Whistle-Blower Woes

Many companies think the whistle-blower provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley will spark nuisance suits by disgruntled employees. The truth is far more complex.

When Matthew Whitley was laid off from his job last March as a finance manager at The Coca-Cola Co., along with about 1,000 other employees, he didn’t take it lying down. Two months later, Whitley approached his former employer seeking a whopping settlement—$44.4 million—on the grounds that he had been fired in retaliation for raising concerns about accounting fraud. When Coke balked, Whitley turned for relief to a new ally: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. He filed for whistle-blower protection under the act’s Section 806 provisions, and initiated federal and state lawsuits that charged seven Coke executives, including CFO Gary Fayard, with crimes ranging from racketeering to mail and wire fraud.

“This disgruntled former employee has made a number of allegations accompanied by an ultimatum: that the company pay him almost $45 million or he would go to the media,” said Coke in a May statement announcing the claims. Since then, a Georgia state court judge has dismissed most of the charges, including those related to racketeering and breaches of fiduciary responsibility. While Coke may still have to defend itself against claims related to wrongful termination, “we are confident we will prevail once the facts are presented in a court of law,” said Coke in a statement.

One of Whitley’s allegations, however, has already had some effect. His contention that Coke falsified a marketing test of Frozen Coke at Burger King restaurants in Virginia led the company to make a public apology and an offer to pay Burger King $21 million. In July, the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced it was launching a criminal investigation of the alleged fraud.

CFOs may be forgiven for fearing that cases like Whitley’s are a harbinger of things to come—that, thanks to the protections afforded by Sarbanes-Oxley, irate workers will accuse their employers of financial wrongdoing in order to wring large settlements from them. Indeed, on August 27, a federal judge refused to dismiss a whistle-blower lawsuit accusing TXU Corp., an energy company, of earnings manipulation; unless the case is settled, it will become the second suit filed under Section 806 to reach a federal court (the first involved JDS Uniphase Corp.).

But it remains to be seen whether Sarbanes-Oxley will have a significant impact on whistle-blower litigation. Although the number of such filings has increased, most will probably be dismissed as lacking merit. And even with the new protections of Section 806, would-be whistle-blowers still face a painful cost-benefit decision: whether a lawsuit with uncertain chances of success is worth the professional and personal sacrifices that will assuredly be required.

A Reasonable Belief

In theory, disgruntled ex-employees have always been able to accuse their ex-employers of misdeeds in order to claim wrongful termination. But until the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, most public-company employees had little to gain financially if the company denied the charges and refused to settle. Since the mid-1980s, the federal government has protected whistle-blowers whose work affects public welfare, including, for example, federal employees, government contractors, power-plant operators, and airline staff. But people who spoke out about financial fraud had no legal protection except for a handful of state laws—and then, often, only if the matter affected the general public.

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