Saturday, October 07, 2006

SOX Whistleblower Protection: More Theoretical Than Real?

When Congress incorporated the whistleblower provisions into the Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, they may have assumed that concerned individuals, secure in the statute's protection, would now be encouraged to come forward and expose financial misdeeds at their companies. But the sad, frustrating saga of the first SOX whistleblower (see prior D & O Diary post, here) unmistakably suggests that he statute’s protection may be more theoretical than real, and that those concerned individuals who might otherwise come forward might have to accept that even with SOX protection whistleblowing remains a precarious (and potentially career-ending) activity.

David Welch was the CFO of the Floyd, Va.-based Cardinal Bankshares until he was terminated in October 2002. Welch filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, alleging that he was terminated for activities protected under the SOX Whistleblower provisions. Welch contends that he had raised questions about the company’s accounting policies and internal controls, and then refused to certify the company’s financial statements. He further contends that he was discharged after he refused to meet with the company’s outside counsel without a personal attorney.

Welch’s complaint initially was denied, but upon appeal an Administrative Law Judge, in a January 24, 2004 "Recommended Decision and Order" (here), held that he (Welch) was entitled to reinstatement and compensatory damages. After receiving this favorable ruling, Welch then began a Kafkaesque journey through a self-parodying process that has left him, to this very day, unable to enforce the remedy to which he has been found entitled.

The latest sad development in this procedurally interminable saga is the October 5, 2006 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Glen Conrad dismissing Welch’s petition to enforce the ALJ’s ruling for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In his 12-page opinion, Judge Conrad reviews the administrative process that Welch is required to exhaust (and “exhaust” is unmistakably the opeative verb here) before the court would be statutorily authorized to exercise jurisdiction. Judge Conrad specifically noted that because the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) has not yet ruled on the company’s second appeal of the ALJ’s ruling, the ALJ’s ruling is not yet “final” and therefore the Court lacked jurisdiction to enforce it. (For the sake of brevity, I have summarized the full procedural history; suffice it to say that Welch has been run through multiple sequences of appeals and processes too tedious to recount here.)

Judge Conrad’s opinion’s concluding remarks are piquant and telling:

Finally, the Court acknowledges that the current situation represents a departure from the adjudication scheme envisioned by Congress. Sarbanes-Oxley was established to protect against the chilling effect of retaliation on whistleblowers by providing a remedy of reinstatement in a short amount of time. As a result, Congress set forth specific procedures to ensure that complaints would be quickly adjudicated by the Department of Labor, and that appeals within the administrative process would likewise progress quickly, taking a matter of days. Although this was the intent of Congress, the court recognizes that the Secretary has not complied with this mandate. Over eighteen months after the ALJ has issued his preliminary order of reinstatement, Welch has still not received a final administrative adjudication of his status. The court agrees that the delay in the administrative process has been inordinate.


Judge Conrad is right, the Department of Labor has not covered themselves with glory in processing Welch's petition. Welch’s seemingly endless struggle to secure the statute’s protection is hardly likely to encourage others to come forward.

An October 6, 2006 CFO.com article discussing Welch’s case and Judge Conrad’s ruling can be found here.

Options Backdating Litigation Update: The D & O Diary’s running tally of options backdating lawsuits (which can be found here) has been updated to add the securities fraud action that was filed on October 6, 2006 (here) against Marvell Technology Group . With the addition of the Marvell Technology action, the number of companies named in securities fraud actions based on options timing allegations now stands at 20. The number of companies named as nominal defendants in shareholders’ derivative lawsuits raising options timing allegations stands at 83.

Executive Coloring Book: Although anachronistic and politically incorrect, the Executive Coloring Book, a 50’s vintage classic, is still wickedly funny. Click here.

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