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Ninth Circuit Narrowly Construes Scope of Protected Activity for Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Claim

In Wadler v. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit adopted a limited, plain meaning construction of the types of reports that are protected by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s (SOX) whistleblower provision and in the process partially reversed an $11 million jury verdict in favor of a corporate general counsel.

In Wadler, a corporation’s general counsel believed that the corporation was violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s (FCPA) bribery prohibition and recordkeeping requirements and reported his findings to the corporation’s board.  After an outside investigation found no evidence of an FCPA violation, the corporation terminated the general counsel’s employment.  The general counsel filed SOX and other claims against the corporation alleging, among other things, that he was retaliated against for reporting the suspected FCPA violation.  The general counsel subsequently prevailed at trial.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment in favor of the general counsel as to his SOX claims because his reporting of alleged FCPA violations was not protected activity under SOX.  The Court found that SOX only protects employees who report violations of specific statutes, of which FCPA is not one.  The district court had ruled that FCPA fell into the category of “any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission,” which is identified in SOX, because FCPA is an amendment of and codified in the Securities and Exchange Act and is enforced by the SEC.  But, the Ninth Circuit held that under plain meaning construction of SOX, an SEC “rule or regulation” encompassed only administrative rules or regulations and not a statute like FCPA.  The Ninth Circuit also rejected the general counsel’s argument that the remedial purpose of SOX – i.e., to clamp down on corporate misconduct – required a broader interpretation of what constituted protected activity. 

Since Section 806 of SOX was enacted in 2002, federal courts have generally adopted expansive interpretations of the scope of protected activities. This Ninth Circuit decision is one of several recent federal decisions which instead limit protected activities to complaints concerning the specific statutes, rules, and regulations enumerated in SOX.

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in CaliforniaNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 63


About this Author

Conne Bertram Government Contract Lawyer Polsinelli Law Firm

Connie focuses her practice on whistleblower, trade secrets, government contractors and employee mobility counseling and litigation. She frequently conducts confidential internal investigations involving executive-level employees, including alleged fraud, theft or misuse of company data, trade secrets, sexual harassment and code of conduct violations. She routinely counsels, investigates and litigates restrictive covenant and trade secrets disputes between employers and former employees.

Connie has defended complex whistleblower, trade secrets and restrictive...

Jack Blum Polsinelli Employment Attorney

Jack Blum is an associate in the firm’s Employment Disputes, Litigation, and Arbitration practice, where he represents employers in connection with a wide range of employment law issues. Jack has extensive experience in defending employers against claims by their employees in federal and state courts, as well as before government agencies like the EEOC, Department of Labor, and state human rights commissions. Jack aggressively defends his client’s personnel practices and decisions while not losing sight of their underlying business goals and objectives. Jack represents clients in all aspects of complex employment litigation and has advised and defended employer clients regarding a wide variety of employee claims, including:

• Employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation
• Wage and hour
• Employment contract disputes
• Independent contractor/employee misclassification audits 
• Tort claims arising out of the employment relationship

Jack also has extensive experience representing parties in litigation arising from employee mobility, including claims involving non-competition, non-solicitation, and confidentiality agreements as well as the misappropriation of trade secrets. Significantly, Jack has experience in both prosecuting and defending these claims and is, therefore, able to offer clients a well-rounded assessment of their options and courses of action. Jack also has experience redressing employee data breaches under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Jack also has a background in employment counseling, where he has worked closely with in-house counsel, human resources personnel, and business executives to craft personnel policies that meet the client’s business requirements while complying with applicable laws. Jack has particular experience in assisting clients with issues relating to employee/independent contractor classifications, and regularly advises clients regarding the defensibility of classifications, drafts independent contractor agreements to provide the strongest possible arguments in support of the classification, and defends misclassification claims asserted by employees and government agencies. Jack also walks clients through sensitive personnel actions to reduce the potential for litigation or at least best position the client in the event that litigation is inevitable. Jack draws heavily upon this counseling experience in representing clients in litigation.

During law school, Jack served as a legal intern in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Inspector General where he contributed to several high-profile internal investigations, and also interned with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.