October 27, 2021

Volume XI, Number 300

Advertisement
Advertisement

October 26, 2021

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

October 25, 2021

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

CA Federal Court Dismisses Whistleblower Claims After Bench Trial

On July 26, 2021, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California held, after a bench trial, that Plaintiff Botta failed to prove that Defendant PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (“PwC”) terminated his employment in retaliation for his filing of a complaint with the SEC, and dismissed his whistleblower claims brought under SOX and California law.  Botta v. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, No. 18-cv-02615.

Background

Plaintiff was an auditor at PwC for nearly two decades.  In 2016, he filed a whistleblower complaint with the SEC, alleging that PwC supervisors willingly overlooked accounting errors and internal-control deficiencies in order to retain business.  The SEC investigated, but chose not to take action against PwC.

In August 2017, PwC terminated Plaintiff’s employment.  Plaintiff claimed the termination, as well as certain other employment actions, were taken in retaliation for his complaint to the SEC.  Plaintiff subsequently sued PwC, alleging violations of SOX, supplemental whistleblower claims under California law, and breach of his employment contract.  The court held a bench trial using Zoom.

Ruling

In its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, the court ruled that PwC was justified in terminating Plaintiff’s employment, and that Plaintiff had not established that PwC retaliated against him.  Although Plaintiff focused on the timing of his termination (four months after the SEC opened an investigation into his whistleblower complaint), the court held that the temporal proximity “wasn’t bolstered by other evidence,” and PwC had “offered a different, persuasive side of the story.”  PwC asserted at trial that Plaintiff’s employment had been terminated because he “fabricated an internal control or lied about doing so,” which was a violation of PwC internal standards.  The court ultimately found that “[Plaintiff], in the end, simply didn’t put forward enough evidence to prove that his SEC complaint contributed to PwC’s decision to fire him.  The temporal proximity between his complaint and his termination generated suspicion, but at trial that suspicion wasn’t confirmed.”  PwC representatives also testified persuasively that they had not even known Plaintiff had filed a whistleblower complaint.

The court also found that Plaintiff was removed from other client engagements for legitimate reasons, including his “lack of rapport,” “bedside manner,” and lack of “sensitivity.”  Therefore, the court held that Plaintiff had not proven that his protected activity was a “contributing factor” to the adverse actions taken against him.  For the same reasons, Plaintiff had not established a causal link between his protected activity and any adverse employment action as required under California law.

Implications

This case demonstrates that temporal proximity between a whistleblower complaint and an adverse employment action likely will not, standing alone, establish retaliation.  Instead, the factfinder considers all of the evidence and makes a context-specific determination regarding whether an adverse employment action was motivated by retaliatory animus.

© 2021 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 222
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

About this Author

Steven J Pearlman, Labor Employment Law Firm, Proskauer Law firm
Partner

Steven Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the firm's Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group, resident in the Chicago office. Steven’s practice focuses on defending complex employment litigation involving claims of discrimination and harassment, wage-and-hour laws and breaches of restrictive covenants (e.g., non-competition agreements). He has successfully tried cases to verdict before judges and juries in Illinois, Florida and California, and defended what is reported to be the largest Illinois-only class action in the history of the U.S....

312-962-3545
Pinny Goldberg Labor and Employment Lawyer Proskauer Rose Law Firm
Associate

Pinny Goldberg is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Pinny represents employers in a broad array of matters before federal and state courts, FINRA and other arbitration panels, and administrative agencies, including the EEOC and its state equivalents, and in pre-litigation negotiations. Matters he works on include discrimination and harassment, wage and hour, wrongful discharge, whistleblowing and retaliation, covenants not to compete, breaches of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, and tort and contract claims. 

In...

212.969.3074
Associate

Jordan Glassberg is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Prior to joining Proskauer, Jordan clerked for the Honorable William H. Pauley III in the Southern District of New York. 

Before clerking, Jordan graduated from Duke Law School, where he was managing editor of the Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy and a member of Duke’s Moot Court and Mock Trial Boards. While at Duke, Jordan received the Labor and Employment Law Award for the Class of 2017, won the Hardt Cup 1L Moot Court Tournament and...

212-969-3462
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement