Sometimes a Complaint is Just a Complaint: Eighth Circuit Applies Reasonableness Standard to Reject Employee’s SOX Retaliation Claim
Earlier this summer, in Beacom v. Oracle, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment dismissing the SOX and Dodd Frank Act claims of an employee who was fired from his Vice President position after he says that he complained about changes in his employer’s financial forecasting. The Court upheld dismissal of that claim based on the standard that a SOX plaintiff must prove that he “subjectively believe[d] the employer’s conduct violated a law relating to fraud against shareholders, and the employee’s belief must be objectively reasonable” (Emphasis added.) According to the Minnesota District Court that initially heard and dismissed Beacom’s claim and the Court of Appeals that affirmed, the plaintiff in this case could do neither.
The record established that in 2011 Oracle hired a new General Manger, over Beacom, who had served as the interim GM. The new GM revised the method for financial forecasts and sales quotas set for Beacom and the sales force he oversaw. The forecasts required higher results than Beacom (and the Company) had previously achieved. The group did not achieve those results in the initial quarters following these changes. In early 2012, Beacom complained to Human Resources that the new forecasts set unreasonable expectations about what his group could achieve. After another quarter passed without meeting the new forecasts and senior management was concerned about Beacom’s lack of a strategic plan to close a deal, Beacom was fired for poor performance.
Both the lower court and the appeals court cited the two-part reasonableness standard quoted above. On the subjective belief element, the District Court found that Beacom did not produce evidence that he believed at the time that he complained to HR that the higher targets risked fraud on the investors, although he claimed as much in his lawsuit. Ultimately, however, the Court of Appeals relied on its examination of the objective belief prong of the reasonableness test to dismiss Beacom’s claim. That is – whether Beacom proved “that a reasonable person in the same factual circumstances with the same training and experience would believe that the employer violated securities laws.” The courts approached this issue from a few vantage points. First, the analysis considered that Beacom’s group represented just a fraction of Oracle’s overall business and the alleged inflation of forecasts for that small group would not impact the Company’s share price. The courts also examined how closely the targets had been missed, Beacom’s own statements during his employment about how he had planned to achieve them, and the lack of evidence that the targets were unobtainable. Ultimately, although the targets were repeatedly higher than achieved results, they were not disproportionate to conceivable outcomes, industry experience, or the Company’s overall financial results.
This conclusion is an important victory not just for the employer involved, but for all employers, as it offers reassurance that not every complaint is given talismanic affect under SOX. This decision put the burden squarely on the ex-employee to show more than merely a complaint that the sales targets were higher than he believed they should be. Although an employee doesn’t have to use the word “fraud” for a complaint to be considered “protected activity” under SOX, he had to prove that he reasonably believed that the decisions to which he objected were fraudulent. Indeed, the lower court went so far as to say that Beacom could not succeed on his claim “absent evidence that [the new] targets bore no relationship to reality–that they were a material misrepresentation … intended to induce shareholders to rely on it.” (Emphasis added.)
The appeals court ultimately deferred to Oracle’s business decisions to set its own goals and hold its employees to those standards. As a practical matter, employers can take away the message that they can still challenge employees to meet high standards and implement innovative measures and goals. Importantly, however, it remains important to have the processes in place, like Oracle, to ensure Human Resources personnel and others empowered as part of a compliance process, are able to recognize and follow up on complaints that implicate financial responsibility and investor information. Additionally, this case tracks a clear timeline of expectations being set for an employee, his opportunity to achieve them, and employment action taken as a result of the employee’s failure to satisfy such obligations, unrelated to the employee’s complaint to HR. In the complex and evolving world of corporate compliance, those fundamentals of performance management remain as important as ever.
The case is Vincent A. Beacom v. Oracle America, Inc., case number 15-1729, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.