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On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued a long-awaited opinion in Sanford Wadler v. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., et al. The 23-page opinion, slated for publication, takes a mixed view of the trial outcome, vacating in part, affirming in part, and remanding for the district court to determine whether to hold a new trial.
Two years ago, following a $55 million civil and criminal FCPA settlement by Bio-Rad, a jury awarded Wadler (the company’s former General Counsel) $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages, including double back-pay under Dodd-Frank, in his whistleblower retaliation case against his former employer. Bio-Rad appealed to the 9th Circuit, arguing that the district court erroneously instructed the jury that SEC rules or regulations prohibit bribery of a foreign official; that the company’s alleged FCPA violations resulted from Wadler’s own failure to conduct due diligence as the company’s General Counsel; that the district court should have allowed certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to Wadler’s pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that Wadler was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank because he only reported internally and did not report out to the SEC. The Court heard arguments on November 14, 2018.
Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, codified as 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, protects whistleblowers from retaliation under certain circumstances, including reporting violations of “any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.” Bio-Rad alleged, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that the district court’s jury instructions incorrectly stated that Section 806 encompasses reports of FCPA violations. The Court ruled that “statutory provisions of the FCPA, including the three books-and-records provisions and anti-bribery provision . . . are not ‘rules or regulations of the SEC’ under SOX § 806.” However, the Court found that with the right instructions, a jury could have still ruled in Wadler’s favor. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Section 806 verdict and remanded to the district court for consideration of a new trial. On the other hand, the Court held that the same jury instruction error was harmless for the purposes of Wadler’s California public policy claim, so the Court upheld that verdict and its associated damages. The Court also rejected Bio-Rad’s claims of evidentiary error. Finally, the Court ruled that under Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers, 138 S. Ct. 767, 778 (2018), Dodd-Frank does not apply to people who only report misconduct internally, and vacated the Dodd-Frank claim. As for damages, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Wadler’s compensatory and punitive damages award but vacated the double back-pay associated with the Dodd-Frank claim.
This decision is likely the first circuit court opinion to cite Digital Realty in an FCPA case for its holding that individuals who only report violations internally do not hold “whistleblower” status under Dodd-Frank.
On March 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a national bank’s motion to dismiss a former associate vice president/lending manager’s whistleblower claims that it violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting fraudulent claims and providing false information about loan applications to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The whistleblower alleged that the bank (i) knowingly submitted fraudulent claims for payment to the U.S. government; (ii) told Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that the applications met underwriting standards; and (iii) later terminated his employment as retaliation for notifying his superiors about the alleged false statements. However, according to the court, the whistleblower failed to sufficiently plead that the bank actually submitted the false claims, did not provide enough specificity as to whom the bank sent the alleged false claims to, and failed to “allege specific facts that link [the bank’s] fraudulent conduct to a claim submitted to the government.” Moreover, the court stated that under the FCA’s public disclosure bar, a whistleblower cannot base his case on allegations raised in prior litigation or publically disclosed information, and identified several similarities between the whistleblower’s allegations and previously disclosed claims. Because the whistleblower’s FCA claims failed, the retaliation claims were also dismissed.
On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a former general counsel’s whistleblower retaliation claim, under California public policy, against a biopharmaceutical manufacturer and its CEO but vacated the jury’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) and Dodd-Frank Act verdicts. According to the opinion, the general counsel sued the company and the CEO claiming whistleblower retaliation under SOX, the Dodd-Frank Act, and California wrongful termination case law, claiming the company fired him after he alleged the company may have violated the FCPA in China. The jury awarded the general counsel $11 million, including $2.96 million in lost wages, which was doubled under the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower provision, and $5 million in punitive damages. The company appealed the verdict arguing the district court erred in the instructions to the jury when it stated that statutory provisions of the FCPA constitute “rules or regulations of the SEC for purposes of whether [the general counsel] engaged in protected activity under SOX.”
