NAVEX’s 2022 Risk & Compliance Hotline & Incident Management Benchmark Report reveals an increase in internal reporting about misconduct and an increase in allegations of retaliation. The analysis of data from 3,470 organizations that received more than 1.37 million individual reports identified the following trends (see the full report for a discussion of additional trends and analysis of the data):
- “More actual allegations of misconduct, rather than inquiries about policies or possible misconduct. Ninety percent of all reports in 2021 were allegations of misconduct, up from 86 percent last year and hitting an all-time high since our first benchmark report more than ten years ago.”
- “Reports about retaliation, harassment and discrimination jumped – especially retaliation. In 2021, reports of retaliation nearly doubled . . . Taken altogether, these findings suggest employees are more attuned to workplace civility issues. That would fit with external trends such as more talk about systemic racism, income inequality and political divisions; as well as increasing protection for whistleblowers and employees’ awareness of those protections.”
- “Substantiation rates continue to edge upward. Overall substantiation rates rose from 42 percent in 2020 to 43 percent in 2021, and up from 36 percent a decade ago. The reports substantiated most often were data privacy concerns (63 percent), environmental issues (59 percent), and confidential and proprietary information (54 percent). The reports substantiated least often were about retaliation (24 percent).”
- “The substantiation rate for reports of retaliation also went up slightly, from 23 percent in 2020 to 24 percent in 2021 – the highest substantiation rate seen since 2016. While steady, this substantiation rate is significantly below the overall median case substantiation rate of 43 percent in 2021. These cases, though difficult to prove, warrant attention.”
- “Reports of harassment exceeded levels from the height of the #MeToo movement.”
Corporate Whistleblower Protections
Whistleblower retaliation remains all too prevalent. A September 14, 2022 Bloomberg article titled Whistleblower retaliation remains all too prevalent discusses how “choosing to be a whistle-blower can also be a lonely, risky road” and identifies many deterrents to speaking up – “[t]hey may be afraid of litigation, ruining their reputations, losing security clearances or facing jail time.”
Fortunately, federal and state laws afford corporate whistleblowers remedies to combat retaliation, and whistleblower reward laws incentivize whistleblowers to take the considerable risks entailed in reporting fraud and other wrongdoing to the government. For example, the
SEC Whistleblower Program offers awards to eligible whistleblowers who provide original information that leads to successful SEC enforcement actions with total monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million. A whistleblower may receive an award of between 10% and 30% of the total monetary sanctions collected in actions brought by the SEC and in related actions brought by other regulatory or law enforcement authorities. The SEC Whistleblower Program allows whistleblowers to submit tips anonymously if represented by an attorney in connection with their tip.
What is Whistleblower Retaliation?
Whistleblower retaliation laws prohibit a broad range of retaliatory actions against whistleblowers, including any act that would dissuade a worker from engaging in protected whistleblowing. Examples of actionable whistleblower retaliation include:
- Terminating a whistleblower;
- Constructively discharging a whistleblower;
- Demoting a whistleblower;
- Suspending a whistleblower;
- Harassing a whistleblower or subjecting the whistleblower to a hostile work environment;
- Reassigning a whistleblower to a position with significantly different responsibilities;
- Issuing a performance evaluation or performance improvement plan that supplies the necessary foundation for the eventual termination of the whistleblower’s employment, or a written warning or counseling session that is considered discipline by policy or practice and is routinely used as the first step in a progressive discipline policy;
- Placing the whistleblower on administrative leave;
- Threatening to take an adverse action against a whistleblower;
- Subjecting a whistleblower to a retaliatory investigation or retaliatory surveillance;
- Suing a whistleblower for the purpose of retaliating against the whistleblower;
- Outing a whistleblower;
- Intimidating a whistleblower;
- Initiating a law enforcement investigation or facilitating an employee’s detention by U.S. ICE after the employee reported a serious injury; or
- Discriminating against a whistleblower in the terms and conditions of employment because of whistleblowing.
The DOL Administrative Review Board has emphasized that statutory language prohibiting discrimination “in any way” must be broadly construed and therefore a whistleblower need not prove that a retaliatory act had a tangible impact on an employee’s terms and conditions of employment.
What Damages Can a Whistleblower Recover in a Whistleblower Retaliation Case?
Whistleblower retaliation can exact a serious toll, including lost pay and benefits, reputational harm, and emotional distress. Indeed, whistleblower retaliation can derail a career and deprive the whistleblower of millions of dollars in lost future earnings.
Whistleblowers should be rewarded for doing the right thing, but all too often they suffer retaliation and find themselves marginalized and ostracized. Federal and state whistleblower laws provide several remedies to compensate whistleblowers that have suffered retaliation, including:
- back pay (lost wages and benefits);
- emotional distress damages;
- damages for reputational harm;
- reinstatement or front pay in lieu thereof;
- lost future earnings; and
- punitive damages.
Click here for examples of verdicts and settlements in whistleblower retaliation cases.
Combating Whistleblower Retaliation: How to Maximize Your Recovery
Whistleblower protection laws can provide a potent remedy, but before bringing a retaliation claim, it is crucial to assess the options under federal and state law and develop a strategy to achieve the optimal recovery. Key issues to consider include the scope of protected whistleblowing, the burden of proof, the damages that a prevailing whistleblower can recover, the forum where the claim would be litigated, and the impact of the retaliation claim on a whistleblower rewards claim.
