The SEC’s First Risk Alert of Fiscal Year 2017 Targets Registrant Rule 21F-17 Compliance

By James G. Lundy, Shavaun Adams Taylor and Matthew M. Morrissey

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission) Office of Compliance Inspections and Examination (OCIE) issued a Risk Alert on October 24, 2016, titled “Examining Whistleblower Rule Compliance.” This recent Risk Alert continues the SEC’s aggressive efforts to compel Rule 21F-17 compliance and puts the investment management and broker-dealer industries on formal notice that OCIE intends to scrutinize registrants’ compliance with the whistleblower provisions of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd–Frank). By way of background, Dodd–Frank established a whistleblower protection program to encourage individuals to report possible violations of securities laws. Importantly, in addition to providing whistleblowers with financial incentives, Rule 21F-17 provides that no person may take action to impede a whistleblower from communicating directly with the SEC about potential securities law violations, including by enforcing or threatening to enforce a severance agreement or a confidentiality agreement related to such communications. As discussed in our prior publications, the SEC’s Division of Enforcement (Enforcement) has instituted several settled actions against public companies for violating the “chilling effect” provisions of Rule 21F-17. During the past two months, the SEC has filed two additional settled enforcement actions, as summarized below. Thus, as the SEC embarks on the start of its 2017 fiscal year (FY2017), Rule 21F-17 remains an agency-wide priority, and issuers, investment management firms, and broker-dealers—if they have not done so already—need to take heed and proactively remediate any vulnerabilities that they may have regarding their Rule 21F-17 compliance.

OCIE Alerts Registrants

As described previously, the SEC’s most recent annual report stated that assessing confidentiality terms and language for compliance with Rule 21F-17 was a top priority for fiscal year 2016 and that staff had started the practice of examining company documents for such compliance. Now, less than one month into FY2017, OCIE has formalized this practice and notified the registrant community accordingly.

The Risk Alert spells out how OCIE plans to examine documents for these compliance issues. First, OCIE staff will examine whether any terms that are contained in company documents “(a) purport to limit the types of information that an employee may convey to the Commission or other authorities; and (b) require departing employees to waive their rights to any individual monetary recovery in connection with reporting information to the government.” Second, regarding the books and records to be examined, staff will analyze the following types of documents: compliance manuals; codes of ethics; employment agreements; and severance agreements. Finally, the Risk Alert identifies provisions that may contribute to violations of Rule 21F-17 or may impede employees or former employees from communicating with the Commission, such as provisions that

(a) require an employee to represent that he or she has not assisted in any investigation involving the registrant;

(b) prohibit any and all disclosures of confidential information, without any exception for voluntary communications with the Commission concerning possible securities laws violations;

(c) require an employee to notify and/or obtain consent from the registrant prior to disclosing confidential information, without any exception for voluntary communications with the Commission concerning possible securities laws violations; or

(d) purport to permit disclosures of confidential information only as required by law, without any exception for voluntary communications with the Commission concerning possible securities laws violations.

Enforcement Update

Since August 16, 2016, the SEC has instituted two additional enforcement actions for violations of Rule 21F-17 based on prohibitions contained in severance agreements. First, in the Health Net, Inc., matter, the relevant violations involved release language in severance agreements that required employees to waive their right to any monetary recovery resulting from participating in a whistleblower program, among other issues. As part of the settlement, Health Net agreed to pay a $340,000 civil penalty and to engage in undertakings similar to those in the prior Rule 21F-17 cases. A review of the SEC’s Rule 21F-17 stand-alone cases reveals that the penalties have increased with each matter and that Health Net payed the largest fine to date. More recently and within a month of OCIE’s Risk Alert, an international beverage conglomerate agreed to pay a civil penalty for violations of Rule 21F-17, among other charges. The Rule 21F-17 violations were related to a liquidated damages provision in the company’s separation agreement that did in fact cause an employee to stop communicating with the SEC until he received a subpoena. In this case, the primary charges involved books and records violations and internal control infractions that arose under the terms of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977. Consistent with one other Rule 21F-17 case, the SEC appears to routinely investigate possible Rule 21F-17 violations while investigating other charges.

