Whistle-blowers Face High Burden of Proof

A CFO lost his case based on the question of "reasonable belief," a measurement that employee advocates say the whistle-blower appeals board treats too narrowly and inconsistently.

When the Sarbanes-Oxley Act created legal protection for employees who point out financial fraud, corporate lawyers feared the law would open the door to frivolous suits by disgruntled workers. The law said all an employee needed to trigger whistle-blower protection was simply “a reasonable belief” that the company was violating a securities law or harming shareholder value.

Considered employee-friendly, Sarbox’s whistle-blower provision was expected to provide the broadest, most comprehensive coverage of any other rule, says Richard Moberly, assistant law professor for the University of Nebraska.

But five years later, employee advocates say the law is interpreted too narrowly, leaving employees without recourse if they are indeed fired for reporting that their company has broken securities laws. In fact, if the lack of victories for employees seeking Sarbox protection is any indication, whistle-blowers have a very high burden of proof to make their case. While most of the nearly 1,000 Sarbox cases have been dismissed without merit or resulted in settlements between employees and companies, only six have passed the first level of appeal, according to a report compiled by attorneys at the law firm of Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe LLP. None have passed the highest level of appeal within the Department of Labor — its Administrative Review Board (ARB).

On the other hand, such results could be an indication that the law is working as intended, suggests Lloyd Chinn, who has represented employers in whistle-blower cases as a partner with Proskauer Rose LLP. “The claim has to fit within the parameters of the statue,” he told CFO.com. “This is not just some general wrongful termination statue or a statute about elevating a dispute over office procedures. People who have real claims are complaining of activities that violate securities laws.”

In the latest case to be thrown out by the ARB, former CFO David Welch was told he could not have reasonably believed his company had over-inflated income in regulatory filings and neither would have someone else with his expertise or knowledge. The ARB dismissed Welch’s argument in part because he failed to draw a direct correlation between his former employer’s violation of generally accepted accounting principles and the specific areas to which the Sarbox whistle-blower provision applies: violations of federal fraud statutes, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s rules, and federal laws relating to shareholder fraud.

Employee advocates say the board members should concentrate on whether employers terminate employees in retaliation for their complaints. Instead, they have focused on whether employees’ suspicious of wrongdoing were correct. “The reasonable belief standard has turned more into an actual violation standard,” Moberly told CFO.com. “They’re requiring whistle-blowers almost to show that there was an actual violation of the law.”

But meeting that standard isn’t easy within the current timeframe for filing a claim. Employees have 90 days after they believe an employer has retaliated against them to file a complaint with the DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (which oversees whistle-blower violations because it handles similar provisions for 13 other laws). If they have been fired, they may not have time amid job searching to research their case and hire a lawyer. They may also not realize why they were let go or demoted until much later.

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