On appeal, the 9th Circuit concluded the district court’s instructional error was not harmless as to the SOX claim, finding that the statutory provisions of the FCPA are not “rules or regulations of the SEC under SOX” as instructed to the jury. While the error was not harmless, the appellate court rejected entering judgment in favor of the company and instead, remanded the case back for proper instruction. Additionally, the appellate court vacated the district court’s instructions for the jury to enter judgment in favor of the Dodd-Frank Act claim, citing to the Supreme Court decision in Digital Realty Trust Inc. v. Somers. The appellate court concluded that the whistleblower provision of the act does not apply to purely internal reports and entered judgment in favor of the company. As for the California public policy claim, the appellate court determined that the incorrect SOX jury instructions were harmless because his California claim did not depend on SOX and the jury “necessarily would have reached the same verdict under proper instruction.” The affirmation of the California claim and associated damages left the general counsel with an award of nearly $8 million.
On February 21, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, sent a letter to CFPB employees, reminding Bureau staff of the protections under The Whistleblower Protection Act and encouraged anyone who witnesses “waste, fraud, abuse or gross mismanagement” to reach out to her or her staff. Waters cited to the recent reports of a significant drop in Bureau staff morale and reiterated her concern with the changes that took place at the agency during acting Director Mick Mulvaney’s tenure. Waters emphasized the importance of the Bureau’s work to protect consumers and stated that she will conduct careful oversight of the agency as part of her Chairwoman duties.
On February 11, the DOJ announced a $2.5 million settlement with a South Carolina university to resolve allegations that the university violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false claims to the U.S. Department of Education. According to the announcement, between 2014 and 2016, the university hired a company, which was partially owned by the university, to recruit students to the university and paid the company based on the number of students who enrolled in university programs, in violation of the prohibition on paying incentive compensation in Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The co-owner of the company originally brought a qui tam lawsuit against the university and will receive $375,000 from the settlement.
On January 7, NYDFS issued guidance providing principles and best practices that all NYDFS-regulated institutions “regardless of industry, size, or number of employees” should consider when designing and implementing a robust whistleblowing program, which the department considers to be an essential component of an institution’s comprehensive compliance program.
The guidance notes that the design of a whistleblowing program should be based on factors such as the institution’s size, geographical reach and business. However, it outlines ten elements that institutions should, at a minimum, consider how to account for when designing their programs:
- Independent, well-publicized, easy-to-access, and consistent reporting channels;
- Strong protections for whistleblower anonymity;
- Established procedures for identifying and managing the effects of possible conflicts of interest;
- Adequately trained staff members responsible for receiving a whistleblowing complaints, determining a course of action, and competently managing any investigation, referral, or escalation;
- Established procedures for appropriately investigating allegations of wrongdoing;
- Established procedures for ensuring appropriate follow-up to valid complaints;
- Protections against any form of retaliation;
- Confidential treatment, including safeguards to protect the confidentiality of the whistleblower and the whistleblowing matters themselves;
- Appropriate oversight by senior managers, internal and external auditors, and the Board of Directors; and
- A top-down culture of support for the whistleblowing function.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, last December NYDFS issued a consent order against an international bank and its New York branch to resolve allegations stemming from an investigation into the governance, controls, and corporate culture relating to the bank’s whistleblower program.
On December 18, NYDFS announced a $15 million settlement with an international bank and its New York branch resolving allegations stemming from an investigation into the governance, controls, and corporate culture relating to the bank’s whistleblower program. According to the announcement, NYDFS’ investigation determined that several members of senior management failed to follow or apply the bank’s whistleblower policies and procedures, which allegedly allowed the bank’s CEO to attempt to identify the author(s) of two whistleblowing letters criticizing his and bank’s management’s roles in recruiting and employing a recently hired senior executive. Additionally, the investigation found that, in alleged violation of New York Banking Law, the bank (i) failed to devise and implement effective governance and controls with respect to the whistleblower program; and (ii) failed to submit a report to NYDFS immediately upon discovering misconduct.
