Sarbanes-Oxley Corporate Whistleblower Protection
Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, as amended by Dodd-Frank, prohibits an “officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent” of a publicly traded company from retaliating against “an employee” for disclosing reasonably perceived potential or actual violations of the six enumerated categories of protected conduct in Section 806. See 18 U.S.C. § 1514A. Until recently, there was a split of authority as to whether SOX protects employees of contractors providing services to public companies. In March 2014, the Supreme Court clarified that employees of contractors of public companies, including the attorneys and accountants who prepare the SEC filings of public companies, are covered under Section 806. See Lawson v. FMR LLC, 134 S. Ct. 1158 (2014). Subsequent interpretations of Lawson, however, suggest that the disclosures of a contractor’s employee are protected only if those disclosures pertain to fraud perpetrated by a publicly traded company, as opposed to wrongdoing by a private contractor.
Jackie Lawson worked for Fidelity Brokerage Services, a private subsidiary of the private company FMR Corp., which manages the day-to-day operations of publicly traded Fidelity mutual funds. As is common in the mutual-fund industry, the Fidelity investment company that files reports with the SEC (and is covered under Section 806) does not direct the personnel who operate the funds on a day-to-day basis. Lawson brought a SOX claim alleging retaliation for disclosing securities violations, including improper retention of advisory fees. The district court held that Lawson is a covered employee under Section 806, but the First Circuit reversed, holding that SOX protects only employees of publicly traded companies.
Supreme Court Holds that Sarbanes-Oxley Protects Employees of Contractors of Public Companies
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that SOX protects employees of contractors, subcontractors, and agents of public companies. Lawson, 134 S. Ct. at 1176. The majority relied primarily on the plain meaning of SOX but also based its decision on an extensive examination of the legislative history and purpose of the statute. In particular, the Court focused on references in the legislative history to outside auditors and attorneys who suffered retaliation after blowing the whistle on accounting fraud at Enron. The Court concluded that protecting employees of contractors of public companies is essential to preventing another Enron.
In the wake of Lawson, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania interpreted a limiting principle for SOX coverage of employees of public companies’ contractors and subcontractors. See Gibney v. Evolution Mktg. Research, LLC, 25 F. Supp. 3d 741 (E.D. Pa. 2014). Leo Gibney was employed by Evolution Marketing Research (“Evolution”), a private consulting company that contracted its services out to many publicly traded companies, including the pharmaceutical giant Merck. Evolution terminated Gibney’s employment after he reported to his supervisor that Evolution was fraudulently overbilling Merck for its services. Gibney brought a SOX claim, and the district court held that even though Gibney was a protected employee and had reported securities fraud, SOX did not apply because it protects only disclosures aimed at preventing fraud perpetrated by, rather than against, publicly traded companies. Id. at 747–48. The court expressed concern that permitting Gibney’s claim to proceed would transform SOX into a general retaliation statute that would apply to any private company that transacts business with a public company. While Lawson will probably generate an increase in SOX claims, Gibney suggests that courts will likely adopt limiting principles that narrow the scope of SOX coverage for employees of contractors and subcontractors of public companies.
Thereafter, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York held, consistent with Gibney, that SOX does not protect employees of contractors whose disclosures concern only the contractors’ violations of federal securities laws. See Anthony v. Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co., 130 F. Supp. 3d 644 (N.D.N.Y. 2015). That is, “[a] private company’s fraudulent practices do not become subject to § 1514A merely because that company incidentally has a contract with a public company.” Id. at 652. The court enunciated two limitations on the scope of SOX whistleblower protection:
First, the whistleblowing must relate to the contractor’s provision of services to the public company. Thus, § 1514A only covers contractors insofar as they are firsthand witnesses to corporate fraud at a public company—for example, the lawyers and accountants in the Enron scandal who facilitated and contributed to the fraud. It does not cover contractor employees who experience retaliation that is unrelated to the provision of services to a public company. The second limitation is that § 1514A is concerned with public company fraud, whether committed by the public company itself or through its contractors. . . . The effect of these limitations is to restrict § 1514A to situations where a contractor employee is functionally acting as an employee of a public company, and in that capacity, is a witness to fraud by the public company. Id. (citations omitted).
A ruling by a U.S. district court in Wisconsin clarified that, for § 1514A to apply, an actual employment relationship must exist between the plaintiff and the alleged retaliator. See Bogenschneider v. Kimberly Clark Glob. Sales, LLC, 2015 WL 796672 (W.D. Wis. Feb. 25, 2015). Bret Bogenschneider, a former employee of Kimberly Clark, claimed that both Kimberly Clark and its law firm, Godfrey & Kahn, had retaliated against him after he reported alleged tax fraud by Kimberly Clark. Citing Lawson, Bogenschneider argued that Godfrey & Kahn was an “agent” of Kimberly Clark and so could be held liable under § 1514A for retaliation. The district court rejected this argument and dismissed the claim against the law firm, stating:
Although the Court [in Lawson] listed “law firms” in its question, this was in the context of an employee of the law firm, so Lawson does not help plaintiff. . . . Regardless whether Godfrey & Kahn may have participated in any of the alleged retaliation, the law firm is not covered by § 1514A because the firm was not plaintiff’s employer.
Id. at *6.
Whistleblower Lawyers Representing Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblowers
The SOX whistleblower lawyers at Zuckerman Law, a Washington DC law firm representing SOX whistleblowers nationwide, have substantial experience litigating SOX retaliation claims. To learn more about Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower protections, click here, or call us at 202-262-8959 to schedule a preliminary consultation.