Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Jason Zuckerman’

Sarbanes Oxley Whistleblower Protection Law at 15 Years: Know Your Rights

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

In the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals that wiped out retirement savings and left millions unemployed, Congress enacted the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), which contains a robust whistleblower protection provision.  The whistleblower provision is intended to combat a “corporate code of silence,” which “discourage[d] employees from reporting fraudulent behavior not only to the proper authorities, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the SEC, but even internally.”  Congress sought to empower whistleblowers to serve as an effective early warning system and help prevent corporate scandals.

Congressional hearings about the Enron scandal probed why such a massive fraud was not detected earlier.  The testimony and documents revealed that when employees of Enron and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, attempted to report corporate misconduct, they faced retaliation, including discharge.  And essentially no legal protection existed for whistleblowers, such as Sherron Watkins, who tried to stop the fraud.

Fifteen years after Congress enacted SOX, internal whistleblowers remain the best source of fraud detection.  But corporate whistleblowers continue to suffer retaliation, and, therefore, widespread fear of retaliation persists.  A survey performed by the Ethics Resource Center found that nearly half of employees observe misconduct each year, and one in five employees who reports misconduct perceives retaliation for doing so.

SOX provides robust protection to corporate whistleblowers, and indeed some SOX whistleblowers have achieved substantial recoveries.  Earlier this year, a former in-house counsel at a biotechnology company recovered $11 million in a SOX whistleblower retaliation case alleging that the company fired him for disclosing violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

On the fifteenth anniversary of SOX, whistleblower law firm Zuckerman Law released a free guide to the SOX whistleblower protection law: “Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Protection: Robust Protection for Corporate Whistleblowers.”  The guide summarizes SOX whistleblower protections and offers concrete tips for corporate whistleblowers based on lessons learned during years of litigating SOX whistleblower cases.  Workplace Fairness also has a summary of corporate whistleblowers available here.

The goal of the guide is to arm corporate whistleblowers with the knowledge to effectively combat whistleblower retaliation, avoid the pitfalls that can weaken a SOX whistleblower case, and formulate an effective strategy to obtain the maximum recovery.  In particular, the guide addresses key issues for corporate whistleblowers to consider when they experience retaliation due to their protected whistleblowing:

  • What disclosures are protected under SOX?
  • What types of retaliation are prohibited under SOX?
  • Can a whistleblower sue an individual under SOX?
  • Is a whistleblower’s motive for engaging in protected activity relevant in a whistleblower-protection case?
  • Does SOX prohibit employers from “outing” confidential whistleblowers?
  • What is a whistleblower’s burden to prove retaliation under SOX?
  • What damages can a whistleblower recover under SOX?

Lead author Zuckerman commented, “Whistleblowers put a lot on the line when they expose wrongdoing, and they deserve an effective remedy to combat retaliation.  Hopefully this guide will help whistleblowers do the right thing and keep their jobs.  And for whistleblower that have suffered retaliation, the guide can help them explore options to hold their employers accountable.”

About the Author: Jason Zuckerman, Principal of Zuckerman Law, litigates whistleblower retaliation, qui tam, wrongful discharge, discrimination, non-compete, and other employment-related claims. He is rated 10 out of 10 by Avvo, was recognized by Washingtonian magazine as a “Top Whistleblower Lawyer” in 2007 and 2009 and selected by his peers to be included in The Best Lawyers in America® and in SuperLawyers.

Comey’s Testimony Underscores Need for Strong Whistleblower Protections

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

For me, the most telling moment of former FBI Director Jim Comey’s June 8th testimony occurred early in the hearing, when Mr. Comey choked up as he recalled the White House’s publicly stating that the President had fired him because the “FBI was in disarray.”

This emotional display seemed out of character for Mr. Comey. While U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he successfully prosecuted organized crime. As Deputy Attorney General during the George W. Bush Administration, Mr. Comey refused to sign an extension of the warrantless domestic spying program and defied the White House Counsel and Chief of Staff. Mr. Comey can fairly be described as a “tough guy.” So how did he go from leading the most powerful law-enforcement agency worldwide to being labeled a “leaking liar”?

To an experienced whistleblower advocate, Mr. Comey’s predicament is not surprising. Mr. Comey’s experience, unfortunately, is like those of many whistleblowers I have represented over more than a decade. President Trump promised to bring a business approach to government–and his retaliation against Mr. Comey is straight out of the corporate defense playbook. Corporations typically take the following steps of escalating retaliation to silence whistleblowers:

Intimidate and Silence the Whistleblower

In his June 8th testimony, Mr. Comey described in detail how the President had asked him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn and had conditioned Mr. Comey’s job on “loyalty” to him. Senator Rubio expressed skepticism about Mr. Comey’s feeling intimidated by the President and blamed Mr. Comey for not pushing back. But that type of Monday-morning quarterbacking ignored the power dynamics of the conversation. Mr. Comey wanted to keep his job and was understandably reluctant to accuse the President of obstructing an investigation.

Whistleblowers often confront this intimidation tactic in the workplace. A supervisor or senior company official tells the whistleblower to “let it go,” “mind your own business,” or learn to be a “team player.” And in some cases, the whistleblower is told to shut up if he or she wants to remain employed. Threats of retaliation, whether express or implicit, are powerful tools to silence a whistleblower. When a company officer or senior manager orders a subordinate to do something unlawful or to cover up unlawful conduct, holding firm to one’s ethical values is not an easy avenue to follow. As Mr. Comey learned, refusing to carry out an unlawful order may be career suicide, at least in the short term.

