Whistleblower Claims Under The Sarbanes-Oxley Act Of 2002

Laurence S. Moy, Linda A. Neilan, and Hollis Pfitsch (Summer Associate), Practising Law Institute, October 7-8, 2004, and December 9-10, 2004.

In the wake of recent accounting and corporate scandals, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (hereinafter, “Sarbanes-Oxley,” “SOX,” or the “Act”), Public L. No. 107-204, Sec. 806, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1514A.1 In addition to providing greater oversight of the accounting industry and protecting investors, the Act prohibits employers from retaliating against whistleblowers. (“Whistleblower” might be considered a misnomer since the Act’s scope is not limited to employees who “blow the whistle” by refusing to engage in illegal or wrongful acts or by reporting such activities to the employer or the appropriate authorities.) The Act provides extensive coverage to employees who report improper conduct as well as employees who participate in proceedings relating to same. Companies that fall under the purview of Sarbanes-Oxley are prohibited from discharging, demoting, suspending, threatening, harassing, or discriminating against any employee who engages in protected activity. 18 U.S.C. § 1514A(a).

Prior to Sarbanes-Oxley’s enactment, federal and state whistleblower statutes provided limited protection for a narrow class of employees. The False Claims Act covers employees only if they report fraud on the federal government. 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h).2 In New York, a state statute had provided pre-Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblowers with extremely limited coverage. That statute, New York Labor Law § 740, only protects an employee who “discloses, or threatens to disclose to a supervisor or to a public body an activity, policy or practice of the employer that is in violation of law, rule or regulation which violation creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety.” N. Y. Lab. Law § 740(2). Thus, Sarbanes-Oxley has vastly changed the horizon of protection for whistleblowers in the private sector.

This paper addresses the whistleblowing provisions of the Act and its accompanying regulations, provides guidance to lawyers advising companies responding to potential whistleblower complaints of improper conduct, and reviews the duties of lawyers to report wrongful conduct as per the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC” or “Commission”) new regulations.