Supreme Court Expands Scope of Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Protections

Editor’s Note: The following post appears in the latest issue of the California HR Newsletter.

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.

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