Retaliate Swiftly and Severely Against the Whistleblower

Initially, the bizarre method of firing Mr. Comey seemed surprising for a President who perfected the art of firing on his reality show, The Apprentice. Mr. Comey was not given an opportunity to resign; he was not even notified that he had been fired. But now that we know about the President’s real motive for firing Mr. Comey, it’s clear that his tack was deliberate.

Mr. Comey learned of his firing while addressing FBI agents at a Los Angeles field office when the announcement flashed across a television screen. The White House had announced Mr. Comey’s firing without notifying Mr. Comey himself. President Trump sent a loud and clear message to Mr. Comey and to every senior government official about the consequence of disloyalty.

In the corporate workplace, whistleblower-employees are similarly humiliated as a warning to their colleagues. A whistleblower may be escorted out of the office with security guards while other employees are present, pulled out of a meeting and fired on the spot in front of colleagues, or simply fired via text message. When a corporation fires a whistleblower in this humiliating fashion, it ensures that all other employees know the consequence of whistleblowing.

Badmouth the Whistleblower and Their Work History

Firing Mr. Comey in a humiliating and offensive manner served only as phase one. President Trump then defamed Mr. Comey and asserted that he fired him because of chaos within the FBI, as well as the alleged loss of confidence in Mr. Comey among FBI agents.

These statements stand in stark contrast to the President’s repeated, public praise of Mr. Comey before Mr. Comey refused to comply with the President’s “hope” that Mr. Comey drop the investigation of Flynn. Indeed, if President Trump believed that Mr. Comey’s leadership caused chaos within the FBI, then why did the President invite Mr. Comey to continue to serve as FBI Director?

This patent distortion of Mr. Comey’s performance record is an all-too-common experience of whistleblowers. Prior to blowing the whistle, they receive strong performance evaluations and bonuses; they are valued members of the team. But once they blow the whistle and refuse to drop their concerns, they are suddenly deemed incompetent and unqualified for their position. And when a company realizes that it lacks any existing basis to fire the whistleblower, it creates one by subjecting the whistleblower to heightened scrutiny and setting the whistleblower up to fail. For example, a company might place the whistleblower on a performance-improvement plan that contains impossible objectives, and then fire the whistleblower for not meeting those unattainable goals.

This tactic may backfire and enable a whistleblower to ultimately prevail at trial, but the damage to the whistleblower’s reputation is permanent. Prospective employers are reluctant to hire someone who previously fired for poor performance and are especially reluctant to hire a whistleblower. Many whistleblowers never find comparable employment and must accept lower-level positions, earning a fraction of what they did before their wrongful termination.

Attack the Whistleblower’s Credibility

Apparently, President Trump has no evidence to rebut Mr. Comey’s vivid account of the President’s alleged attempts to obstruct justice. So President Trump called him a “liar.”

Desperate to defend themselves at all costs, corporations frequently employ this tactic–labeling the whistleblower a disgruntled former employee who will say anything to win his or her case. So far, this is not working well for President Trump, whose accusation merely serves to shine a spotlight on his own questionable credibility.

Attacking a whistleblower’s credibility is an effective and pernicious tactic in many whistleblower cases. Once expelled from a company, a whistleblower is marginalized and alienated from former coworkers. The key witnesses continue to work at the company and, fearing retaliation, are reluctant to corroborate the whistleblower’s testimony. Though whistleblowers may still prevail (for example, by using documentary evidence), the attack on a whistleblower’s credibility is odious because the company fired the whistleblower precisely for having integrity.

Create a Post-Hoc Justification for Firing the Whistleblower

Prior to firing Mr. Comey, President Trump papered the file with a post-hoc justification for the firing. After the President decided to fire Mr. Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was tasked with drafting a memorandum to the Attorney General outlining concerns about Mr. Comey’s performance. Most of those concerns focus on Mr. Comey’s statements about the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Surely President Trump knew of those public statements when he repeatedly asked Mr. Comey to remain as FBI Director (as long as he could pledge “loyalty” and drop the Flynn investigation).

In this case, the White House’s initial reliance on the Rosenstein memo as the basis for the decision to fire Mr. Comey backfired because President Trump told NBC anchor Lester Holt that he had decided to fire Mr. Comey regardless of the memo. In many whistleblower-retaliation cases, however, these types of pretextual memos may be persuasive. Some judges even rely on such memos, which mask the real reason for a firing or other adverse action, to grant the company summary judgment and deny the whistleblower a jury trial.

On the other hand, creating a post-hoc justification for a retaliatory adverse action sometimes misfires by providing strong evidence of pretext and spurring a jury to award punitive damages. For instance, a former in-house counsel at Bio-Rad Laboratories recently secured more than $11 million in damages at trial in a Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower-retaliation case. The jury awarded $5 million in punitive damages because Bio-Rad had backdated a negative performance evaluation of the whistleblower that the company drafted after it fired him.

