On March 4, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employees of private contractors and subcontractors who contract with public companies are protected under the whistleblower provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX). Lawson v. FMR LLC, 571 U.S. ___ (2014). The ruling means that private employers who have a contract with a public company may not retaliate against their employees who report a potential fraud. As pointed out in the dissenting opinion, the holding by the six-justice majority creates the potential for increased litigation as it offers private sector employees another avenue to bring retaliation claims. In addition, it implies private sector employers with such contracts may need to strengthen their corporate compliance and complaint procedures to discover and fix problems early.
Whistleblowers Reported Potential Fraud In Mutual Fund Operations
Two former employees of private companies that contracted to advise and manage mutual funds filed separate administrative complaints alleging retaliation under 18 U.S.C. §1514A, the whistleblower provision of SOX. The mutual funds themselves were public companies, but they did not have any employees. Instead, the funds contracted with private companies to handle the day-to-day operation of the funds, including making investment decisions, preparing reports for shareholders and filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Jackie Hosang Lawson was the Senior Director of Finance for a private advisory firm that contracted to provide services to the Fidelity family of mutual funds. Lawson alleged that she suffered a series of adverse employment actions that resulted in her constructive discharge after she raised concerns about certain cost accounting methods being used with the funds. She alleged that she believed that expenses associated with operating the funds were being overstated.
The second petitioner, Jonathan M. Zang, was a portfolio manager for a different division of the company that advised Fidelity mutual funds. Zang alleged that he was fired after he expressed concerns about inaccuracies contained in a draft SEC registration statement concerning some of the mutual funds.
After pursuing their administrative complaints, both whistleblowers filed retaliation lawsuits under §1514A in federal court in Massachusetts. Their employers, collectively referred to as FMR, moved to dismiss the suits, arguing that §1514A only protects employees of public companies, and because FMR is a private company, neither plaintiff had a viable claim under §1514A. The District Court denied FMR’s motion to dismiss. FMR sought an interlocutory appeal to the First Circuit, which reversed, ruling that §1514A only refers to employees of public companies, not a contractor’s own employees. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to resolve a division of opinion on the issue. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the SOX whistleblower provision shields only those employed by a public company itself, or also shields employees of privately held contractors and subcontractors who perform work for the public company.
“Employee” Presumes an Employer-Employee Relationship Between the Retaliator and the Whistleblower
Section 1514A provides: “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].” FMR argued that the prohibition against retaliating against “an employee” meant an employee of the public company. The Court (in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg) disagreed. It looked at the provision as stating that “no . . . contractor . . . may discharge . . . an employee” and found that the ordinary meaning of “an employee” in that context was the contractor’s own employee. The Court stated that contractors are not ordinarily in a position to take adverse actions against employees of the public company for which they contract so to interpret the provision as FMR did would “shrink to insignificance the provision’s ban on retaliation by contractors.” The Court rejected FMR’s argument that Congress included contractors in §1514A’s list of governed parties only to prevent companies from hiring contractors to carry out retaliatory terminations, such as the “ax-wielding specialist” portrayed by George Clooney in the movie “Up in the Air.” The majority believed that Congress presumed that there must be an employer/employee relationship between the retaliating company and the whistleblower.