On March 4, in a suit brought by former employees of private companies that advise or manage mutual funds, the U.S. Supreme Court held (6-3) that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s whistleblower protection provision covers employees of a public company’s non-public contractors and subcontractors. Lawson v. FMR LLC, No. 12-3, 2014 WL 813701 (Mar. 4, 2014). The Court held, “based on the text of [the statute], the mischief to which Congress was responding, and earlier legislation Congress drew upon, that the [whistleblower protection] provision shelters employees of private contractors and subcontractors, just as it shelters employees of the public company served by the contractors and subcontractors.” The Court reasoned that to hold otherwise would insulate nearly the entire mutual fund industry, since mutual funds are public companies that typically do not have their own employees. The Court determined that based on the ordinary meaning of the provision’s language, whistleblower protection under the Act extends to a contractor’s own employees. Further, according to the Court, “Congress’ concern about contractor conduct of the kind that contributed to Enron’s collapse” cast doubt on a “construction of [the provision] to protect whistleblowers only when they are employed by a public company, and not when they work for the public company’s contractor.” Finally, the Court determined that Congress drew the Act’s whistleblower protection provision from the 2000 Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, which has been interpreted to cover employees of contractors. The Court thus reversed the First Circuit’s contrary holding and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Wisconsin Federal Court Holds Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Protections Not Available For Reported Violations Of Banking Laws
On June 4, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin held that a former bank executive cannot pursue a claim that, when the bank terminated his employment, it violated the whistleblower-protection provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act because those protections apply only to individuals who report violations of securities laws and not to those who report alleged violations of other laws, such as banking laws. Zillges v. Kenney Bank & Trust, No. 13-1287, 2014 WL 2515403 (E.D. Wis. June 4, 2014). A former bank CEO sued the bank and certain affiliated companies and individuals, and claimed that they conspired to terminate his employment and prevent him from earning stock options after he observed conduct that he believed violated federal banking laws and reported the allegedly illegal conduct to the bank’s board of directors, the FDIC, and the FTC. The court held that in order to qualify as a whistleblower under Dodd-Frank, the disclosure must relate to a violation of securities laws. Accordingly, because the whistleblower disclosed alleged violations of only banking laws, the whistleblower provisions of Dodd-Frank did not apply. In doing so, the court explicitly side-stepped the question of whether a person is a whistleblower subject to Dodd-Frank protections if he or she makes a protected disclosure to someone other than the SEC. The court acknowledged the disagreement on that issue, which involves the interplay between the statutory definition of “whistleblower” and the protected actions listed in the statute, explaining that although the statute requires a person to provide information to the SEC in order to qualify as a whistleblower, some of the protected activities do not necessarily involve disclosures to the SEC. To date, some courts have reasoned that Congress could not have intended this result and have concluded that a person who makes a disclosure that falls within the protected activities, whether the disclosure is made to the SEC or not, is a “whistleblower” within the meaning of Dodd-Frank, while other courts have concluded that a person is a “whistleblower” only if the person makes the disclosure to the SEC.
On February 21, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower protection provisions could not be applied retroactively to an alleged retaliation that occurred before the effective date of the statute. Ahmad v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc., No. 13-6394, 2014 WL 700339 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2014). A former employee of a financial institution filed suit against his former employer under Dodd-Frank, alleging that he had been harassed and intimidated for his attempts to raise concerns during audits of loans made by the institution. Although the alleged retaliation occurred before the effective date of Dodd-Frank, the employee argued that the statute’s whistleblower provisions—which broadly prohibit employers from discriminating, harassing, terminating or otherwise punishing employee whistleblowers for their lawful conduct—were merely technical revisions to whistleblower protections that already existed under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, and therefore the Dodd-Frank act protections apply retroactively. The court disagreed and held that the Dodd-Frank created an “entirely new whistleblower cause of action,” distinct from that provided by Sarbanes-Oxley. In particular, the court pointed to the plain text of Dodd-Frank, which identifies the relevant provisions as a “cause of action,” and allows plaintiffs to seek double back-pay for retaliation, a remedy not available under Sarbanes-Oxley. The court dismissed the former employee’s suit with prejudice.
On November 14, the SEC reported the results of its enforcement program for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2012. During the year, the SEC filed 734 enforcement actions, which included an increasing number of actions focused on highly complex products, transactions, and practices. The SEC obtained orders requiring more than $3 billion in penalties and disgorgement, an 11% increase over the amount required in 2011. The SEC believes these metrics indicate “sustained high-level performance,” which it attributes to various reforms and innovations put in place over the past two years. The announcement highlights certain cases related to (i) the financial crisis, (ii) insider trading, (iii) investment advisers, (iv) broker-dealers, (v) FCPA, and (vi) municipal securities. On November 15, the SEC released its Annual Report on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program. The annual report provides an overview of the program and notes that the SEC received 3,001 whistleblower tips from all 50 states and from 49 countries, including a tip that resulted in the first ever award under the program. There were 143 enforcement judgments and orders issued with potential for a whistleblower award. The most common complaints related to corporate disclosures and financials (18.2%), offering fraud (15.5%), and manipulation (15.2%).
On August 21, the SEC announced the first award issued as part of a new whistleblower program mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act. The program is designed to encourage individuals to submit high-quality evidence of securities fraud. Under the program, if a whistleblower submits information that results in a successful SEC enforcement action in which more than $1 million in sanctions is ordered, the SEC will pay up to thirty percent of the money obtained. The SEC stated that it paid the maximum thirty percent, in this case $50,000 of the $150,000 collected thus far from the enforcement action. The SEC did not reveal the matter for which the whistleblower provided evidence of fraud and did not reveal the individual’s name, noting that the Dodd-Frank Act provisions require the SEC to protect any information that could reasonably be expected to reveal a whistleblower’s identity.
The SEC whistleblower program, implemented under Section 922 of the Dodd-Frank Act, is primarily intended to reward individuals who act early to expose violations and who provide significant evidence that helps the SEC bring successful cases. The whistleblower rules contain three key provisions that can be integrated into a company’s existing compliance infrastructure to encourage internal reporting, thereby affording the company time to further investigate the claim, provide a solution, or self-report potential violations. The three key provisions are:
- 120-day rule: Whistleblowers who report internally are considered to have reported the same information to the SEC as of the date of the internal report so long as the whistleblower, or the company on the whistleblower’s behalf, provides the same information to the SEC within 120 days.
- Tacking: If an entity conducts an internal investigation based on a whistleblower’s internal report, and thereafter provides that information to the SEC, for purposes of determining whether an award is due and how much, the whistleblower will receive credit for the submission of the same information.
- Bump Up: Making use of a company’s internal compliance and reporting system to report wrongful conduct is a positive factor that will potentially increase the amount of a whistleblower award.