A number of different organizations generate annual publicity for themselves by designating a word (or words) of the year. We are not yet half way through 2011 but I am already prepared to propose my own candidate for this year’s word of the year – the word is “whistleblower.” From the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act and the predecessor provisions of the Sarbanes Oxley Act to the litigation activities of activist investors, whistleblowers’ actions and protections are a growing source of attention and concern – and litigation.
Since the Dodd Frank Act’s passage last summer, the whistleblower provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act have received a great deal of scrutiny. The SEC proposed rules to implement the provisions last November (refer here). The proposed rules have not yet been enacted by the SEC. However, according to a May 5, 2011 Reuters article (here), the vote on the final rules implementing the whistleblower provisions could come as early as May 25, 2011.
Among the issues surrounding the final rules is the question of whether or not they mandate that would-be whistleblowers must first report wrongdoing internally before reporting violations to the SEC, in order to be eligible for the so-called whistleblower bounty. According to the Reuters article, the SEC has “no plan to make internal reporting a mandatory first step for whistleblowers.” However other alternatives are under consideration, including the possibility of allowing company employees to reap full benefits of the bounty provisions if a combination of the employee’s tip and information from a company’s internal probe lead to the imposition of fines or penalties for securities law violations.
While the final rules on the whistleblower bounty provisions are pending, there have also been developments related to the other significant components of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower provisions -- the provisions’ anti-retaliation protections. A May 4, 2011 order in a case pending in the Southern District of New York took a detailed look at who may invoke the anti-retaliation provisions and what is required to invoke the protection. The order can be found here. UPDATE: Please note that in a subsequent September 1, 2011order, here, Judge Sands dismissed the plaitiffs' claims with prejudice, having concluded that the plaintiff has insufficiently pled his claims of retaliation and of securities fraud.
This case was brought by an employee of Trading Screen. The employee believed the company’s CEO was diverting opportunities and assets from Trading Screen to a company solely controlled by the CEO. The employee reported the CEO’s actions to the company’s President, who in turn reported the information to the company’s Board. The Board hired outside counsel (the Latham & Watkins firm) which investigated and concluded that the activity was taking place as the employee reported. However, when the Board sought the CEO’s voluntary resignation from the company, the CEO was able to wrest control of the Board. The CEO later fired the employee who had reported the violation.
The employee filed suit against TradingScreen, the CEO and a variety of related entities asserting a number of claims, including a separate cause of action for retaliatory discharge under the Dodd Frank whistleblower provisions (about which generally refer here). Among other things the relief available under the provisions includes reinstatement, double back pay, and costs and fees.
In moving to dismiss with respect to these allegations the defendants contended that the plaintiff is not covered by the Dodd Frank anti-retaliation provisions because he did not personally report the alleged violation to the SEC and because he does not otherwise come within the four other categories of activity that would bring his conduct within the provision.
The four other categories of disclosures protected under the Dodd Frank anti-retaliation provisions are disclosures: under the Sarbanes Oxley Act; under the Securities Act of 1934; under federal statutory provisions relating to investigative officers; or disclosures under any other law, rule or regulation of the Commission. In his May 4, 2011 order, Southern District of New York Judge Leonard Sand found that because TradingScreen is a private company, the employee’s disclosures did not come within the Sarbanes Oxley Act or the Securities Act, and that plaintiffs’ allegations were otherwise insufficient to bring his actions within the other two categories of disclosures.
The employee himself had not disclosed the alleged violation to the SEC. But the employee contended that he nevertheless came within the statute because he had made the disclosure to the SEC “jointly” with the outside law firm that investigated his allegations of misconduct. Judge Sand allowed that if the disclosures had been made to the SEC by the law firm, they were made “jointly” by the employee with the law firm, because law firm’s investigation of his report had led to the disclosure. However, Judge Sand also found that the plaintiff had not sufficiently alleged that the law firm had in fact disclosed the information to the SEC, but he granted the plaintiff leave to amend his complaint in order to try to establish that the law firm had in fact disclosed the information to the SEC. However, it should also be noted that in his September 1, 2011 order, Judge Sands dismissed the plaintiffs' claims with prejudice, concluding in particular that "Plainitff's Second Amended Complaint fails to allege a claim under the Securities Whistleblower Incentives and Protection provisions of teh Dodd-Frank Act."