Focus on the Whistleblower’s Alleged Misconduct

To distract attention from what may be obstruction of justice, President Trump and his attorney have focused on Mr. Comey’s leak to the press and have alleged that the leak was unlawful. This accusation seems frivolous because Mr. Comey did not leak classified information, grand jury material, or other sensitive information. Instead, he revealed that President Trump had conditioned his continued service as FBI Director on his agreeing to drop the investigation of Flynn. As a private citizen, Mr. Comey has a constitutional right to blow the whistle to the media about this matter of public concern. Mr. Comey did not reveal to the media information from FBI investigative files or classified information. Yet President Trump and his allies compare Mr. Comey to leakers who illegally disclosed classified information. This is an appalling accusation against the former head of a law-enforcement agency.

But this is another standard corporate defense tactic in whistleblower cases. To divert attention from the wrongdoing that the whistleblower exposed, the company uses its substantial resources to dig up dirt on the whistleblower. The company or its outside counsel examines the whistleblower’s timesheets and expense reports with a fine-tooth comb to find any discrepancy, reviews every email to find some inappropriate communication, and places all of the whistleblower’s work under a microscope to find any shortcoming.

Sue the Whistleblower and Initiate a Retaliatory Investigation

Firing Comey, concocting a pretextual basis for the firing, and branding him a leaking liar apparently was not sufficient retaliation.  So shortly after his testimony, President Trump’s personal attorney announced his intention to sue Mr. Comey and/or file a complaint with the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG).  I am skeptical that a civil action against Mr. Comey or an OIG complaint poses any real legal threat to Mr. Comey.  To the contrary, such a complaint would likely pose a greater risk for President Trump, including potential counterclaims and the risk of being deposed or questioned under oath by the OIG.

The misuse of legal process against corporate whistleblowers, however, is an especially powerful form of retaliation in that it can dissuade a whistleblower from pursuing their claims.  When I defend against this form of abuse of process, I am always struck at the seemingly endless resources that the company will spend to prosecute claims lacking any merit or value.  Fortunately, these claims can go awry by spawning additional retaliation claims under the whistleblower protection laws.  And a jury can punish the employer for subjecting the whistleblower to abuse of process.

Why Whistleblowers Deserve Strong Legal Protection

In light of Mr. Comey’s distinguished record, he will likely bounce back and rebuild his career. But most corporate whistleblowers never fully recover. Too often they find their careers and reputations destroyed. Even when whistleblowers obtain monetary relief at trial, they are usually blacklisted from comparable positions, especially if they work in a small industry.

Mr. Comey’s experience as a whistleblower is a stark reminder of what can happen to any employee who is pressured by a powerful superior to engage in unlawful conduct or to cover up wrongdoing. When intimidation tactics succeed, the public suffers. The company could be covering up threats to public health or safety, environmental contamination, financial fraud, defective products, or any other conceivable harmful wrongdoing.

Courageous whistleblowers who put their jobs on the line deserve strong protection. As Congress embarks on a mission to gut “job killing” agencies, let us hope it will spare the very limited resources that are spent enforcing whistleblower-protection laws. Without such a large backlog of whistleblower cases, OSHA could have, for example, addressed the complaints of Wells Fargo whistleblowers years ago, potentially curbing or halting the bank’s defrauding of its customers. And Congress should consider filling the gaps in existing whistleblower laws. If Mr. Comey “lacked the presence of mind” to explicitly reject the President’s improper demand for him to drop the Flynn investigation, then surely most employees would also be reluctant to refuse an order to commit an unethical or unlawful act.

After Mr. Comey’s testimony, Speaker Ryan pointed out that “[t]he President’s new at this. He’s new to government.” Mr. Comey’s testimony should be a lesson for the President about how to treat whistleblowers. To make America great again, the President should abandon the Rambo litigation tactics that apparently served him well in New York real-estate disputes, and instead view whistleblowers as allies, not as enemies. As Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project and I argue in an article in the Emory Corporate Governance and Accountability ReviewDraining the Swamp Requires Robust Whistleblower Protections and Incentives.

This article originally appeared at the Whistleblower Protection Law Blog on June 13, 2017, it is reprinted here with permission.

Jason Zuckerman represents whistleblowers nationwide in whistleblower rewards and whistleblower retaliation claims.  Recently Matt Stock and Zuckerman issued an ebook titled SEC Whistleblower Program: Tips from SEC Whistleblower Attorneys to Maximize an SEC Whistleblower Award.

OSHA Secures Robust Injunctive Relief for Whistleblower

Monday, May 18th, 2015

jason zuckermanOn May 7, 2015, OSHA obtained a preliminary injunction in a Section 11(c) whistleblower case barring Lear Corporation from further retaliating against the whistleblower, Kimberly King. The injunction is a significant win for whistleblowers because the court’s order broadly construes the scope of protected whistleblowing to include disclosures to the media, and it signals OSHA’s stepped up enforcement of whistleblower protection laws.

Kimberly King worked for Lear Corporation at a plant in Alabama that produces foam cushions that are used in car seats and headrests. King raised concerns about the health effects of exposure to a chemical called toluene diisocyanate (“TDI”).   Based on internal tests and tests conducted by OSHA, Lear concluded that TDI levels were within legal limits. King, however, remained concerned that she developed asthma because of her exposure to elevated TDI levels at the plant, and King shared her concerns with media outlets. An article on nbcnews.com described how TDI and other workplace chemicals correlate with certain respiratory conditions like asthma, and the article cited a physician who concluded that King is in the top 25 percent in terms of the levels of isocyanate antibodies in her blood.  King also participated in a YouTube video accusing Lear of exposing employees to TDI.

