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Buckley Sandler Special Alert: Supreme Court limits definition of “whistleblower” in potentially hollow victory for public companies
Buckley Sandler Special Alert
On February 21, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers, a long-anticipated case that clarifies who is protected as a “whistleblower” under the Dodd-Frank Act’s anti-retaliation provisions. In a unanimous decision penned by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that the Dodd-Frank Act protects an individual only if he or she has reported a securities law violation to the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC)—internal reports are not sufficient.
If you have questions about the decision or other related issues, please visit our Whistleblower practice page, or contact a Buckley Sandler attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
On February 15, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) issued a Consumer Protection Advisory on virtual currency “pump-and-dump” schemes, which offers eligible whistleblowers between 10 and 30 percent of enforcement actions of $1 million or more, which result from the shared information. The notice cautions consumers against falling for the fraudulent “pump-and-dump” schemes, which capitalize on consumers’ fear of missing the potentially lucrative—yet volatile—cryptocurrency market. The advisory warns consumers that many of the perpetrators of these schemes use social media to promote false news reports and create fake urgency for consumers to buy the cryptocurrency immediately. Then, after the price reaches a certain level, the schemers sell their virtual currency and the price begins to fall.
Following a $55 million civil and criminal FCPA settlement by a life science research and diagnostics company in November 2014, the company’s former General Counsel and Secretary filed a civil complaint against the company and executive officers and board members alleging that he was fired for blowing the whistle on FCPA issues. In February 2017 a jury awarded the former employee a total of $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages (including double back-pay under Dodd-Frank).
The company recently appealed that verdict to the Ninth Circuit on the grounds that the trial court should have directed the verdict in favor of the company because, it argues, the alleged FCPA violations were the result of the former employee’s lack of due diligence, because he did not first consult the company’s compliance officers and FCPA lawyers before reporting, and because his allegations were discredited by trial witnesses. The company also claims that the trial court wrongly excluded certain impeachment testimony, and that he did not qualify as a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank in light of his internal reporting.
International oil field service company agrees to settle FCPA claim for $29 million in disgorgement and penalties
An international oil field service company recently settled allegations that the company improperly steered business to the friend of an Angolan official in exchange for that official awarding various oil contracts to the company. In total, the company agreed to pay the SEC $29.2 million, comprising $14 million in disgorgement, $1.2 million in prejudgment interest, and a $14 million penalty. The company’s former vice president also agreed to pay the SEC a $75,000 penalty related to these violations and other accounting irregularities.
This is the most recent settlement in a series of FCPA enforcement actions focusing on the company’s procurement processes and operations in various countries. A former subsidiary of the company settled similar FCPA allegations in 2009 related to alleged bribes paid to Nigerian officials to procure contracts in that country.
This settlement also highlights the role of whistleblowers in driving FCPA and other enforcement actions. A whistleblower employed by the company first alerted the company to potential FCPA issues in 2010, which resulted in the launching of an investigation into the allegations.
DOJ Intervenes in False Claims Act Litigation Against City of Los Angeles for Alleged Misuse of HUD Funds
On June 7, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the United States has intervened (see proposed order here) in a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles (City) alleging that the City misused Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds intended for affordable housing that is accessible to people with disabilities. See U.S. ex rel Ling et al v. City of Los Angeles et al, No. 11-00974 (D.C. Cal. 2017).
The DOJ joins in the lawsuit originally instituted by a disabled Los Angeles resident, who filed the False Claims Act (FCA) suit as a whistleblower. The FCA whistleblower provision allows private citizens to file suit on behalf of the government and likewise permits the government to intervene in the suit. Together, the DOJ and the whistleblower allege that the City and a city agency called the CRA/LA falsely certified compliance with federal accessibility laws, including the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as well as the duty to further fair housing in the City, in order to receive millions of dollars in HUD housing grants.
As recipients of the HUD funds, the City and the CRA/LA were obligated to ensure that (i) “five percent of all units in certain federally-assisted multifamily housing be accessible for people with mobility impairments”; (ii) “an additional two percent be accessible for people with visual and auditory impairments”; (iii) “the City and the CRA/LA maintain a publicly available list of accessible units and their accessibility features”; (iv) “the City and the CRA/LA have a monitoring program in place to ensure people with disabilities are not excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or otherwise subjected to discrimination in, federally-assisted housing programs and activities solely on the basis of a disability.” The false certifications resulted in too few accessible housing units, the suit claims.
The City denies the allegations.
On May 26, the DOJ ended a False Claims Act case with a $23 million settlement. The case, brought by whistleblowers against a pharmacy goods provider (company), involved alleged fraudulent Medicaid claims and kickbacks to pharmacies that prescribed one of the company’s drugs. The qui tam action, originally filed in 2007, resulted in the company agreeing to pay nearly $13 million to the U.S. within seven business days of the settlement, of which the government will pay the whistleblowers $3.7 million. Additionally, the company will pay over $10 million toward state Medicaid settlements.
