The SEC has awarded $2.5 million to a government agency employee who reported misconduct by a company to the SEC and caused the SEC to open an investigation. While the SEC order granting the award acknowledged that government employees may be prohibited from receiving whistleblower awards in some circumstances, such as when the employee works for a “law enforcement organization,” the SEC nevertheless determined that although “certain components of Claimant’s governmental employer have law enforcement responsibilities, [ ] those responsibilities are housed in a separate, different component of the agency at which Claimant works.” The SEC further explained that “the record is clear that this is not a situation where a claimant sought to circumvent the potential responsibilities that his or her government agency might have to investigate or otherwise take action for the misconduct. We express no view on how an award determination might differ under that alternative circumstance.” Ultimately, because the individual provided the Commission with “credible information . . . significant ongoing assistance, and relevant testimony that accelerated the pace of the investigation,” the SEC found the $2.5 million bounty justified.
In a press release announcing the award, the SEC noted it has now awarded approximately $156 million to 45 whistleblowers since the program’s inception.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) is proposing amendments to its Dodd-Frank whistleblower regulations to bring them more in line with the SEC’s whistleblower bounty program. This is perhaps not surprising given the relative success of the SEC’s program compared to the CFTC’s program to date (over $100 million in SEC bounties versus about $10 million in CFTC bounties). The proposed changes would include the following:
- Giving the CFTC the ability to bring anti-retaliation suits in its own name (previously it interpreted Dodd-Frank as only providing for private causes of action);
- Providing that “no person may take any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the Commission’s staff about a possible violation of the Commodity Exchange Act, including by enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a confidentiality agreement….” This is much like the SEC’s Rule 21F-17, which that agency has used to aggressively prosecute cases against companies and collect significant fines; and
- Enhancing the ability of whistleblowers to recover bounties for “related” actions brought by agencies other than the CFTC.
In addition, the proposed regulations would extend the time frame for a whistleblower to report to the CFTC after reporting internally and still be award-eligible from 120 to 180 days. Comments will be accepted until September 29, 2016, and we will keep our readers posted on the rule-making in this area.
On October 23, 2015, in a suit filed by Bio-Rad’s former general counsel Sanford Wadler, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued a decision granting in part and denying in part Defendants’ motion to dismiss in Wadler v. Bio-Rad Labs, Inc. (No. 15-CV-02356-JCS, 2015 WL 6438670 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 23, 2015), holding, among other things, that corporate directors may be held personally liable for retaliating against a whistleblower under both the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank).
On August 4, 2015 the Securities and Exchange Commission issued interpretive guidance elaborating its view that the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply equally to tipsters who claim retaliation after reporting internally, as well as those who are retaliated against after reporting information to the SEC. The guidance reflects that there is a split among federal courts over whether Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower retaliation provisions apply to internal as well as external reporting, and recognizes that the only circuit court to decide the issue to date, the Fifth Circuit, has taken a contrary position to that of the Commission in Rule 21F, the regulation the SEC adopted to implement the whistleblower legislation, holding that internal reports are not protected by Dodd-Frank. Whether internal reports qualify for Dodd-Frank coverage has important implications because, among other things, Dodd Frank provides enhanced recoveries (including two times back pay) and longer time frames (six years) for bringing a retaliation claim than would be available under the anti-retaliation provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
On July 17, 2015, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of over $3 million to a company insider who provided information that “helped the SEC crack a complex fraud.” This payout represents the third highest award under the SEC’s whistleblower program to date. The SEC has made two of the three highest payments to clients of the same law firm – Phillips & Cohen LLP. (The SEC paid roughly $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and nearly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower represented by Phillips & Cohen in September 2014.). This latest multi-million dollar payout suggests that the SEC’s whistleblower program is in full swing, and that legal representation of whistleblowers may be on the rise.
In a much-anticipated move, the SEC on April 1, 2015 commenced a cease-and-desist action against KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown & Root) alleging its confidentiality agreements violated Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower regulations. KBR simultaneously agreed to settle the matter for $130,000. This is the first such case brought by the SEC, which had indicated over the last year or more that it was actively seeking examples of such alleged violations in order to enforce its Rule 21F-17, which provides, “No person may take any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the Commission staff about a possible securities law violation, including enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a confidentiality agreement…” In unofficial comments, SEC staff had expressed the view that standard confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions found in many employer agreements might violate the Rule to the extent they did not have express carve-outs stating that nothing in those provisions prevented employees from going directly to the Commission with concerns.
On March 2, 2015, the SEC announced a whistleblower bounty award of between $475,000 and $575,000, its 15th under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower program. While the SEC’s order is scant on detail, it does disclose that the award will go to a corporate officer, making it the first award to go to an officer under the program. This award is in keeping with the SEC’s approach to demonstrate in the relatively small number of awards made to date that a broad range of individuals can get bounties for providing original information of corporate wrongdoing under Dodd-Frank.
In Berman V. [email protected] LLC, 1:14-cv-523 (Dec. 4, 2014), Judge Gregory Woods of the Southern District of New York dismissed a Dodd-Frank whistleblower retaliation claim on the ground that internal reporting is not protected under the statute. In so holding, the court rejected the reasoning of a majority of district courts to address the issue to date (including several Southern District of New York decisions), as well as the SEC’s interpretation of the statute, and instead adopted the reasoning of the Fifth Circuit in Asadi v. GE Energy (USA), L.L.C. and a minority of district courts, which have held that “the language of the statute unambiguously requires that a person provide information to the [SEC] in order to qualify as a whistleblower under the Act.” You can find our prior blog posts on the split over this issue here (March 4, 2014), here (January 28, 2014), here (October 3, 2013), and here (July 18, 2013).
Thus, until the Second Circuit and other Circuit courts weighs in on this issue, the answer of whether internal reporting is protected under Dodd-Frank may hinge largely upon which district judge is assigned the case.
In Khazin v. TD Ameritrade, No. 14-1689, 2014 WL 6871393 (3rd Cir. Dec. 8, 2014), the Third Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision compelling arbitration of a Dodd-Frank whistleblower retaliation claim. This is the first circuit court decision to address whether such claims are arbitrable, and the decision is consistent with two district court opinions that have previously addressed the issue.
On September 22, 2014, the SEC announced its largest whistleblower award to date under its Dodd-Frank whistleblower bounty program. It awarded $30-$35 million to an anonymous whistleblower who the Commission said provided original information about an ongoing fraud that would otherwise have been difficult to detect. That information led to the successful enforcement of an SEC action as well as unspecified related actions. The SEC stated that the whistleblower’s award would have been even higher if he/she had not unreasonably delayed in coming forward, though the agency did not apply the unreasonable delay consideration as severely as it otherwise would have because some of the delay occurred before the whistleblower program’s inception.