Supreme Court Expands Whistleblower Protection

by Ifrah PLLC
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The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that Sarbanes–Oxley extends whistleblower protection, not just to employees of public companies, but to employees of private contractors and subcontractors that serve public companies. In a 6-3 decision, the Court rejected the First Circuit’s narrow construction of the statute in favor of the Labor Department’s more expansive interpretation. Now more than ever, affected contractors and subcontractors need to ensure they have robust policies in place for addressing whistleblower complaints.

Congress passed the Sarbanes–Oxley Act in 2002, the year after Enron’s collapse. The Act was intended to protect investors in public companies and restore trust in financial markets. It achieved these goals in part by providing whistleblower protection: 18 U.S.C. § 1514A makes it unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees who report suspected fraud. The provision certainly protects employees of publicly traded companies. It was less clear whether § 1514A protects employees of private contractors that service public companies. The plaintiffs in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, claimed it did.

Jackie Lawson and Jonathan Lang were employees of private companies that serviced the Fidelity family of mutual funds. As is often the case with mutual funds, the Fidelity funds were subject to SEC reporting requirements, but had no employees. Private companies contracted with the funds to provide accounting and investment advisory services. In this case, the private companies were Fidelity-related entities referred to collectively as FMR. Lawson was a 14-year veteran and Senior Director of Finance for her employer, Fidelity Brokerage Services. She alleged that she was constructively discharged after raising concerns about cost accounting methods for the funds. Zang was an 8-year veteran of Fidelity Management & Research Co. He alleged that he was fired for raising concerns about misstatements in a draft SEC registration statement related to the funds. Both plaintiffs sued for retaliation under § 1514A.

FMR responded by asking the district court to dismiss the claims on grounds that § 1514A protects employees of public companies, not employees of privately held companies. The trial judge rejected FMR’s argument, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Months later, the Labor Department’s Administrative Review Board issued a decision in another case, making clear that ARB agreed with the trial judge. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the question.

On March 4, the Court issued its opinion that § 1514A shelters employees of private contractors, just as it shelters employees of public companies served by those contractors. Speaking for the majority, Justice Ginsburg explained that the Court’s broad construction finds support in the statute’s text and broader context. As relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims, § 1514A provides, “‘No public company . . . , or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company” may take adverse action “against an employee . . . because of [whistleblowing or other protected activity].’” Boiled down to its essence, the phrase in question states that “no . . . contractor . . . may discharge . . . an employee.” In ordinary usage, the phrase means that no contractor (of a public company) may retaliate against its own employees. After all, those are the people contractors have power to retaliate against. According to the Court, if Congress had intended to limit whistleblower protections to employees of publicly traded companies, as FMR argued, Congress would have said “no contractor may discharge an employee of a public company.” The statute doesn’t say that because Congress was not attempting to remedy a nonexistent problem. Enron did not collapse because its private contractors retaliated against Enron employees who tried to report the company’s fraud.

The Lawson Court explained further that its interpretation flows logically from the statute’s purpose to prevent another Enron debacle. Often, the first-hand witnesses of corporate fraud are employees of private companies that service a public company—law firms, accounting firms, and business consulting firms, for example. Without adequate protections against retaliation, contractor employees who come across fraud in their work for public companies will be less likely to report misconduct. The Court’s point was particularly relevant with respect to the Fidelity funds. Like most mutual funds, the Fidelity funds had no employees. A narrow reading of § 1514A would insulate a $14 million industry from retaliation claims. Congress could not have intended that result.

Given the Court’s decision in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, privately held companies that service public companies should consider how best to deal with whistleblower complaints. At a minimum, robust whistleblower policies will (i) safeguard whistleblower anonymity to the extent possible; (ii) encourage whistleblowers to exercise discretion without discouraging them from reporting misconduct; (iii) address the preservation of evidence relating to putative fraud; and (iv) establish procedures for the conduct of internal investigations into suspected fraud.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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