Employment Law Report

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By R. Joseph Stennis

In Lawson, et. al. v. FMR LLC, No. 12-3 (decided March 4, 2014), a divided U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the whistleblower protections contained in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”) extend to employees who work for private contractors that do business with public companies. At issue in the case was a bit of text in SOX which provides that, “[n]o public company. . . or any . . . contractor . . . of such company may [retaliate] against an employee . . . because of [SOX- protected activity].”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit had held this language applied exclusively  to employees of  public companies and not to employees of private contractors that do business with public companies. The First Circuit’s ruling was  in sharp contrast to  decisions issued by the Administrative Review Board of the U.S. Department of Labor (“ARB”).  For example, in Spinner v. David Landau & Assoc. LLC, Nos. 10-111 and 10-115 (decided May 31, 2012), the ARB held that a private contractor’s employee who was a whistleblower as to fraudulent activity by his company was covered by SOX and therefore protected by its anti-retaliation provisions.

In Lawson, the whistleblower plaintiffs were employed by private companies that performed as advisers to public mutual fund institutions.  Petitioners, Jackie Lawson and Jonathan Zang, urged the High Court to overrule the First Circuit and extend whistleblower protections to employees of private contractors of publicly held companies. The respondents argued that the petitioners’ interpretation would lead to an unlimited application of the statute.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling—penned by Justice Ginsburg—concluded that the plain meaning of SOX’s text, SOX’s legislative history, and its overall statutory purpose favored a wider interpretation and reading of the provisions than favored and advocated by the respondent companies.

Thus, Lawson establishes that an employee of a private contractor that does business for a public company and is retaliated against for engaging in SOX protected conduct would be entitled to pursue an anti-retaliation claim under SOX against that private employer.

R. Joseph Stennis, Jr.
R. Joseph “Joe” Stennis is a member of the Firm’s Litigation & Dispute Resolution Service Team.  Joe’s primary focus areas are business and employment litigation matters.  Joe represents public and private sector employers in all aspects of employment law, including matters involving wrongful termination, employment based torts, and employment discrimination under Title VII.  He routinely represents and counsels clients on employment related matters before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, and in federal and state court. Joe also... Read More