Lear suspended King and another employee from work without pay for participating in the video on the ground that King should have known that the plant was not exposing employees to elevated levels of TDI.   In addition, Lear demanded that King recant her statements to the media. King continued to raise her concerns by going to Hyundai in March 2015 to deliver a letter asking it to fix the conditions at the plant. Lear then suspended King for seven days without pay, and upon King’s return, Lear terminated her employment and sued her for defamation and interference with business relations.

After an evidentiary hearing, Judge Callie V.S. Granade concluded that King’s participation in the YouTube video, her disclosures to the press, and her disclosures to OSHA constitute protected activity. In addition, she issued an order providing broad preliminary relief, including:

  • enjoining Defendants from terminating, suspending, harassing, suing, threatening, intimidating, or taking any other discriminatory or retaliatory action against any current or former employee based on Defendants’ belief that such employee exercised any rights he or she may have under the Occupational Safety and Health Act;
  • enjoining Defendants from telling any current or former employee not to speak to or cooperate with representatives of the Secretary of Labor;
  • enjoining Defendants from obstructing any investigation by the Secretary of Labor or its designee; and
  • enjoining Defendants from suing current or former employees because those individuals complained about health and safety or because they engaged in protected activity under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

In assessing whether OSHA’s injunction serves the public interest (one of prerequisites for granting a preliminary injunction), Judge Granade made a critical observation about the public policy undergirding whistleblower protection laws: “The public retains an interest in safe and healthy workplace environments for all employees, and protecting employees who speak up about perceived dangers in the workplace. This preliminary injunction may also help prevent future violations of section 11(c) and inform current employees of their rights under this section.” This order is a great example of the type of vigorous enforcement required to effectively protect whistleblowers.

About the author: The author’s name is Jason Zuckerman. Jason Zuckerman is Principal at Zuckerman Law (www.zuckermanlaw.com)  and represents whistleblowers nationwide.  He is the author of the Whistleblower Protection Law Blog (www.whistleblower-protection-law.com).

 

New Robust Protection for Food Safety Whistleblowers

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

jason zuckermanYesterday, the Senate passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which imposes stricter food safety standards and grants the Food and Drug Administration greater authority to regulate tainted food.  The FMSA was prompted in part by numerous instances of fatal food contamination that revealed insufficient regulation and oversight of food production, including outbreaks of contaminated peanuts, eggs, and produce.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are 76 million cases of foodborne disease each year in the United States, 5,000 of which result in death.

To ensure that workers can disclose food safety concerns without fear of reprisal, Congress included in the FMSA a robust whistleblower protection provision (Section 402) that protects workers engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding, or importation of food.  The bill must be reconciled with a House version of the bill, H.R. 2749, which passed on July 30, 2009, and final passage is expected to occur by the end of the year.

Covered Employees

Section 402 applies to any entity “engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding, or importation of food.”

Broad Scope of Protected Conduct

The FSMA prohibits retaliation against an employee who has:

1. Provided, caused to be provided, or is about to provide or cause to be provided to the employer, the Federal Government, or the attorney general of a State information relating to any violation of, or any act or omission the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of any provision of this Act or any order, rule, regulation, standard, or ban under this Act, or any order, rule, regulation, standard, or ban under this Act;
2. Testified or is about to testify in a proceeding concerning such violation;
3. Assisted, participated or is about to assist or participate in such a proceeding; or
4. Objected to, or refused to participate in, any activity, policy, practice, or assigned task that the employee (or other such person) reasonably believed to be in violation of any provision of this Act, or any order, rule, regulation, standard, or ban under this Act.
A Section 402 complainant need not demonstrate that she disclosed an actual violation of a food safety law or regulation.  Instead, Section 402 employs a “reasonable belief” standard that the Department of Labor (DOL) and federal courts have construed as protecting a reasonable but mistaken belief that an employer may have violated a particular law.  See Van Asdale v. Int’l Game Tech., 577 F.3d  989, 1001 (9th Cir. 2009) (“to encourage disclosure, Congress chose statutory language which ensures that an employee’s reasonable but mistaken belief that an employer engaged in conduct that constitutes a violation of one of the six enumerated categories is protected.”) (internal quotation, citation omitted);  Allen v. Admin. Review Bd., 514 F. 3d 468, 477 (5th Cir. 2008) (applying “reasonable belief” standard in a Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower retaliation action); Kalkunte v. DVI Fin. Svcs., Inc., ARB Nos. 05-139 & 05-140, 2004-SOX-056 (ARB Feb. 27, 2009) (clarifying that a reasonable but mistaken belief is protected under SOX).  The reasonable belief standard consists of both a subjective and objective component, and objective reasonableness “is evaluated based on the knowledge available to a reasonable person in the same factual circumstances with the same training and experience as the aggrieved employee.”  Allen, 514 F.3d at 477.

The “duty speech” doctrine will not apply to FSMA retaliation claims, as the text specifically protects disclosures made “in the ordinary course of the employee’s duties.”

