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COVID Compliance is Complicated: Don’t Let a Whistleblower Jab You

As federal contractors scramble to comply with President Biden’s September 2021 Executive Order on Ensuring Adequate COVID Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors, these employers must keep in mind the ever-present risks posed by non-compliance with such requirements. Determining if your company is a contractor that must comply with the vaccine mandate imposed by this Executive Order, is no easy feat. What happens if you decide you are not covered but an employee or other interested party thinks differently and wants to “blow the whistle?” Such a scenario could make your company the target of a whistleblower complaint under the False Claims Act (FCA). If it turns out the whistleblower was right you are covered and you were wrong, it could lead to civil liability or criminal prosecution.

Federal contractors are likely already familiar with the FCA, which imposes liability on companies who knowingly submit “false” claims to the federal government. Of course, liability under the FCA is not automatic, and significantly, there can only be liability under the FCA, if the non-compliance is “material” to the government’s payment. Materiality in FCA cases is dependent on a variety of factors, including how government agencies deal with non-compliant contractors. 

The intense publicity around the issue of vaccine mandates makes this an attractive potential tool for whistleblowers or qui tam relators, who stand to receive a substantial “bounty” for successful claims. However, the same publicity makes it easy to overlook the fact that there is considerable ambiguity in what “compliance” actually looks like. 

The ambiguity in determining who and who is not subject to the contractor vaccine mandate potentially offers an opportunity for companies who may face a lawsuit or whistleblower complaint alleging non-compliance.  Here, the complexity of the government’s guidance – and the relatively tight timeline for companies to comply – meaning that companies who act in good faith to comply with the vaccine mandate may find themselves in a better position if they face a claim down the road. Because the FCA doesn’t penalize accidental non-compliance, properly documenting efforts to comply with the Executive Order (including explaining the rationale for why certain things were or were not done) can be compelling evidence in the future to show that the company was acting in good faith to comply with the rules as they understand them and therefore did not have the knowledge required to sustain a violation. 

While the specific compliance requirements of the contractor vaccine mandate will come into focus as the law is enforced, companies can nevertheless take steps to ensure that they have an effective internal whistleblower program in place, as an effective program can greatly reduce the likelihood that employees will seek external avenues to report their employers. The most important step is to foster an internal “speak-up” culture that encourages staff to report issues internally without the fear of retaliation. Although many factors can contribute to such an environment, creating trust in an organization’s compliance program is frequently cited as the most significant. An effective, trusted, whistleblower program, with buy-in from employees can be established (or promoted) through regular communications and reinforcement by management of ethics and compliance issues.

© 2022 Foley & Lardner LLPNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 305
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About this Author

Rohan Virginkar, Foley Lardner Law Firm, Washington DC, Government Enforcement Attorney
Partner

Rohan Virginkar is a former federal prosecutor and a member of the Government Enforcement Defense & Investigations Practice in the Washington D.C. office of Foley & Lardner LLP. His practice focuses on advising corporations and executives on government and regulatory actions; conducting internal investigations; leading corporate compliance matters; and representing individuals and corporations in white collar matters and investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Offices, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and other...

202-295-4058
Mark J. Neuberger, Of Counsel, Miami Lawyer, Foley Lardner, Non profit Attorney
Of Counsel

Mark J. Neuberger is of counsel and a litigation lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP. His practice involves the representation of management in all areas of employment law, including general labor and employment guidance to clients. He regularly represents clients in the health care, hospitality, manufacturing and not-for-profit industries. He is a member of the firm’s Labor & Employment and Private Equity & Venture Capital Practices as well as the Health Care Industry Team. Mr. Neuberger also serves on Foley’s national Pro Bono Legal Services Committee.

305-482-8408
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