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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.