On June 9, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (‘SEC”) awarded the second largest whistleblower bounty – $17 million – granted under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules to date. Previously, the highest whistleblower awards were a $30 million award in September 2014 and a $14 million award in October 2013. The $17 million award comes on the heels of $26 million in whistleblower awards given to five anonymous individuals over the last month alone. These awards serve as a warning to companies that the SEC takes its whistleblower program seriously and will continue to encourage and reward company insiders for coming forward with information that leads to successful enforcement actions. As Sean X. McKessy, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower – a department created by the SEC to give whistleblowers a place to submit their tips – said, “[W]e hope these substantial awards encourage other individuals with knowledge of potential federal securities law violations to make the right choice to come forward and report the wrongdoing to the SEC.”
On August 5, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved its final rule subjecting most public companies to the so-called “Pay Ratio Disclosure” mandated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The SEC voted 3-2 to approve the measure, with the panel’s two Republican members opposing it. In the split vote, the SEC finally put into place one of the most controversial rules mandated by Dodd-Frank. In the years since the SEC began working on the rule, it has attracted an intense measure of both public scrutiny and advocacy, drawing more than 286,000 public comments.
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.
Securities and Exchange Commission leadership and staff members addressed the public on February 20-21 at the annual “SEC Speaks” conference in Washington, D.C. Common themes among the numerous presentations included the Commission’s increasing use of data analytics, the Commission’s focus on gatekeepers such as accountants and attorneys, and the Commission’s still incomplete rulemakings mandated by both the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.
On January 14, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that loosens certain Dodd-Frank requirements and reduces the scope of the SEC’s regulatory authority over certain private equity firms, small businesses, and emerging companies. The bill is part of a larger fight between Democrats and Republicans over the scope of Dodd-Frank and government oversight over financial institutions generally.
The need to detect and investigate reported allegations of wrongdoing within a corporation has long been a fact of corporate life. In the last 15 years, however, a combination of circumstances has contributed to an explosion of activity in this area. Among the contributing factors was Congress’ passage of laws and related agency regulations encouraging and, in some cases, mandating that employees report suspected corporate misconduct; creating financial incentives for employees to do so; and prohibiting retaliation against those who report. For companies, understanding their obligations pursuant to this statutory regime and the unsettled issues still surrounding it is crucial both for purposes of complying with applicable law and responding appropriately to alleged wrongdoing. Recently Orrick attorneys drafted an article for the Review of Securities & Commodities Regulation that discusses certain significant whistleblowing provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“Sarbanes-Oxley”) and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”), as well as best practices for responding to tips where these statutes apply.
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In an interesting and uncommon intersection between securities law, curbing human rights abuses and freedom of speech under the First Amendment, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently agreed to re-consider whether the SEC can require companies to disclose whether their products contain “conflict minerals.” The term “Conflict Minerals” is defined in Section 1502(e)(4) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”) and refers to certain minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”), or an adjoining country, that have been used by armed groups to help finance violent conflicts and human rights abuses in those countries. These minerals currently include gold, tin, tatalum, tungsten, and may include any other mineral the Secretary of State determines is being used to finance conflict in the DRC or an adjoining country.