Some examples of protected conduct include the following:

1. Reporting that imported cheese is being stored at the wrong temperature and is therefore susceptible to spoiling or containing harmful bacteria;

2. Reporting that an additive harmful only to infants was added to infant formula;

3. Reporting that bread is being stored in a facility infested with flies and rodents;

4. Reporting that a peanut butter manufacturer did not recall peanut butter it knew might have been made using a batch of contaminated peanuts; and

5. Reporting that a chemical used to lubricate sorting machines has contaminated dietary supplements.
Broad Scope of Prohibited Retaliation

An employer is prohibited from discharging or “in any manner discriminat[ing] against any employee with respect to his or her compensation, terms, conditions, or other privileges of employment.”  The DOL’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) applies the Burlington Northern standard to analogous whistleblower protection statutes, and therefore Section 402 will prohibit not only tangible adverse actions, but also any action that may dissuade a reasonable employee from engaging in further protected activity.  See Melton v. Yellow Transp. Inc., ARB No. 06-052, 05-140, ALJ No. 2005-STA-002 (ARB Sept. 30, 2008) (holding that the Burlington Northern standard applies to whistleblower retaliation claims before the DOL).  Prohibited acts of retaliation will likely include termination, suspension, demotion, reduction in pay, demotion, failure to promote, failure to hire, diminution in job duties, and blacklisting.

Employee-Favorable Causation Standard and Burden of Proof

A complainant can prevail merely by showing by a preponderance of the evidence that her protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable action.  A contributing factor is any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.  See Klopfenstein v. PPC Flow Techs. Holdings, Inc., ARB No. 04-149 at 18, ALJ No. 2004-SOX-11 (ARB May 31, 2006) (internal citation omitted).  Once a complainant meets her burden by a preponderance of the evidence, the employer can avoid liability only if it proves by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the employee’s protected conduct.  Clear and convincing evidence is “[e]vidence indicating that the thing to be proved is highly probable or reasonably certain.”  See Peck v. Safe Air Int’l, Inc., ARB No. 02-028 at 9, ALJ No. 2001-AIR-3 (ARB Jan. 30, 2004).

Remedies

Remedies include injunctive relief, reinstatement, back pay with interest, “special damages,” attorney’s fees, litigation costs, and expert witness fees.  Where reinstatement is unavailable or impractical, front pay may be awarded.  “Special damages” has been construed under similar whistleblower protection statutes to include damages for pain, suffering, mental anguish and an injured career or reputation.  See, e.g., Kalkunte, ARB Nos. 05-139 & 05-140 at 15 (SOX case awarding complainant emotional distress damages); Hannah v. WCI Communities, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1332, 1334 (S.D. Fla. 2004) (“a successful Sarbanes-Oxley Act plaintiff cannot be made whole without being compensated for damages for reputational injury that diminished plaintiff’s future earning capacity”).  A complainant may also be entitled to damages for loss to his reputation as part of the “make whole” remedy provided by the statute.  See Hannah, 348 F. Supp. 2d at 1334.

Procedures Governing Section 402 Claims

A complainant must file her complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within 180 days after the date on which the retaliatory adverse action occurred.  OSHA will investigate the claim and can order preliminary relief, including reinstatement.  Either party can appeal OSHA’s determination by requesting a de novo hearing before a DOL Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), but objecting to an order of preliminary relief will not stay the order of reinstatement.  Discovery before an ALJ typically proceeds at a faster pace than discovery in state or federal court, and the hearings are less formal than federal court trials.  For example, ALJs are not required to apply the Federal Rules of Evidence.  Either party can appeal an ALJ’s decision to the ARB and can appeal an ARB decision to the circuit court of appeals in which the adverse action took place.

If the Secretary of Labor fails to issue a final decision within 210 days of the filing of a complaint, or within 90 days after receiving a written determination from OSHA, the complainant can remove her claim to federal court for de novo review and either party may request a trial by jury.  Section 402 does not preempt or diminish any other remedy for retaliation provided by Federal or State law, and therefore a Section 402 complainant could remove the claim to federal court and add additional claims, such as a common law wrongful discharge action, which would provide an opportunity to obtain punitive damages.

This article was originally posted on The Employment Law Group.

 

Dodd-Frank Bill Provides Robust Whistleblower Protections

Friday, July 16th, 2010

jason zuckermanRecognizing that robust whistleblower protection is critical to preventing another financial crisis, Congress included in the Dodd-Frank financial services reform bill (H.R. 4173) numerous provisions designed to encourage whistleblowing and to provide robust protection from retaliation.  These provisions create monetary awards for whistleblowers who provide original information to the SEC or CFTC, strengthen the whistleblower protection provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the False Claims Act, and create additional whistleblower retaliation causes of action.

Reward for Whistleblowing to the SEC and Prohibition Against Retaliation (Section 922). Under Section 922, the SEC will be required to pay a reward to individuals who provide original information to the SEC which results in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million.  The award will range from 10 to 30 percent of the amount recouped and the amount of the award shall be at the discretion of the SEC.   Factors to be considered in determining the amount of the award include the significance of the information provided by the whistleblower, the degree of assistance provided by the whistleblower, the programmatic interest of the SEC in deterring violations of the securities laws by making awards to whistleblowers, and other factors that the SEC may establish by rule or regulation.  If the amount awarded is less than 10 percent or more than 30 percent of the amount recouped, a whistleblower may appeal the SEC’s determination by filing an appeal in the appropriate federal court of appeals within 30 days of the determination.

