A new opinion from the Department of Labor (“DOL”) makes clear that the department will treat the burden of proof in whistleblower retaliation claims under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”) differently from typical retaliation claims under Title VII. In an opinion issued in late March – Zinn v. American Commercial Lines Inc. – the DOL’s Administrative Review Board (“ARB”) reversed an administrative law judge’s decision that applied Title VII’s “burden shifting” framework to dismiss Zinn’s whistleblower retaliation claim. Specifically, the ARB removed the third prong of the traditional “burden shifting” analysis as discussed further below.
Under Title VII, once an employee makes a prima facie case of retaliation, the burden shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for taking the adverse employment action at issue in the case. If an employer provides such a reason, the burden then shifts back to the employee to show that the employer’s reasons were actually a pretext for retaliation. In Zinn, the ARB found it was incorrect to apply this framework and “conflat[e] the SOX burden of proof standard with the Title VII burden of proof.” Under SOX, the employee needs to show that she engaged in protected activity that contributed to an adverse employment action. The burden then shifts to the employer to demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that it would have taken the same adverse action absent the protected activity. However, the ARB clarified that it was unnecessary for the employee to then show that the employer’s actions were pretextual. Instead, once an employer produces evidence to support that its actions were non-retaliatory, an administrative law judge should “weigh the circumstantial evidence as a whole” to “gauge the context of the adverse action in question” and determine whether the case should proceed. With this distinct standard and its rejection of the familiar Title VII framework, the DOL has made it evident that SOX whistleblower cases will continue to be a unique and developing area of employment law.