Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Sarbanes Oxley’

Dodd-Frank Court Case Could Redefine Whistleblowing

Monday, December 4th, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court is mulling a case with major implications for would-be whistleblowers. At issue is fuzzy language in the whistleblower protections of the Dodd-Frank Act. At stake is the fate of people like Paul Somers, who was fired after he reported wrongdoing, and anyone who might blow the whistle in the future.

The decision could literally redefine who is a federal whistleblower. The wording in Dodd-Frank – under a strict interpretation – appears to protect only those who report illegal activity directly to the SEC. Had Somers done so, the law would protect him from retaliation. By reporting to his employer instead of the SEC, he may be out of luck.

Blowing the whistle or just whistling Dixie?

The case is Digital Realty Trust v. Somers. Paul Somers, an executive of a real estate investment trust, went up the chain of command with evidence of securities violations. After he was fired, Somers sued for retaliation under the whistleblower provisions of Dodd-Frank. The language in Dodd-Frank defines whistleblower as someone who “provides information relating to a violation of the securities laws” to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Does that mean workers are not protected when  employers take the slash-and-burn approach to prevent the wrongdoing from filtering up to the SEC?

Some justices felt the law is clear, or cannot be interpreted more broadly. Other justices doubted that Congress intended to punish whistleblowers who first went to their employers.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act specifically protects employees who report wrongdoing internally, whether or not they report it to the SEC. The Court’s Dodd-Frank decision could essentially nullify the whistleblower protections of Sarbanes-Oxley. That would kick it back to a Congress that is unlikely to rewrite the law favorably for employees. The Trump administration has been friendly to whistleblowers who report government waste and fraud, but hostile to other forms of whistleblowing.

Could the Supreme Court kill whistleblowing?

If the Court sides with Digital Realty, it will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers. Even with anti-retaliation protection (and the possibility of a qui tam lawsuit), reporting fraud or abuses is a risky venture. If the Court removes the protections of Dodd-Frank, such heroes are on their own. Many will simply stay silent.

It could also be a Pyrrhic victory for companies accused of wrongdoing. If Dodd-Frank is interpreted narrowly, more whistleblowers will go straight to the SEC, allowing employers no opportunity to mitigate or do the right thing before the feds come down on them.

This blog was originally published at Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on December 1, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

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.

OSHA's squeaky Whistleblower Protection Program

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Workers Comp Insider LogoMost people are aware that, since 1970, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has been responsible for issuing and enforcing standards for workplace health and safety. But if I were a betting person, I would wager that far fewer are aware of OSHA’s responsibilities in relation to the Sarbanes Oxley Act. OSHA is charged with protecting workers ” …from retaliation for reporting alleged violations of mail, wire, bank, or securities fraud; violations of rules or regulations of the SEC; or federal laws relating to fraud against shareholders.”

This responsibility is part of the Office of Whistleblower Protection Program (OWPP),for which OSHA has oversight. OWPP was originally intended to protect workers from being retaliated against for such things as reporting safety violations to OSHA, requesting or participating in an OSHA inspection, or testifying in any proceeding related to an OSHA inspection.

Over the years, this responsibility has expanded to encompass oversight of the whistle-blowing provisions for eighteen other statutes, including violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, health care reform, nuclear energy, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad and securities laws.

And according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), OSHA gets failing grades for discharging its whistleblower protection responsibilities. The GAO cited lack of training, chronic inattention from OSHA leaders, and long delays in resolving cases, among other problems.

Some say the problems are no surprise: too few staff spread too thin, resulting in long case delays and staff demoralization. You can see charts depicting the growth of responsibilities while staff remained flat on pages 16-17 of the GAO Whistleblower Report. (PDF)

Some relief is in the offing – 25 new investigators are scheduled for appointment to OWPP. In addition, the Department of Labor (DOL) is conducting a “top to bottom” review and there is some discussion about whether the program should be moved to another part of DOL.

Whistleblowers are fundamental to workplace safety, but even with protections built into the laws, the reality is that protection for whistle-blowing employees can be a long time in coming, when and if it does. Read about truck driver John Simon’s whistle-blowing ordeal as a case in point. There are unfortunately many other similar stories. OSHA offers employees a a bill of rights to ensure safety, but fundamental to those rights are protections when and if they speak up in the cause of safety.

This article was originally posted on Workers Comp Insider.

About the Author: Julie Ferguson is an insurance industry consultant with more than 20 years experience developing and implementing communications programs for workers compensation, workplace health & safety, employee communications, and general insurance programs. She founded and serves as editor for the nation’s first insurance weblog, Lynch Ryan’s Workers Comp Insider. She also founded and manages HR Web Café, a weblog for ESI Employee Assistance Group; Consumer Insurance Blog for the Renaissance Insurance Group; and is one of the administrators of Health Wonk Review, a bi-weekly health policy carnival. If you have a question for Julie, you can reach her at jferguson@lynchryan.com.

What do you believe about work that is wrong?

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerAfter fifteen years of writing Working Wounded/Workplace911, I’ve concluded that there are a lot of myths about work. I thought it would be fun to tackle some of the bigger ones in this week’s blog. Check out my list below and send me some of your favorites.