Section 922 prohibits the SEC from providing an award to a whistleblower who is convicted of a criminal violation related to the judicial or administrative action for which the whistleblower provided information; who gains the information by auditing financial statements as required under the securities laws; who fails to submit information to the SEC as required by an SEC rule; or who is an employee of the DOJ or an appropriate regulatory agency, an SRO, the PCAOB or a law enforcement organization.

Section 922 creates a new private right of action for employees who have suffered retaliation “because of any lawful act done by the whistleblower– ‘(i) in providing information to the Commission in accordance with [the whistleblower incentive section]; (ii) in initiating, testifying in, or assisting in any investigation or judicial or administrative action of the Commission based upon or related to such information; or (iii) in making disclosures that are required or protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002,’” the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and “‘any other law, rule, or regulation subject to the jurisdiction of the [SEC].’”  The action may be brought in federal court and remedies include reinstatement, double back pay with interest, as well as litigation costs, expert witness fees, and reasonable attorney’s fees.

New Whistleblower Protection for Financial Services Employees (Section 1057). Section 1057 creates a robust private right of action for employees in the financial services industry who suffer retaliation for disclosing information about fraudulent or unlawful conduct related to the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.  The scope of coverage is quite broad in that Section 1057 applies to organizations that extend credit or service or broker loans; provide real estate settlement services or perform property appraisals; provide financial advisory services to consumers relating to proprietary financial products, including credit counseling; or collect, analyze, maintain, or provide consumer report information or other account information in connection with any decision regarding the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.

Section 1057 prohibits retaliation against an employee who has engaged in any of the following protected acts:

• Provided, caused to be provided, or is about to provide or cause to be provided, to an employer, the newly created Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (Bureau), or any other government authority or law enforcement agency, information that the employee reasonably believes relates to any violation of any provision of Title X of the bill, which establishes new consumer financial protections, or any rule, order, standard or prohibition prescribed or enforced by the Bureau;

• Testified or will testify in a proceeding resulting from the administration or enforcement of any provision of Title X;

• Filed, instituted, or caused to be filed or instituted any proceeding under any federal consumer financial law; or

• Objected to, or refused to participate in any activity, practice, or assigned task that the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of any law, rule, standard, or prohibition subject to the jurisdiction of, or enforceable, by the Bureau.

Remedies include reinstatement, backpay, compensatory damages, and attorney’s fees and litigation costs, including expert witness fees.  Where reinstatement is unavailable or impractical, front pay may be awarded.

Section 1057 employs a burden-shifting framework that is favorable to employees.  A complainant can prevail merely by showing by a preponderance of the evidence that her protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable action. A contributing factor is any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.  Once a complainant meets her burden by a preponderance of the evidence, the employer can avoid liability only if it proves by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the employee’s protected conduct.

The procedures governing Section 1057 claims are substantially similar to those governing retaliation claims brought under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, 15 U.S.C. § 2087.  The statute of limitations is 180 days and the claim must be filed initially with the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA), which will investigate the complaint and can order preliminary reinstatement.  Once OSHA issues its findings, either party can request a hearing before a Department of Labor (DOL) administrative law judge.  If the DOL has not issued a final order within 210 days of the filing of the complaint, the complainant has the option to remove the claim to federal court and either party can request a trial by jury.  Section 1057 claims are exempt from mandatory arbitration agreements.

Reward for Whistleblowing to the CFTC (Section 748). Section 748 amends the Commodity Exchange Act, 7 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., to create a whistleblower incentive program and whistleblower protections similar to those in section 922, including a new private right of action.  One notable difference between sections 748 and 922 is the ability of a commodity whistleblower to appeal any determination regarding an award made by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) within 30 days.  Protected conduct under section 748 includes providing information to the CFTC in accordance with the whistleblower incentive provision and “assisting in any investigation or judicial or administrative action of the [CFTC] based upon or related to such information.”

Strengthening Sarbanes-Oxley’s Whistleblower Protection Provision (Sections 922 and 922A). Sections 922 and 929A contain important amendments to the Sarbanes-Oxley act (SOX) that broaden the scope of coverage, increase the statute of limitations, exempt SOX whistleblower claims from mandatory arbitration, and clarify that SOX claims removed to federal court can be tried before a jury.

Section 929A clarifies that the whistleblower protection provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, applies to employees of subsidiaries of publicly-traded companies “whose financial information is included in the consolidated financial statements of [a publicly] traded company.”  This amendment eliminates a significant loophole that some courts have read into SOX that has substantially narrowed the scope of SOX coverage.  Elevating form over substance, some judges have permitted publicly-traded companies to avoid liability under SOX merely because the parent company that files reports with the SEC has few, if any, direct employees, and instead employs most of its workforce through non-publicly traded subsidiaries.

As Judge Levin pointed in Morefield v. Exelon Servs., Inc., ALJ No. 2004-SOX-002 (ALJ Jan. 28, 2004), this loophole is contrary to the purpose of SOX in that “[a] publicly traded corporation is, for Sarbanes-Oxley purposes, the sum of its constituent units; and Congress insisted upon accuracy and integrity in financial reporting at all levels of the corporate structure, including the non-publicly traded subsidiaries . . . [Congress] imposed reforms upon the publicly traded company, and through it, to its entire corporate organization.”  Section 922(b) further expands the coverage of section 806 of SOX to include employees of nationally recognized statistical ratings organizations (NRSROs), including A.M. Best Company, Inc., Moody’s Investors Service, Inc., and Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service.