Takeaways

OCIE’s first Risk Alert of FY2017 puts the investment management and broker-dealer industries on notice that OCIE staff will examine and scrutinizing company documents for Rule 21F-17 compliance. More importantly and not stated in the Risk Alert—when coupled with Enforcement’s ongoing and aggressive interest—this combination indicates that OCIE staff will be looking to refer violations of Rule 21F-17 to their receptive Enforcement colleagues. Thus, investment management and broker-dealer registrants need to be proactive in assessing their risks and in reviewing all agreements, policies and procedures that may create exposure to SEC Rule 21F-17 violations. If there are any potential violations, Registrants should then execute a remediation plan. Cleary, this Risk Alert serves as a “notice,” and registrants who fail to act will likely be subjected to an OCIE referral to Enforcement.

SEC Charges Another Company for Anti-Whistleblower Provision in Severance Agreements

By Mary Hansen and Rachel Share

The SEC announced on Wednesday that BlueLinx Holdings Inc. has agreed to pay a $265,000 penalty for including a provision in its severance agreements that required outgoing employees to waive their rights to monetary recovery if they filed a charge or complaint with the SEC or other federal agencies. Press Rel. No. 2016-157. According to the SEC’s order, approximately 160 BlueLinx employees have signed severance agreements that contained the provision since it was added to all of BlueLinx’s severance agreements in or about June 2013.

The provision violates Rule 21F-17 of the Exchange Act, which became effective on August 12, 2011, and prohibits any action to impede an individual from communicating with the SEC about a possible securities law violation. The purpose of the adoption of Rule 21F-17 was “to encourage whistleblowers to report possible violations of the securities laws by providing financial incentives, prohibiting employment-related retaliation, and providing various confidentiality guarantees.” See In the Matter of BlueLinx Holdings Inc., Release No. 78528. Because the severance agreement required employees leaving the company to waive potential whistleblower awards or risk losing payments and other benefits under the agreement, it ran afoul of Rule 21F-17.

In addition to the civil penalty, BlueLinx committed to (1) amend its severance agreements to make clear that employees may report possible securities law violations to the SEC and other federal agencies without BlueLinx’s prior approval and without having to forfeit any resulting whistleblower award and (2) make reasonable efforts to contact former employees who had executed severance agreements after August 12, 2011, to notify them that BlueLinx does not prohibit former employees from providing information to the SEC staff or from accepting SEC whistleblower awards.

BlueLinx consented to the cease-and-desist order without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings.

This is the third time that the SEC has charged violations of Rule 21F-17. In June, Merrill Lynch agreed to settle charges that it violated Rule 21F-17 in connection with certain statements in its severance agreements, and last year KBR settled similar charges in connection with certain restrictive language in confidentiality agreements used in the course of internal investigations. Like those orders, the SEC’s latest order is yet another example of the SEC holding companies liable for Rule 21F-17 violations without any evidence that any employee had actually been prevented from disclosing confidential information to the government. Thus, even in the absence of whistleblower concerns, companies should expect the SEC to continue to scrutinize language included in employment agreements, severance agreements, and other employment policies.

In fact, the Enforcement Division has been sending out requests to public issuers asking for copies of corporate confidentiality policies. It is not clear whether the companies contacted have been the subject of a whistleblower complaint or whether the staff is randomly selecting issuers. Moreover, the Office of Compliance, Inspections and Examinations has been routinely asking registrants during examinations for copies of employment agreements, severance agreements, employment policies, and any other documents that contain “confidentiality” provisions to ensure that they do not contain language that could be construed as interfering with the rights of whistleblowers.

Based on the SEC’s interest in enforcing Rule 21F-17, all employers should review such agreements and policies to ensure that they do not contain provisions that violate the rule.

Bad News for Whistleblowers: New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Theft of Confidential Documents for Self-Help in Employment Lawsuit Can Result in Jail Time

By Lynne Anne Anderson

Does an employee have an unfettered right to take confidential documents from her employer to use in her discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the employer? Not in New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled in State v. Ivonne Saavedra that the theft of a company’s confidential documents for self-help in an employment lawsuit can result in jail time.

Florham Park partner Lynne Anderson recently published an article in Law360 discussing the decision and its ramifications for employers and would-be whistleblowers.

Read “Woe To The NJ Whistleblower Who Whisks Away Documents” here.

Whistleblower and Retaliation Claims Compliance, Risk and Prevention

Whistleblower and Retaliation claims continue to rise and general counsel of companies large and small are increasingly budgeting for the prevention and defense of these claims.  The multitude of regulations governing industries including pharma, life sciences healthcare, insurance and financial services, present employees with numerous opportunities, sometimes even incentives, to threaten and file whistleblower and retaliation claims.  Launch the brief video below to hear how Labor and Employment Group partners Tom Barton and Lynne Anderson are helping employers achieve a culture of compliance to minimize risk, as well as the Labor & Employment group’s proven track record of success in helping employers handle and defend against these claims.

