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Tenth Circuit Confirms that Compliance Employees Must Satisfy Heavier Burden to Obtain FCA Whistleblower Protection

On April 30, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in United State ex rel. Reed v. KeyPoint Government Solutions affirmed the dismissal of an employee’s False Claims Act (FCA) whistleblower retaliation claim.  In its ruling, the Tenth Circuit confirmed that employees with compliance responsibilities bear a heightened burden to show that their alleged protected activities were not simply the performance of their assigned job responsibilities. 

 Ms. Reed, the plaintiff, worked as a Senior Quality Control Analyst for KeyPoint Government Solutions, a company that conducted federal background check investigations.  Amid a series of scandals that rocked the broader background investigation industry, Ms. Reed claimed that she observed systemic violations of KeyPoint’s federal government contract as investigators allegedly made false background check reports, omitted information from reports, and failed to follow proper background check procedures.  Ms. Reed alleged that these violations formed the basis of fraudulent requests for payment from the government.  Ms. Reed claimed that she discussed the issues with several people within the company, but ultimately her efforts were unsuccessful and KeyPoint terminated her employment.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Reed’s FCA whistleblower retaliation claim.  The court noted that to face FCA whistleblower liability, an employer must know that the relator-employee’s actions were connected to a claimed FCA violation.  Where the employee’s job involves compliance and fraud investigations, it must be clear that the employee is engaging in FCA protected activity and “not just doing her job” to report suspected fraud internally.  Critically, the court found that the requirement for this heightened showing from compliance employees was not affected by the 2009 and 2010 amendments to FCA that expanded whistleblower protections.  Because Ms. Reed’s allegations did not show that she went outside of the established chain of command or beyond the scope of KeyPoint’s ordinary reporting procedures, the court held that she could not establish KeyPoint’s knowledge of her claimed FCA protected activity.

 Compliance employees are in a prime position to report corporate activities that may trigger whistleblower protection under FCA or other statutes.  However, their internal reports of fraudulent activities should not be protected under the FCA whistleblower protections unless they go beyond their job duties and either report the alleged violation outside of her ordinary chain or tie their concerns to violations of the FCA.  Employers should exercise caution when taking adverse action against employees in their compliance, HR, legal, contracting and finance departments to ensure that (1) the action is justified, well-documented, consistent with policy and prior actions against employees; and (2) the employee did not “blow the whistle” through means or mechanisms outside of their normal job duties.

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in CaliforniaNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 134


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.