On May 25, 2011, the SEC adopted the final rules implementing the whistleblower provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act. The SEC declined to propose a rule that would have required whistleblowers to report first through internal corporate compliance programs. However, the SEC adopted changes that are intended to “incentivize whistleblowers to utilize their companies’ internal compliance and reporting systems when appropriate.”
The SEC’s May 25, 2011 press release about the final whistleblower rules can be found here. The SEC’s 305-page document describing the final rules can be found here. The SEC’s rules will be effective 60 days after they are submitted to Congress or published in the Federal Register.
Section 922 of the Dodd-Frank Act created certain new whistleblower incentives and protections. The section directs the SEC to pay awards to whistleblowers that provide the Commission with original information about a securities law violation that lead to the successful SEC enforcement action resulting in monetary sanctions over $1 million. The section also prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers.
The SEC released proposed rules to implement the whistleblower provisions in November 2010. The SEC received hundreds of comments on the proposed rules. The final rules document released yesterday describes many of the comments as well as the way that the SEC took the comments in to account in promulgating the final rules.
One of the most significant issues raise in the comments related to the impact of the whistleblower program on internal corporate compliance processes (refer here for a discussion of this issue). The gist of the concern is that the SEC whistleblower provisions would encourage the whistleblowers to bypass internal reporting mechanism (many of which have only recently been implemented pursuant to the requirements of Sarbanes Oxley). Though some commentators urged the Commission to require whistleblowers to report violations first internally, the SEC decided not to include this requirement. Rather, the SEC included in the final rules elements it hopes will encourage potential whistleblowers to use internal compliance processes.
Specifically, the rules make the whistleblower eligible for an award if the whistleblower reports the violation internally and the company informs the SEC about the violation. The SEC will also treat the informant as a whistleblower as of the date of an internal report of the employees provides the same information to the SEC within 120 days (this allows whistleblowers to save their “place in line” for a possible award). Finally, the informant’s voluntary participation in the company’s internal reporting program will be a factor the SEC will use to increase the amount of an award.
The SEC’s final rules also identify a number of categories of persons who will not be eligible for an award, including those with a preexisting legal or contractual duty to report their information; those who obtain their information either by privileged or illegal means; officers and directors who are informed by another person of the violations; compliance and audit personnel. (There are defined circumstances when compliance and audit personnel can be eligible.
The rules also clarify the whistleblowing procedures, and provide clarification of what constitutes a voluntary report; what constitutes original information; what constitutes a successful enforcement action and so on.
These rules will be effective shortly, most likely later in the summer. The ultimate practical effect of these new rules depends on how forthcoming prospective informants are; the quality of the information; and what the SEC does with the information.
The sheer scale of the prospective awards (from 10 to 30 percent of awards in excess of $1 million) is clearly designed to encourage whistleblowing, as indeed is the SEC’s final rule. For its part, the SEC has a huge incentive in the post-Madoff era to heed whistleblower’s warnings and to pursue the reported information. Just looking at the way the incentives and motivations line up, the most probable outcome here seems to be that there will be significant numbers of whistleblower reports and that these reports will trigger significant numbers of investigations and enforcement actions. These enforcement actions could well be followed by follow-on civil litigation, which could increase the potential exposure that companies and their senior officials could face as a result of the implementation of these rules.
It certainly appears that a portion of the plaintiffs’ bar things there is an opportunity here supporting prospective whistleblowers and perhaps using their reported information as the basis for separate civil suits – refer for example to this advertisement for the “SEC Whistleblower Claims Center.” The quick emergence of an opportunistic plaintiffs’ bar eager to try to turn these new rules to their advantage is hardly surprising. Enterprising plaintiffs’ lawyers have been profiting from the whistleblower incentives in the False Claims Act for years (refer, for example, here)
However these incentives may appear now, they will all be augmented exponentially once a whistleblower or two has garnered a significant award. Given the magnitude of some of the recent SEC enforcement actions (as for example in connection with SEC enforcement action under the FCPA, refer here) the likelihood that we might see some large awards seems high. Refer here for further discussion of the particular concerns surrounding the prospects for whistleblowing activity in the FCPA context.
The bottom line is that for those of us who worry about the potential exposures of directors and officers of public companies, there is a whole new category of concerns.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for the link to the whistleblower advertisement.