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
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 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.