It’s impossible to be overpaid when someone else signs the paycheck. Let me offer a short translation of this rule—as long as someone is willing to pay you a ridiculous amount of money to work for them, then you aren’t overpaid because they have established a market for your services. I disagree. Corporate salaries are absurd. Cost cutting, layoffs and a myriad of other organizational sacrifices should float more than just the boats of the CEO and a few top executives. I’m no Marxist, CEOs do deserve a big paycheck when they are successful. But this escalator only seems able to go up.

Greed is good. The biggest problem here is that when Oliver Stone came up with this mantra for his Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street it was meant as parody. Yet I hear some variation of it whenever I talk to traders, salespeople, etc. Henry Ford, hardly a commie himself, once said that only a fool holds out for the last dollar. I think wretched excess is a terrible way to run a company.

The bigger the jerk, the better the boss. Probably my favorite quote on management came from President (and General) Dwight Eisenhower. He once said, “Hitting people over the head isn’t leadership, it’s assault.” Sure jerks do get your attention and possibly results over the short term. But most employees will flee at the first chance they get. There are just too many sane bosses out there to continue to slave away for a jerk.

You’ve got to be first to market. Microsoft seems to me to be the only company that consistently puts second-rate products on the market and lives to tell the tale. It worked for a long time until Apple recently passed them in market capitalization. The rest of us have to pick our spots and often the first to market position can’t justify launching a crappy product. So it often pays to wait.

Innovation is the middle name of American corporations. Despite rising productivity, I believe that corporations in the U.S. are running on fumes. Don’t believe me? Listen to most people talk about the management of their companies. It’s not a pretty sight. I see far more innovation right now coming from abroad and from the not-for-profit sector and I think it’s time that corporations started walking their talk.

Corporations are drowning in regulation. Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, etc. left in their wake Sarbanes Oxley and a host of other regulations. Undoubtedly Lehman, Goldman Sacks, etc. will leave their mark too. There is a lot of talk now about how corporations are being held back by senseless regulations. I hate filling out government forms as much as the next guy, but these laws came into place because of abuse by corporations. And in order to maintain the trust of the average investor these regulations need to remain in effect, no matter how much whining you hear from big business.

The bottom line isn’t just the bottom line. If I’ve learned one thing as an observer of business and the founder of four corporations, it’s that there are many bottom lines for a business. In addition to economic there are also social and environmental considerations. The financials really only are a part of the picture. The sooner that corporations take a broader view of the bottom line, the sooner they’ll begin to fully reach their potential.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

What Do You Believe About Work That Is Wrong?

Monday, October 12th, 2009

After fifteen years of writing Workplace911 and its predecessor Working Wounded I’ve concluded that there are a lot of myths about work. I thought it would be fun to tackle some of the bigger ones in this week’s blog. Check out my list below and send me some of your favorites.

It’s impossible to be overpaid when someone else signs the paycheck. Let me offer a short translation of this rule—as long as someone is willing to pay you a ridiculous amount of money to work for them, then you aren’t overpaid because they have established a market for your services. I disagree. Corporate salaries are absurd. Cost cutting, layoffs and a myriad of other organizational sacrifices should float more than just the boats of the CEO and a few top executives. I’m no Marxist, CEOs do deserve a big paycheck when they are successful. But this escalator only seems able to go up.

Greed is good. The biggest problem here is that when Oliver Stone came up with this mantra for his Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street it was meant as parody. Yet I hear some variation of it whenever I talk to traders, salespeople, etc. Henry Ford, hardly a commie himself, once said that only a fool holds out for the last dollar. I think wretched excess is a terrible way to run a company.

The bigger the jerk, the better the boss. Probably my favorite quote on management came from President (and General) Dwight Eisenhower. He once said, “Hitting people over the head isn’t leadership, it’s assault.” Sure jerks do get your attention and possibly results over the short term. But most employees will flee at the first chance they get. There are just too many sane bosses out there to continue to slave away for a jerk.

You’ve got to be first to market. Microsoft seems to me to be the only company that consistently puts second-rate products on the market and lives to tell the tale. The rest of us have to pick our spots and often the first to market position can’t justify launching a crappy product. So it often pays to wait.

Innovation is the middle name of American corporations. Despite rising productivity, I believe that corporations in the U.S. are running on fumes. Don’t believe me? Listen to most people talk about the management of their companies. It’s not a pretty sight. I see far more innovation right now coming from abroad and from the not-for-profit sector and I think it’s time that corporations started walking their talk.

Corporations are drowning in regulation. Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, etc. left in their wake Sarbanes Oxley and a host of other regulations. Undoubtedly Lehman, Goldman Sacks, etc. will leave their mark too. There is a lot of talk now about how corporations are being held back by senseless regulations. I hate filling out government forms as much as the next guy, but these laws came into place because of abuse by corporations. And in order to maintain the trust of the average investor these regulations need to remain in effect, no matter how much whining you hear from big business.

The bottom line isn’t just the bottom line. If I’ve learned one thing as an observer of business and the founder of four corporations, it’s that there are many bottom lines for a business. In addition to economic there are also social and environmental considerations. The financials really only are a part of the picture. The sooner that corporations take a broader view of the bottom line, the sooner they’ll begin to fully reach their potential.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. His web site, workplace911.com, contains a comprehensive archive of strategies for surviving today’s workplace. He is a fan of Workplace Fairness and can be reached via bob@workplace911.com.

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