Scope of Protected Whistleblowing
There is no federal statute that provides general protection to corporate whistleblowers. Instead, federal whistleblower protection laws protect specific types of disclosures, such as disclosures of securities fraud, tax fraud, procurement fraud, or consumer financial protection fraud. The main sources of federal protection for corporate whistleblowers include the whistleblower protection provisions of the following:
- The False Claims Act (FCA) — protecting disclosures about fraud directed toward the government, including actions taken in furtherance of a qui tam action and efforts to stop a violation of the FCA;
- The Defense Contractor Whistleblower Protection Act (DCWPA) — protecting whistleblowing about gross mismanagement of a federal contract or grant; a gross waste of federal funds; an abuse of authority relating to a federal contract or grant or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety, or a violation of law, rule, or regulation related to a federal contract;
- The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) — protecting disclosures about mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, a violation of any SEC rule, or shareholder fraud;
- The Dodd-Frank Act (DFA) — protecting whistleblowing to the SEC about potential violations of federal securities laws;
- The Taxpayer First Act (TFA) — protecting disclosures about tax fraud or tax underpayment;
- The Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) — protecting disclosures concerning violations of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules or federal laws regulating unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices in the provision of consumer financial products or services; and
- The Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) — protecting disclosures about violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.
While most of these anti-retaliation laws protect internal disclosures (e.g., reporting to a supervisor), whistleblower protection under the DFA is predicated on a showing that the whistleblower disclosed a potential violation of federal securities law to the SEC prior to suffering an adverse action.
State law may also provide a remedy, including the anti-retaliation provisions in state FCAs. And approximately 42 states recognize a common law wrongful discharge tort action (a public policy exception to at-will employment), which generally protects refusal to engage in illegal activity and the exercise of a statutory right.
Burden of Proof
To maximize the likelihood of winning a case (or at least getting the case before a jury), it is useful to select a remedy with a favorable causation standard (the level of proof required to link the protected whistleblowing to the adverse employment action). SOX has a favorable “contributing factor” causation standard, i.e., the whistleblower prevails by proving that their protected whistleblowing affected in any way the employer’s decision to take an adverse action. In contrast, the FCA and DFA require the whistleblower to prove “but for” causation, i.e., the adverse action would not have happened “but for” the protected whistleblowing (albeit there is no need to prove that it was the sole factor).
Damages and Remedies in Whistleblower Retaliation Cases
Variations in the remedies available to whistleblowers under federal anti-retaliation laws may warrant bringing more than one claim. For example, the DCWPA authorizes an award of back pay (the value of lost pay and benefits), and the FCA authorizes an award of double back pay. If the whistleblower’s disclosures are protected under both statutes, then the whistleblower should bring both claims.
While a prevailing whistleblower can recover back pay under both the DFA and SOX (double back pay under the former and single back pay under the latter), the DFA does not authorize special damages, i.e., damages for emotional distress and reputational harm. In contrast, SOX authorizes uncapped compensatory damages. Therefore, a whistleblower protected under both statutes should bring the SOX claim within the much shorter SOX statute of limitations (180 days) to recover both double back pay and special damages.
State law may also provide a remedy, and if the whistleblower can pursue both a statutory remedy and a wrongful discharge tort, the latter may offer the opportunity to seek punitive damages.
Forum Selection and Administrative Exhaustion
When selecting the optimal remedy to combat retaliation, a whistleblower should consider the forum where the claim would be tried and determine whether the claim must initially be investigated by a federal agency before the whistleblower can litigate the claim. SOX provides an unequivocal exemption from mandatory arbitration, but Dodd-Frank claims are subject to arbitration. Accordingly, a whistleblower protected both by SOX and Dodd-Frank should file a SOX claim within the 180-day statute of limitations to preserve the option to try the case before a jury.
Several of the corporate whistleblower protection laws require that the whistleblower file the claim initially at a federal agency and permit the agency to investigate the claim before the whistleblower can litigate the claim. This is called administrative exhaustion, and failure to comply with that requirement can waive the claim. In contrast, the FCA and DFA do not require administrative exhaustion.
Impact of Whistleblower Retaliation Claim on Whistleblower Rewards Claim
Another important consideration is the potential impact of a retaliation case on a qui tam or whistleblower rewards case. Filing an FCA retaliation claim while a qui tam suit is under seal poses some risk of violating the seal, which could bar the whistleblower from recovering a relator share. Therefore, counsel should consider filing the FCA retaliation claim under seal along with the qui tam suit.
Further, whistleblowers pursuing rewards claims at federal agencies (e.g., SEC or IRS whistleblower claims) while simultaneously pursuing related retaliation claims (e.g., a SOX or TFA claim) should assess the potential impact of the retaliation claim and the potential discoverability of submissions to the SEC or IRS on the rewards claim(s).
Although the patchwork of whistleblower protection laws fails to protect disclosures about certain forms of fraud, there are important pockets of protection. To effectively combat retaliation, whistleblowers should avail themselves of all appropriate remedies.