Confidentiality agreements are common in corporate America. Many companies require new employees to sign them as part of the hiring process. In some industries like healthcare, privacy policies are elevated to a legal requirement. Can these agreements be used to stop an employee from reporting his or her employer for fraud or turning documents over to an attorney? The answer is “no” but there are some limits on what an employee can take and do with the information. The most recent case to examine the issue comes from the Northern District of Illinois.
On May 9th, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier dismissed a counterclaim brought by LifeWatch Services against a whistleblower in a federal False Claims Act case.
Matthew Cieszynski was a certified technician working for LifeWatch. His job was to conduct heart monitoring tests. LifeWatch conducts remote heart monitoring testing throughout the United States. Patients can wear heart monitor devices anywhere in the world and have those devices monitored through telemetry. Cieszynski’s job was to look for unusual or dangerous heart arrhythmias. The testing results would be passed to the patients’ cardiologists who use the data to diagnose and treat various heart ailments.
When first hired by the company in 2003, Cieszynski signed a confidentiality agreement that said in part, “you agree that both during your employment and thereafter you will not use for yourself or disclose to any person not employed by [LifeWatch] any Confidential Information of the company…” The agreement also restricted Cieszynski’s ability to access computer systems and records or remove information from the company’s premises.
In 2006, Cieszynski signed a HIPAA confidentiality statement.
Years later, Cieszynski became concerned that LifeWatch was sending some of the heart monitoring work offshore to India in violation of Medicare regulations. He became especially concerned that some of the Indian workers were not properly certified to review and interpret the heart monitoring data.
In 2012, Cieszynski believed that a patient died because of an improper diagnosis made by an unlicensed offshore technician. That is when he became a whistleblower and filed a False Claims Act lawsuit in federal court. In order to file his lawsuit, he provided what he believed were important company documents to his lawyer. Those were later turned over to the government.
Under the Act, complaints are filed under seal and served on the government instead of the defendant. This allows regulators and prosecutors to investigate the merits of the case in secret. Usually the case is unsealed when the government decides to intervene or allow the whistleblower’s counsel to pursue the case. Until unsealed, the whistleblowers identity is not disclosed.
When the complaint was unsealed, LifeWatch Services discovered that Matt Cieszynski was the person who brought the suit. Their response was to file a counterclaim against Cieszynski for violating his employment agreement and the separate HIPAA nondisclosure agreement.
On May 9th, Magistrate Judge Schenkier dismissed LifeWatch’s counterclaim in a case widely watched by both members of the plaintiffs and defense whistleblower bar.
In dismissing the counterclaims, Judge Schenkier discussed the “strong policy of protecting whistleblowers who report fraud against the government.”
The court recognized the legitimate need for companies to protect confidential information. Those needs must be carefully balanced against the need to prevent “chilling” whistleblowers from coming forward, however.
In deciding that the counterclaim against Cieszynski should be dismissed, the court examined a number of factors. Those include:
What was the intent of the whistleblower when taking the documents? Here Cieszynski took them for the sole purpose of reporting what he believed to be fraud. There was no evidence that he sought to embarrass the company.
How broad was the disclosure? In this case there was no disclosure to the public or competitors. Cieszynski only provided documents to his lawyer and the the government.
The scope of the documents taken from the employer. Although LifeWatch claimed Cieszynski took more documents than were necessary to prosecute his case, the court said it wouldn’t apply hindsight and require a whistleblower to know exactly what documents the government might need. Since the documents were reasonably related to what the government could need, Judge Schenkier elected not to second guess Cieszynski.
There are limits to what a person can take and what he or she can do with those documents. For example, disclosing trade secrets to competitors or releasing sensitive healthcare information to the public will not likely elicit sympathy from the court.
In a case like this, however, courts will give the benefit of doubt to the whistleblower. Especially when there has been no public disclosure and no real harm to the defendant. Although LifeWatch claimed harm, the court found the only harm was the “fees and costs associated with pursuing the counterclaim – which is a self-inflicted wound.”
Corporate counsel should think long and hard before bringing counterclaims against whistleblowers. Not only are courts generally unsympathetic to these challenges, the fee shifting provisions of the False Claims Act can make these cases expensive for the defendants. Under the False Claims Act, defendants must pay the relator’s (whistleblower) lodestar legal fees if the relator prevails.