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What is Contributing Factor Causation in SOX Whistleblower Case?

Most of the corporate whistleblower protection laws enforced by OSHA, including the Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower protection law, require the whistleblower to prove that the protected whistleblowing was a “contributing factor” in the employer’s decision to take an adverse employment action.  What is “contributing factor” causation?

Jury, LitigationA contributing factor is “any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.” Powers v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., ARB No. 13-034, slip op. at 11, ALJ No. 2010-FRS-30, (ARB Mar. 20, 2015) (en banc).  The standard originated under the Whistleblower Protection Act (“WPA”), which prohibits retaliation against federal employees.  Before the WPA, a federal employee had to show that her protected disclosure “constituted a ‘significant’ or ‘motivating’ factor in the agency’s decision to take the personnel action.”  Marano v. Dep’t of Justice, 2 F.3d 1137, 1140 (Fed. Cir. 1993) (citing Clark v. Dep’t of the Army, 997 F.2d 1466, 1469–70 (Fed. Cir. 1993)).  But by enacting the WPA, Congress “substantially reduc[ed]” a whistleblower’s burden and sent “a strong, clear signal to whistleblowers that Congress intends that they be protected from any retaliation related to their whistleblowing.”  Id. (citing 135 Cong. Rec. 5033 (1989) (Explanatory Statement on S. 20)).  Congress intended specifically to overrule case law that required a whistleblower to prove that his protected conduct was a “significant,” “motivating,” “substantial,” or “predominant” factor in a personnel action in order to overturn that action.  Id.

In light of the standard’s meaning, “[a] complainant need not show that protected activity was the only or most significant reason for the unfavorable personnel action, but rather may prevail by showing that the respondent’s reason, while true, is only one of the reasons for its conduct, and another [contributing] factor is the complainant’s protected’ activity.”  Powers, ARB Case No. 13-034, slip op. at 11; see Blackie v. D. Pierce Transp., Inc., ARB Case No. 13-065, ALJ No. 2011-STA-055, 2014 WL 3385883, at *6 (June 17, 2014) (citing Araujo, 708 F.3d at 158); Marano, 2 F.3d at 1141 (AIR 21 complainant “need not demonstrate the existence of a retaliatory motive . . . [or] that the respondent’s reason for the unfavorable personnel action was pretext”); DeFrancesco v. Union R.R. Co., ARB Case No. 10-114, ALJ No. 2009-FRS-009, 2012 WL 694502, at *3 (Feb. 29, 2012) (“The ALJ concluded that DeFrancesco failed to show that his protected activity was a contributing factor because he did not prove that his employer was motivated by retaliatory animus.  This is legal error.”); Zinn v. Am. Commercial Lines Inc., ARB Case No. 10-029, 2012 WL 1143309, at *7 (Mar. 28, 2012) (“The ALJ also erred to the extent he required that Zinn show ‘pretext’ to refute [respondent’s] showing of nondiscriminatory reasons for the actions taken against her.”); Warren v. Custom Organics, ARB Case No. 10-092, ALJ No. 2009-STA-030, 2012 WL 759335, at *5 (Feb. 29, 2012) (“Under the 2007 amendment to the STAA burden of proof, an employee is not required to prove that his employer’s reasons for an adverse action were pretext, e.g., that the employer had an alternate, albeit improper, motive for the adverse action, to prevail on a complaint.”); Klopfenstein v. PCC Flow Tech., Inc., ARB Case No. 04-149, ALJ No. 04-SOX-11, 2006 WL 3246904, at *13 (May 31, 2006) (citing Rachid v. Jack in the Box, Inc., 376 F.3d 305, 312 (5th Cir. 2004)) (“[A] complainant is not required to prove pretext.”).  Likewise, an employee need not prove retaliatory motive to make his contributing factor showing.  See Powers, ARB Case No. 13-034, slip op. at 19–20, 28.  In Powers, the ALJ concluded that the employee failed to make his contributing factor showing.  The ALJ committed reversible error in reaching this determination because he credited and relied on testimony from the employers’ witnesses that they acted on non-retaliatory motives.  Id. at 28.

In sum, the burden to prove causation in a SOX whistleblower case is not onerous.  Indeed, temporal proximity alone can be sufficient proof in certain cases.

© 2020 Zuckerman LawNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 221


About this Author

Jason Zuckerman, Whistleblower Litigation Attorney, Washington DC  Law Firm

Described by the National Law Journal as a “leading whistleblower attorney,” Jason Zuckerman litigates whistleblowe r retaliation, whistleblower rewards, wrongful discharge, and other employment-related claims. His practice focuses on representing senior executives and senior professionals in high-...

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