Whistleblower and Retaliation Claims

 

New Jersey’s Whistleblower Law Is Not An End Run Around Labor Law Preemption

By: Meredith R. Murphy

New Jersey’s Appellate Division has rejected two Atlantic City nightclub workers’ attempts to artfully plead their way around preemption under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) by alleging a whistleblower claim under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). The case was brought by two “Tipped Floor Euros,” i.e., alcoholic beverage servers, who alleged retaliation and constructive discharge following their complaints regarding tip-pooling, wage payments and being forced to perform duties prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The case is O’Donnell v. Nightlife, et al. (April 17, 2014).

In rejecting the plaintiffs’ CEPA claims, the Appellate Division took a narrow view of the whistleblower statute, citing the standard that the conduct complained of must “pose a threat of public harm, not merely private harm or harm only to the aggrieved employee.” [Opinion, p. 11, available here, citing Mehlman v. Mobil Oil Corp., 153 N.J. 163, 188 (1988)] The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that most of the plaintiffs’ complaints alleged violations of the CBA, not violations of law, and accordingly, not violations of CEPA.

The Appellate Division also took a broad view of preemption under the NLRA and LMRA. The Court gave credit to plaintiffs’ attempts to “artfully phrase” the language in the complaint – alleging that failure to pay the share of the nightly tip pool constituted “fraud” and failure to pay full minimum wage for non-tipped work constituted a “violation of [New Jersey] wage and hour laws.” However, the Appellate Division ultimately ruled that such state causes of action are presumptively preempted under NLRA and LMRA and were appropriately dismissed as preempted because they each ultimately asserted violations of the CBA or claims that required interpretation of the CBA.

Accordingly, based on this precedent, a unionized employee’s remedy lies not under CEPA but through the union grievance procedure and the relief available under Sections 7 and 8 of the NLRA.

Supreme Court Expands Scope of Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Protections

Editor’s Note: The following post by Alexis Burgess, Associate in the Los Angeles office, appears in the latest issue of the California HR Newsletter. To sign-up to receive the California HR Newsletter click here.

Supreme Court Expands Scope of Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Protections

The Issue: My company is not publicly traded, but provides services to companies that are. Do Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower protections extend to our employees?

The Solution: Yes.

Analysis: Enacted in the wake of the Enron and Worldcom scandals, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act imposes increased reporting standards on publicly-traded companies and the outside accountants, consultants, and lawyers supporting them. Section 1514A prohibits public companies, or their contractors or agents, from using adverse employment action, threat, or harassment to retaliate against “an employee” who blows the whistle (internally or externally) on perceived violations of the Act, SEC regulation, or any other federal law relating to shareholder fraud. Though civil remedies are largely coextensive with California’s employee anti-retaliation provisions, federal claims brought under section 1514A are exempt from arbitration and entail potential criminal penalties, including up to ten years of jail time for the responsible decision-makers.

In Lawson v. FMR LLC, decided in early March, the Supreme Court significantly expanded the scope of section 1514A’s protection, extending it to employees of service providers to public companies. The plaintiffs in Lawson were accountants formerly employed by FMR, a private contractor that prepares SEC filings for publicly traded mutual funds. They were allegedly terminated for raising concerns to their superiors regarding accounting and reporting methodologies used by FMR. FMR argued that the case should be dismissed because section 1514A, titled “Whistleblower protection for employees of publicly traded companies,” regulates private contractors only to the extent they are used to retaliate against public company employees, and does not shield a private contractor’s own employees.

The Supreme Court disagreed. Reversing the First Circuit, the Court held that, “based on the text of 1514A, the mischief to which Congress was responding, and earlier legislation Congress drew upon, . . . the provision shelters employees of private contractors and subcontractors, just as it shelters employees of the public company served by the contractors and subcontractors.” Though this expansive interpretation could generate a wide range of potential plaintiffs (a fact duly noted in the dissent), the Court indicated that professional service providers, such as the accountant plaintiffs in Lawson, are the intended and most likely beneficiaries.

Accordingly, private companies providing professional services to publicly traded clients should ensure they have appropriate procedures in place for responding to employee questions or complaints that may be regarded as “whistleblowing.” Failure to do so may expose them to federal remedies above and beyond those already imposed by California law.