On May 16, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that a Texas-based bank (Bank) agreed to settle the DOJ’s allegations that it violated the False Claims Act and FIRREA by wrongfully seeking payments from a federally insured reverse mortgage program. To protect lenders, HUD provides mortgage insurance through a program administered by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) on reverse mortgage loans, in which seniors borrow money against the equity they have in their homes. The DOJ alleged that the Bank sought to obtain insurance payments for interest from the FHA despite failing to properly disclose on the filed insurance claim forms that the mortgagee was not eligible for such interest payments because it had failed to meet various deadlines relating to appraisal of the property, submission of claims to HUD, and pursuit of foreclosure proceedings. As a result, from approximately 2011 to 2016, the mortgagees on the relevant reverse mortgage loans serviced by Bank “allegedly obtained additional interest that they were not entitled to receive.” The Bank agreed to pay more than $89 million to resolve the allegations, of which $1.6 million will be paid to the individual who filed the lawsuit under the whistleblower provisions of FIRREA.
DOJ Enters $18 Million Settlement with Healthcare Providers Following False Claims Act Whistleblower Action
On April 27, the Department of Justice announced that two Indiana-based healthcare providers agreed to settle allegations that financial arrangements between the two entities violated the federal and state False Claims Act and the federal Anti-Kickback Statute. DOJ alleged that one of the providers made available to the other an interest-free line of credit consistently in excess of $10 million, the balance of which such other provider “was allegedly not expected to substantially repay” as a means of inducing referrals for obstetrics and gynecology patients to seek medical attention at a particular hospital. The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits “the knowing and willful payment of any remuneration to induce the referral of services or items that are paid for by a federal health care program, such as Medicaid,” and claims that are submitted to federal health care programs in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute can also constitute false claims under the False Claims Act. The settlement resolves a qui tam case filed by an individual under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act. Under the terms of the settlement, the providers agreed to pay a total of $18 million, with each of them paying $5.1 million to the United States and $3.9 million to the State of Indiana.
High Court passes on opportunity to resolve circuit split over statutory requirements for whistleblower protection under Dodd-Frank Act
On March 21, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in Verble v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, (No. 16-946), thereby declining to resolve a circuit split regarding whether the protections against retaliation provided in the Dodd-Frank Act extend to whistleblowers who do not report the misconduct to the SEC. At issue were the statutory requirements for qualifying as a “whistleblower” under the Dodd-Frank Act. While the Act defines “whistleblower” as an individual who reports wrongdoing “to the Commission,” a separate provision provides protection against retaliation for whistleblowers reporting wrongdoing under Sarbanes-Oxley, which includes both reporting to federal agencies or internal reporting within the company.
The Verble case came to the Court on appeal from a Sixth Circuit decision affirming the dismissal of Mr. Verble’s claim that he was improperly terminated in retaliation for being a confidential informant (and whistleblower) to the FBI. A U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee dismissed the former financial advisor’s Dodd-Frank retaliation claim after finding that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision was available only for whistleblowers who reported their concerns directly to the SEC. See Verble v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, 148 F. Supp. 3d 644 (E.D. Tenn. 2015). On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, but did not reach the issue regarding the scope of Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision. Rather than taking sides on the split between circuits, the Sixth Circuit panel opted instead to base its decision solely on the ground that Mr. Verble “fail[ed] to meet the threshold requirement of providing enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief.”
On January 26, Mr. Verble filed the aforementioned unsuccessful Petition for Writ of Certiorari. The first question presented in the petition for certiorari was whether the Sixth Circuit erred by avoiding the issue; next, Mr. Verble asked the Court to settle a split between the Fifth and Second Circuits—the only two circuits to have opined on the issue. Weighing in first, the Fifth Circuit had strictly applied the Dodd-Frank Act’s definition of “whistleblower” to the later anti-retaliation provision, so as to require dismissal of the plaintiff’s action in that case because he did not make his disclosures to the SEC. See Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C., 720 F.3d 620, 621 (5th Cir. 2013). In so doing, the court declined to rely upon an SEC regulation adopting a contrary interpretation. By contrast, the Second Circuit, viewing the statute itself as ambiguous, applied Chevron deference to (and accepted) the SEC’s interpretation, which extended protections to all whistleblowers. Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC, 801 F.3d 145, 155 (2d Cir. 2015).
Notably, while the petition for certiorari was pending, the Ninth Circuit became the third appellate circuit to stake out a position on the existence of an external reporting requirement when, in an opinion filed on March 8, it held that the Dodd-Frank Act whistleblower provision “unambiguously and expressly protects from retaliation all those who report to the SEC and who report internally.” See Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, No. 15-17352, 2017 WL 908245 (9th Cir. 2017).
On December 14, the DOJ announced that it has obtained more than $4.7 billion in settlements and judgments in civil cases involving fraud and false claims against the government in fiscal year 2016 (ending September 30). Of the $4.7 billion recovered, $2.5 billion came from the health care industry, including drug companies, medical device companies, hospitals, nursing homes, laboratories, and physicians. The DOJ also recovered $1.6 billion from housing and mortgage settlements and judgments this past fiscal year – the second highest annual recovery in the history of the federally insured mortgage program.
There were 845 new False Claims Act suits in 2016, one of the largest totals in history. Of those, 143 were initiated by the government and 702 were brought by whistleblowers. Approximately $100 million was recovered in cases handled exclusively by whistleblowers and their attorneys—a sharp drop from the record $1.1 billion recovered in 2015, but an amount comparable to the averate amount recovered in previous years. Notably, the $4.7 billion recovered in 2016 does not include state shares. Such shares were significant in 2016 because of payouts involving the federal-state Medicaid program, with the top three health care settlements alone resulting in distributions of approximately $500 million to states.
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