NYDFS acknowledged the bank’s substantial cooperation in the investigation, including engaging an outside consultant to perform an independent review of the whistleblowing policies, processes, and controls. Additionally NYDFS stated the bank has already addressed certain deficiencies noted in the Consent Order, including implementing (i) procedures which recognize that concerns raised outside whistleblowing channels may nevertheless constitute whistleblows; (ii) procedures which would avoid escalating a whistleblow to the subject of the concern; and (c) procedures to preserve whistleblower anonymity. In addition to the $15 million penalty, the bank must create a written plan to improve compliance and oversight of the whistleblower program and submit a report to NYDFS that contains all instances of whistleblower complaints since January 2017, attempts to identify whistleblowers, and any reported or sustained instances of whistleblower retaliation.
On December 4, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a New York foreclosure law firm and its wholly-owned affiliates—a process server and a title search company (defendants)—have agreed to pay $4.6 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations claiming that between 2009 and 2018 the defendants systematically generated false and inflated bills for foreclosure-related and eviction-related expenses and caused those expenses to be paid by Fannie Mae. The settlement also resolves claims arising from the same misconduct pertaining to eviction-related expenses that were submitted to and ultimately paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The DOJ alleges that the process server and title search company both added “additional charges to the costs charged by independent contractors and otherwise took actions that increased costs and expenses,” which were then submitted by the law firm for reimbursement. According to the DOJ, “[l]awyers are not above the law. For years, the [law firm] submitted bills to Fannie Mae and the VA that contained inflated and unnecessary charges. This Office will continue to hold accountable those who seek to achieve profits by fraudulent conduct.” The DOJ states that Fannie Mae’s Servicing Guide requires “all foreclosure costs and expenses be ‘actual, reasonable, and necessary,’ and that foreclosure law firms ‘must make every effort to reduce foreclosure-related costs and expenses in a manner that is consistent with all applicable laws.’”
The DOJ further notes that the defendants agreed to pay an additional $1,518,000 to resolve separate False Claims Act claims pursued by the whistleblower.
On November 15, the SEC released its 2018 Annual Report to Congress on its Whistleblower Program, as required under § 924(d) of the Dodd-Frank Act and § 21(F)(g)(5) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Report, which covers October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018, indicates that the SEC received 202 FCPA-related whistleblower tips during the reporting year. Those 202 FCPA tips account for only 3.82 percent of the tips received in that period. While the overall number of whistleblower tips has steadily risen over the past 4 years, the number of FCPA tips has remained fairly steady. In 2015, there were 186 (4.74 percent of the tips received); in 2016 there were 238 (5.64 percent of the tips received); and in 2017 there were 210 (4.68 percent of the tips received). This relative consistency contrasts with the number of offering fraud tips, which jumped from 758 in 2017 to 1,054 in 2018.
In addition to providing statistics and background on the whistleblower program, the Report discusses rule amendments proposed earlier this year. In particular, the Report reviews proposed amendments to SEC Rule 21F-2 (Whistleblower Status and Retaliation Protection) that are intended to bring the rules in line with the Digital Realty Trust v. Somers decision. The proposed amendments would include instituting a uniform definition of whistleblower that requires the individual to have submitted the information “in writing” to the SEC.
On November 14, 2018, a three judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments for a life science research and diagnostics company hoping to overturn a February 2017 jury verdict ordering the company to pay its former General Counsel and Secretary $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages. The former employee’s complaint alleged that the company had fired him for being an FCPA whistleblower. As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, the company paid $55 million in November 2014 to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The former employee’s report to the Audit Committee had involved separate allegations that the company violated the FCPA in China, allegations that did not result in additional penalties against the company.
The company appealed the former employee's award on the grounds that the jury was erroneously instructed that the SEC’s rules or regulations forbid bribery of a foreign official; that the company’s alleged FCPA violations were the result of the former employee’s lack of due diligence; that the trial court wrongly excluded certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to the timing of his pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that he did not qualify as a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank in light of his reporting only internally and not to the SEC (pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in another case). During the argument, one member of the circuit panel reportedly expressed doubt concerning the company’s jury instruction argument, and another told counsel for the company, “I don’t see how this can be reversed on the theory you’re offering.”
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