*This post was drafted with contribution from Ashley Gambone, law clerk.
Affirming a SOX victory for an employee, the Fourth Circuit in a 2-1 decision in Gunther v. Deltek upheld a Department of Labor award of four-years of front pay to a former financial analyst of a software firm and also affirmed an award of tuition reimbursement for a four-year, full time, college degree program. The Fourth Circuit’s Gunther decision discusses the standards for proving or disproving a causal connection in SOX cases, for meeting the after-acquired evidence standard to cut off damages, and for proving entitlement to front pay and other damages under SOX.
Last week, the Second Circuit upheld a district court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s Sarbanes-Oxley (“SOX”) whistleblower claim – but not before rejecting the “definitively and specifically” standard on which the district court’s decision relied. Nielsen v. AECOM Tech. Corp., No. 13-235-cv (2d Cir. Aug. 8, 2014).
Yesterday, in Lawson v. FMR LLC, a divided U.S. Supreme Court decided its first case addressing the whistleblower protections of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). The question before the Court: do those protections extend only to the employees of public companies, or do they also reach the employees of contractors and subcontractors of public companies? You can see our prior posts on the case here (June 19, 2012), here (October 8, 2013), here (January 7, 2014), and here (January 28, 2014). READ MORE
In Murray v. UBS Securities, LLC, Judge Failla in the Southern District of New York compelled arbitration of a Dodd-Frank whistleblower retaliation claim, holding that nothing in the anti-retaliation provision, 15 U.S.C. 78u-6(h), precludes the arbitration of these claims. READ MORE
Back on October 8, 2013, we highlighted three cases currently pending on the United States Supreme Court docket that employers will definitely want to follow. The cases address issues ranging from the proper interpretation of Sarbanes Oxley’s whistleblower provision to the breadth of Presidential NLRB appointment power, to what constitutes “changing clothes” under the FLSA. Although decisions have not yet come down, important developments have taken place in all three cases. READ MORE
Two victories for employers last week in Dodd-Frank and SOX whistleblower cases may provide a basis for at least a sliver of optimism among employers and whistleblower defense lawyers hammered by a recent series of employee-favorable decisions under the two main federal statutes covering whistleblowing activity. READ MORE
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.