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.