Section 922(c) increases the statute of limitations for SOX whistleblower claims from 90 to 180 days and clarifies that SOX retaliation plaintiffs can elect to try their cases in federal court before a jury.  In addition, section 922(c) declares void any “agreement, policy form, or condition of employment, including a predispute arbitration agreement” which waives the rights and remedies afforded to SOX whistleblowers.

Strengthening the False Claims Act’s Whistleblower Protection Provision (Section 1079B). Section 1079B amends the anti-retaliation provision of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h), by expanding the definition of protected conduct to include “lawful acts done by the employee, contractor, or agent or associated others in furtherance of an action under this section or other efforts to stop 1 or more violations of [the False Claims Act],” thereby protecting against associational discrimination and covering a broad range of activities that could further a potential qui tam action or could stop a violation of the FCA.  Section 1079B clarifies that the statute of limitations for actions brought under section 3730(h) is three years, which brings much-needed clarity in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham County Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. U.S. ex rel. Wilson, 545 U.S. 409 (2005) holding that the most closely analogous state statute of limitations applies to FCA retaliation claims.

“This article was originally posted on http://employmentlawgroupblog.com/”

Health Care Reform Bill Creates New Whistleblower Protections

Friday, March 26th, 2010

jason zuckermanThe Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 (H.R. 3590) that the House approved on March 21, 2010, creates new whistleblower protections for health care workers and strengthens the coverage of the False Claims Act.  The following is a summary of these provisions and the text of the relevant sections is available here.

Section 1558:  Health care worker whistleblower protections added to the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Section 1558 prohibits retaliation against an employee who provides or is about to provide to an employer, Federal Government, or a state Attorney General, information that the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of Title I of the Bill.  The provision also protects individuals who participate in investigations or object to or refuse to participate in any activity that the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of Title I of the bill.   Title I contains a wide range of rules governing health insurance, including a prohibition against denying coverage based upon preexisting conditions, policy and financial reporting requirements and prohibitions against discrimination based upon an individual’s receipt of health insurance subsidies.  Accordingly, Section 1558 will likely protect a broad range of disclosures.

The procedures, burden of proof, and remedies applicable to this new retaliation claim are set forth in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, 15 U.S.C. 2087(b), including (1) a 180-day statute of limitations; (2) a requirement to initially file the complaint with OSHA, which will investigate the complaint and can order preliminary reinstatement; (3) the option to litigate the claim before the Department of Labor Office of Administrative Law Judges or to remove the claim to federal court 210 days after filing the complaint; (4) the right to try the claim in federal court before a jury;  and (5) a broad range of remedies, including reinstatement, back pay, special damages, and attorney’s fees.  Similar to Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the causation standard and the burden-shifting framework are very favorable to employees.

A complainant can prevail merely by showing by a preponderance of the evidence that her  protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable action.  A contributing factor is “any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.”  Once a complainant meets her burden by a preponderance of the evidence, the employer can avoid liability only if it proves by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the employee engaging in protected conduct, an onerous burden.

Section 6703(b)(3):  Protections for employees of federally funded long-term care facilities.  Long-term care facilities that receive more than $10,000 in federal funding in the preceding year must notify all officers, employees, managers, and contractors of the facility that they are required by law to report any reasonable suspicion of a crime to at least one law enforcement agency.  Failure to report a suspected crime can expose an employee, manager, or contractor to civil fines of up to $200,000.  A long-term care facility is prohibited from engaging in retaliation against an employee “because of lawful acts done by the employee.”  Facilities violating the anti-retaliation provision may be subject to a fine of up to $200,000 and exclusion from federal funds for up to two years.

Section 6105:  Implementation of standardized complaint forms for nursing homes and prohibition against retaliation.  Section 6105 requires nursing homes to implement a standardized complaint form and requires each state to develop a complaint resolution process to track and investigate complaints and to ensure that complainants are not subjected to retaliation.

Section 10104(j)(2) expands the definition of an “original source” under the False Claims Act.  Section 10104(j)(2) strikes 31 U.S.C. 3730(e)(4)(A) and replaces it with language expanding the definition of an “original source” to include “individual who either (i) prior to a public disclosure under subsection (e)(4)(a), has voluntarily disclosed to the Government the information on which allegations or transactions in a claim are based, or (2) who has knowledge that is independent of and materially adds to the publicly disclosed allegations or transactions, and who has voluntarily provided the information to the Government before filing an action under this section.”  This new definition of “original source” will bring much-need uniformity to this critical issue that arises in most qui tam actions and increase the likelihood that relators will be able to meet the original source exception to the public disclosure bar.

*This post originally appeared in Employment Law Group on March 23, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

 

Congress Enacts Robust Whistleblower Protections to Prevent Fraud in Stimulus Spending

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

The economic stimulus bill passed by Congress on February 12, 2009 includes robust whistleblower protections to ensure that employees of private contractors and state and local governments can disclose waste, fraud, gross mismanagement or a violation of law related to stimulus funds.  This article summarizes the key provisions of Senator McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) whistleblower protection amendment to the stimulus bill (“McCaskill Amendment”).

Covered Employers

The McCaskill Amendment applies to private contractors, state and local governments, and other non-Federal employers that receive a contract, grant or other payment appropriated or made available by the stimulus bill.

