Supreme Court Expands Pool of Claimants in Whistleblower Case

Corporate Attorney Joseph MarrowBy: Joseph Marrow

On March 4, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in a much anticipated whistleblower retaliation case. In its decision, Lawson v. FMR, LLC, No. 12-3, the Supreme Court expanded the coverage of an anti-retaliation claim under Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) to an employee of a privately-held contractor (the contractor provided investment management services to Fidelity mutual funds). Pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act, the Securities and Exchange Commission established an award program for whistleblowers creating a new private right of action for employees in the financial services sector who suffer retaliation for disclosing information about fraudulent or unlawful conduct related to the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service. The First Circuit had ruled that the anti-retaliation provision only applies to employees of public companies. In a 6 to 3 vote, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the First Circuit in favor of expanding the coverage of the whistleblower statute to cover employees of a public company’s private contractors and subcontractors.

In Lawson v. FMR, the Supreme Court interpreted a provision of SOX, namely 18 U.S.C. Section 1514A protecting whistleblowers, which provides in part: “No [public] company …, or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company, may discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or in any other manner discriminate against an employee in the terms and conditions of employment because of [whistleblowing or other protected activity].” The Supreme Court was faced with the question whether the protected class was simply limited to employees of the public company itself or would include “employees of privately held contractors and subcontractors – for example, investment advisers, law firms, accounting enterprises – who perform work for the public company?” Noting that SOX was enacted following the Enron scandal and in part in response to that scandal, the Supreme Court interpreted the statute as a response to a “concern about contractor conduct of the kind that contributed to Enron’s collapse.” As such, the Supreme Court held that a broader interpretation of the statute (to capture contractors that perform work for public companies) was warranted.

The implications of the Supreme Court’s decision are far reaching. The Supreme Court’s holding significantly expands the pool of potential whistleblower claimants. It remains to be seen whether the parade of horribles predicted by the dissent – resulting in a multitude of spurious claims – will come to fruition.

For more information on this topic please contact Joe Marrow.

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