Much of the focus of discussion about the Dodd Frank whistleblower provisions has been on the whistleblower bounty. However, given the breadth of the anti-retaliation provisions, those provisions could also prove to be critically important.
On May 3, 2011, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion (here) in a separate alleged whistleblower retaliation case, this one under the whistleblower protections in the Sarbanes Oxley Act. The case involved two individuals who had been part of the IT Sarbanes Oxley audit group at Boeing. The two had become concerned that Boeing was putting pressure on the audit team to rate Boeing’s internal controls “effective.” After raising concerns internally, the two had communicated with a reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who wrote articles about the company’s audit process. After an investigation, the company concluded that the two had violated the company’s policy against releasing internal information to the press without authorization, and the company terminated the employment of the two individuals.
The two individuals filed an action against the company alleging retaliation for actions protected by Sarbanes Oxley. The district court had granted the company’s motion for summary judgment and the two individuals appealed.
In its May 3 order, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the individuals were not protected under Sarbanes Oxley because it provides protections only for disclosures to a federal regulatory agency; a member or committee of Congress; or a supervisor or other individual authorized to investigation such misconduct. “Members of the media,” the court found, “are not included,” noting that Congress had limited the activity protected under the provisions to “employees who raise certain concerns of fraud or securities violations with those authorized or required to act on the information.”
The court concluded that the provision “does not protect employees of public companies who disclose information regarding fraud or certain securities violations to members of the media.” The court concluded that Boeing was within its rights to terminate the employees for violating company policy. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court.
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion and to a lesser extent Judge Sand’s opinion in the case discussed above serve as a reminder that those who comply with the statutory requirements will be able to bring themselves within the statutory protection. The statutory provisions do not protect whistleblowing in and of itself, but only certain kinds of whistleblowing under certain kinds of circumstances and conditions. Along with cases exploring the protections available under these statutory provisions, we can expect further cases examining the question of when supposed whistleblowers are entitled to the protection of the statutory provisions.
One final note during on the general whistleblowing theme is the lawsuit that was unsealed this past week in which taxpayers allege that certain loans extended by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the fall of 2008 as part of the bailout of AIG had defrauded taxpayers. The lawsuit, which first filed in the Southern District of California in 2010, and which was ordered unsealed last month, asserts claims under the False Claims Act. The taxpayers’ amended complaint can be found here.
The taxpayers’ complaint relates to two emergency loans the government extended to AIG that totaled over $40 billion and that were used to settle trades involving blocks of mortgage-backed securities that AIG had guaranteed. The lawsuit, which names as defendants not only AIG but also the transaction counterparties (which included Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Societe Generale), alleges that the Fed’s loans were improper because they were made without first obtaining a pledge of appropriate collateral as required by applicable law. The plaintiffs seek to recover for the U.S. government the losses sustained by the government as a result of the fraud and false claims alleged in the complaint.
Though the taxpayers’ action may be different in kind and character than the other cases discussed above, the cases collectively serve to underscore the prevalence of whistleblowing activity. Courts undoubtedly will continue to sort out the prerequisites necessary to invoke the statutory whistleblower protections. But even while there may be many issues yet to be sorted out, whistleblowing itself already is a significant phenomenon, as witness by a host of current devopments, including the Wikileaks disclosures. With the protections and bounties under Dodd-Frank, its importance seem likely to increase. The likelihood for increased litigation involving whistleblower-related activity seems high.
Speakers' Corner: On May 11, 2011, I will be moderating a session in Menlo Park, California entitled "Dodd-Frank and the Rise of Shareholder Empowerment." The session is sponsored by the Orrick law firm, The Directors Network and Deloitte, and will take at place at the Orrick law firm's Menlo Park offices. The program, which is free and which will run from 8:45 am to 11:45 am, will provide insights and practical advice regarding fundamental changes in the corporate governance environment and the emerging role of shareholders in the U.S. corporation.
The session includes an all-star cast of panelists, including; Consuelo Hitchcock, Principal, Regulatory and Public Policy at Deloitte; Marc Gross, of the Pomerantz, Haudek, Grossman & Gross law firm; Anne Sheehan, Director of Corporate Governance at CalSTRS; George Paulin, the President of George Cook & Co.; and Jonathan Ocker and Bob Varian of the Orrick law firm.
Further information about the program, including registration information, can be found here.