one which, standing alone, is prohibited by law, and the violation may be merely one step in a process leading to shareholder fraud.  Additionally, a reasonable belief about a violation of “any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission” could encompass a situation in which the violation, if committed, is completely devoid of any type of fraud.
  7. A SOX complainant need not establish the various elements of criminal fraud to prevail on a Section 806 complaint.  A complainant can have an objectively reasonable belief of a violation of the laws in Section 806, i.e., engage in protected activity under Section 806, even if the complainant fails to allege, prove, or approximate specific elements of fraud, which would be required under a fraud claim against the defrauder directly. In other words, a complainant can engage in protected activity under Section 806 even if he or she fails to allege or prove materiality, scienter, reliance, economic loss, or loss causation.  The purposes of the whistleblower protection provision will be thwarted if a complainant must, to engage in protected activity, allege, prove, or approximate that the reported irregularity or misstatement satisfies securities law “materiality” standards, was done intentionally, was relied upon by shareholders, and that shareholders suffered a loss because of the irregularity.

There are two concurring opinions.  Judges Corchado and Royce opine that thePlatone “definitive and specific requirement” is incompatible with the plain meaning of the statute and therefore should be abandoned.  Judge Brown opines that (i) Rule 12(b)(6) does not apply to SOX complaints, but ALJs can use OALJ summary decision procedure (29 C.F.R. § 18.40) to test the sufficiency of the complainant’s evidence; (ii) the Platone “definitive and specific requirement” should not be applied to SOX but the complainant must establish a basis for concluding that the employer’s conduct of concerns relates to the laws listed under Section 806; (iii) violations of SOX need not relate to fraud against shareholders; and (iv) a SOX complainant alleging that he disclosed shareholder fraud need not prove the specific elements of fraud.

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SEC Adopts Favorable Rules for Whistleblowers

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The Securities and Exchange Commission is being praised by whistleblower advocates for issuing finalized rules that will effectively incentivize employees to disclose fraud and other securities law violations.  The Dodd-Frank Act – enacted in July of 2010 – established a new whistleblower program within the SEC, requiring the SEC to reward whistleblowers who provide original information with between 10% and 30% of the amount recovered by the SEC.

The rules do not require whistleblowers to report fraudulent or illegal activity internally to their employer as a prerequisite to eligibility for an award – a position advocated by many corporations – but instead allow whistleblowers to blow the whistle directly to the SEC.  Allowing employees to report information directly to the SEC will not diminish the strong incentive for employees to blow the whistle internally because employees can still be rewarded for reporting internally so long as the employee also provides the same information to the SEC within 120 days.

The SEC wisely chose not to require all employees to report fraud internally.  Internal compliance programs failed miserably to avert the financial crisis.  Where fraud is pervasive in upper management, it would be futile for an employee to blow the whistle internally, and it is in the best interest of shareholders for the whistleblower to disclose fraud directly to the SEC.  But where companies have implemented effective programs that are not merely a tool of management to cover-up violations, employees will want to use those internal compliance programs.

For more information on reporting fraud, click here.

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SEC Issues Rules Favorable to Whistleblowers

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The Securities and Exchange Commission is receiving praise from whistleblower advocates for issuing finalized rules that do not require whistleblowers to report fraudulent or illegal activity internally to their employer, but instead allow whistleblowers to blow the whistle direct to the SEC. The Dodd-Frank Act established a new whistleblower program at the SEC, requiring the SEC to reward whistleblower who provides original information with between 10% and 30% of the amount recovered by the SEC. Allowing employees to report information directly to the SEC does not diminish the strong incentive for employees to blow the whistle internally, because employees can still get a reward so long as the employee provides the same information to the SEC within 120 days.

Internal compliance programs failed miserably to avert the financial crisis. Where fraud is pervasive in upper management, it would be futile for an employee to blow the whistle internally and it would be in the best interest of shareholders for the whistleblower to disclose fraud directly to the SEC. But where companies have implemented effective programs that are not merely a tool of management to cover up violations, then employees will use those programs. Unfortunately, far too many find their company’s internal compliance program is deficient and in some cases a tool for management to retaliate against whistleblowers.

The new reward program is already beginning to bear fruit. Similar whistleblower rewards under the False Claims Act where extremely effective at inducing employees t report fraud to the government, leading to the recovery of over 27 billion dollars.

TELG Quoted by Investment News About Proposal to Weaken SEC Whistleblower Reward Program

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Investment News reported that Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. circulated draft legislation that would require a whistleblower to first report fraud through an internal compliance program as a prerequisite to recovering an award before the whistleblower would be eligible for a reward from the SEC under the whistleblower reward provision of the Dodd-Frank Act.  TELG opposes such a requirement because blowing the whistle in a company where fraud is pervasive or where the internal compliance function is not independent is not only futile, but can undermine the SEC’s ability to combat the fraud.  Indeed, TELG has found that many whistleblowers who come forward in good faith through an internal compliance program suffer retaliation.   Jason Zuckerman, a Principal atThe Employment Law Group® law firm, told Investment News that he hopes that the SEC’s final rules implementing the whistleblower reward provisions of Dodd-Frank will offer strong to whistleblowers, and notes that “In order to put your job on the line, there has to be a real financial incentive.”

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