Renee Phillips, partner in the New York office and Co-Head of Orrick’s Whistleblower Task Force, focuses her practice on employment litigation and counseling, with particular emphasis on Sarbanes-Oxley/Dodd-Frank whistleblower issues and internal investigations.
Renee has successfully defended employers in federal and state court litigations as well as administrative proceedings and arbitrations involving claims of discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination, whistleblowing, trade secret misappropriation and other employment-related claims. She regularly counsels employers on a variety of employment-related issues and assists clients in creating and implementing human resources policies, whistleblower policies, negotiating and drafting executive contracts, restrictive covenants and other employment agreements, and conducting internal investigations.
Renee is the co-author of the PLI treatise, Corporate Whistleblowing in the Sarbanes-Oxley/Dodd-Frank Era. She regularly writes and speaks on whistleblower and other employment topics.
On May 6th, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) announced that it made a whistleblower award of approximately $1.5 million to an individual whistleblower. The individual provided information that assisted in the successful prosecution of a CFTC action and a related action brought by another federal regulator. In particular, the CFTC recognized that the whistleblower initially sought to report his or her concerns internally prior to reporting to the CFTC, and it enhanced the individual’s award as an incentive.
In making the announcement, the Director of CFTC’s Whistleblower Office Christopher Ehrman explained, “While there is no requirement that a whistleblower report internally before approaching the Commission, today’s award demonstrates that the Commission may pay enhanced awards to those that do – that is one of the positive factors set out in our rules for the Commission to consider in making its award determination.” Furthermore, the CFTC recognized that the information the claimant provided “was directly incorporated into strategy involving witness interviews, and his/her early assistance saved Commission resources through his/her explanation of a complex scheme.”
Since the beginning of the CFTC’s whistleblower program in 2014, the agency has awarded more than $85 million to whistleblowers.
In a case of first impression, the Second Circuit has held that hostile work environment claims are cognizable under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Fox v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, No.17‐0936‐CV (2d Cir. Mar. 6, 2019), the Second Circuit joined the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits to recognize this cause of action under the ADA. The court also provided useful guidance on when teasing may or may not suffice to establish a hostile work environment. READ MORE
In February, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released its FY 2018 Annual Report and announced a record-breaking year for the agency’s whistleblower program. Overall, whistleblowers provided information that contributed to the agency’s recovery of over $1.44 billion during the course of the year. As a result, the IRS awarded $312 million in bounty awards to whistleblowers in FY2018, an almost ten-fold increase from the $33.9 million in awards it made in FY2017. Of the 217 total awards the agency made to whistleblowers in FY 2018, 31 were mandatory awards under Internal Revenue Code section 7623(b) and 186 were discretionary awards under section 7623(a) (which applies to smaller cases). The average award percentage from the total amount collected was 21.7% – up from 16.6% in FY 2016 and 17.8% in FY 2017. READ MORE
The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced earlier this month that it had awarded more than $2 million to an individual who provided “critical information through independent analysis of market data” contributing both to a successful CFTC action and related action brought by another federal regulator. The payout is the first of its kind for the CFTC because it is the first time the agency has awarded a whistleblower who was a company outsider. READ MORE
On September 6, the SEC issued awards totaling more than $54 million to two whistleblowers who provided critical information and continued assistance to the agency in an enforcement action. This large award follows another composite mega-award of $83 million to three whistleblowers in a single enforcement action on March 19, 2018.
The September 6 award of $39 million to one claimant constitutes the second-largest award in the SEC whistleblower program’s history. The agency awarded the second whistleblower $15 million. Jane Norberg, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, stated that whistleblowers “serve as invaluable sources of information, and can propel an investigation forward by helping [the SEC] overcome obstacles and delays in investigation.” READ MORE
On June 28, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) voted to propose amendments to its whistleblower program. As SEC Chair Jay Clayton explained, the proposed changes would “strengthen the whistleblower program by bolstering the Commission’s ability to more appropriately and expeditiously reward those who provide critical information that leads to successful enforcement actions.” The SEC issued a press release outlining the proposed rules, which would: (1) provide the Commission with additional tools in making whistleblower awards; (2) clarify the requirements for anti-retaliation protection under the whistleblower statute; (3) provide interpretive guidance to help clarify the meaning of “independent analysis”; (4) increase efficiencies in the whistleblower claims review process; and (5) clarify various miscellaneous policies and procedures. READ MORE
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah granting summary judgment in favor of Kellogg USA in a case involving an alleged failure to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.
The case, Tabura v. Kellogg USA, emerged after Richard Tabura and Guadalupe Diaz, both Seventh-day Adventists, were terminated for refusing to work on Saturdays, the Sabbath day in their religion. The former employees filed suit in February 2014, claiming that Kellogg violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by failing to accommodate their religious beliefs. READ MORE
In the Supreme Court’s first decision interpreting Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower retaliation provisions, the Court unanimously held that internal whistleblowing is not protected under Dodd-Frank. The highly anticipated ruling resolves a circuit split between the Second and Ninth Circuits, which held that such reporting was protected, and the Fifth Circuit, which held that it was not. The Court sided with the Fifth Circuit’s textual reading and held that no Chevron deference to the SEC’s interpretation of the statute was warranted because the statutory definition of “whistleblower” was clear. READ MORE
Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of a CEO’s whistleblower retaliation claims in a decision that should provide corporate defendants ammunition to fight SOX and Dodd-Frank whistleblower cases going forward.
In Verfuerth v. Orion Energy Systems, Inc., No. 16-3502 (7th Cir. Jan. 11, 2017), the plaintiff, founder and former CEO of Orion, claimed that Orion’s Board of Directors terminated him for cause in retaliation for making whistleblower complaints about perceived fraud on SEC reports and other managerial decisions. Orion asserted that it terminated Verfuerth for numerous legitimate reasons, including falling stock prices, Verfuerth’s intimidating leadership style, high rates of senior management turnover, and other business disagreements such as reimbursement for Verfuerth’s costly divorce. READ MORE
The SEC released its Fiscal Year 2017 Annual Report (the “Report”) to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program on November 16, 2017. The Report analyzes the tips received over the last twelve months by the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower (“OWB”), provides additional information about the whistleblower awards to date, and discusses the OWB’s efforts to combat retaliation and other actions that muzzle whistleblowers. READ MORE