Broad Scope of Protected Conduct

Protected conduct includes a disclosure to a person with supervisory authority over the employee, a State or Federal regulatory or law enforcement agency, a member of Congress, a court or grant jury, the head of a Federal agency, or an inspector general information that the employee reasonably believes evidences:

  • Gross mismanagement of an agency contract or grant relating to stimulus funds;
  • A gross waste of stimulus funds;
  • A substantial and specific danger to public health or safety related to the implementation or use of stimulus funds;
  • An abuse of authority related to the implementation or use of stimulus funds; or
  • A violation of a law, rule, or regulation that governs an agency contract or grant related to stimulus funds.

Significantly, internal disclosures are protected, which is a substantial expansion of two current analogous whistleblower protection laws protecting contractors, both of which do not expressly cover internal disclosures.  See 10 U.S.C. § 2409; 41 U.S.C. § 265.  The McCaskill Amendment specifically protects so-called “duty speech” whistleblowing, i.e., disclosures made by employees in the ordinary course of performing their job duties. Courts will likely apply a standard of objective reasonableness from analogous whistleblower protection laws, such as Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, which evaluates the reasonableness of a belief based on the knowledge available to a reasonable person in the same factual circumstances with the same training and experience as the aggrieved employee.

Prohibited Acts of Retaliation

The McCaskill Amendment prohibits a broad range of retaliatory employment actions, including termination, demotion, or any other discriminatory act, which includes any act that would dissuade a reasonable person from engaging in protected conduct.   See Burlington N. & Santa Fe R.R. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).

Employee-Favorable Burden of Proof

To prevail in a whistleblower action under the McCaskill Amendment, an employee need not show that the protected conduct was a significant or motivating factor in the reprisal, but instead must merely prove that the protected conduct was a “contributing factor” to the reprisal.  The Amendment specifically clarifies that an employee can meet the “contributing factor” standard through temporal proximity or by demonstrating that the decision-maker knew of the protected disclosure.  An employer can avoid liability by demonstrating by “clear and convincing evidence,” a high evidentiary burden, that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the employee engaging in protected conduct.

Remedies

A prevailing employee is entitled to “make whole” relief, which includes: (1) reinstatement; (2) back pay; (3) compensatory damages; and (4) attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.  Where an agency files an action in federal court to enforce an order of relief for a prevailing employee, the court may also award exemplary damages.

Administrative Exhaustion Requirement and Right to a Jury Trial

Actions brought under the whistleblower provisions of the McCaskill amendment must be filed with the appropriate inspector general.  Unless the inspector general determines that the action is frivolous, does not relate to covered funds, or has been resolved in another Federal or State administrative proceeding, the inspector general must conduct an investigation and make a determination on the merits of the whistleblower retaliation claim no later than 180 days after receipt of the complaint. Within 30 days of receiving an inspector general’s investigative findings, the head of the agency shall determine whether there has been a violation, in which event the agency head can award a complainant reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, and attorney fees.  If an agency head has denied relief in whole or in part or has failed to issue a decision within 210 days of the filing of a complaint, the complainant can bring a de novo action in federal court, which shall be tried by a jury at the request of either party.  The McCaskill Amendment expressly clarifies that predispute arbitration agreements do not apply to claims brought under the Amendment.

Alternative Remedies

In addition to the relief available under the McCaskill Amendment, employees of government contractors have other options to remedy whistleblower retaliation.  The retaliation provision of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3730 (h), prohibits retaliation against an employee who has taken actions “in furtherance of” an FCA enforcement action, including initiating an FCA action, investigating a potential FCA action and testifying in an FCA action.  At least twenty-four states have adopted laws similar to the FCA, nearly all of which include an analogous retaliation provision.  Unlike the McCaskill Amendment, the retaliation provision of the FCA does not require administrative exhaustion.  Employees of contractors and of state governments may also have claims under state whistleblower protection statutes, but some of those statutes do not protect internal whistleblowing.  In addition, employees of private contractors may have a claim of common law wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, a tort remedy that provides access to a jury trial and punitive damages.  When evaluating a whistleblower retaliation claim arising from an employee’s disclosure about fraud on the government, it is critical to consider whether the employee also has a qui tam action and to preserve the employee’s ability to pursue a qui tam action, which may entail avoiding public disclosure of the fraud.

In sum, the McCaskill Amendment provides a critical safeguard against fraudulent spending of stimulus funds.

About the AuthorsJason Zuckerman, a Principal at The Employment Law Group law firm (www.employmentlawgroup.com) has litigated more than fifty whistleblower retaliation, qui tam, and wrongful discharge cases. He also litigates civil rights, discrimination, non-compete, and unpaid overtime actions in federal and state courts. Mr. Zuckerman serves as Co-Chair of the National Employment Lawyers Association’s Whistleblower Committee and Co-Chair of the Whistleblower Committee of the District of Columbia Bar’s Labor and Employment Section.

R. Scott Oswald, a Principal at The Employment Law Group law firm (www.employmentlawgroup.com) litigates whistleblower complaints nationally.  Notably, Mr. Oswald was the lead trial counsel in the ground-breaking Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) whistleblower case of Kalkunte v. DVI, which remains one of the few SOX whistleblower cases in which the SOX whistleblower prevailed at the trial level.  Mr. Oswald is the President-Elect of the Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association.

Cross-posted from The Employment Law Group’s Whistleblower Law Blog.

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