Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why SOX Whistleblowers Lose

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket In prior posts (here and here) I have questioned whether SOX whistleblower protection is "more theoretical than real." A forthcoming study by Richard Moberly of University of Nebraska Law School entitled "Unfulfilled Expectations: An Empirical Analysis of Why Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblowers Rarely Win" (here) takes a look at just how poorly employee whistleblowers have fared under the Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower protections and why.

The study looked at the 470 SOX Whistleblower cases filed at the initial regulatory level between August 19, 2002 (when the first case was filed) and July 13, 2005, as well as all 236 administrative appeals filed through June 1, 2006. Of the 361 cases that actually reached decision at the initial regulatory level, employees won only 13 times, or a rate of 3.6%, and of the 93 decisions at the administrative appeal level, employees won only 6 times or 6.5%.
Based on these statistics, the authors observes that


Despite Sarbanes-Oxley’s pro-whistleblower provisions and a few early employee victories…administrative decisions over the first three years of the Act’s life failed to fulfill Congress’ expectation that a strong anti-retalitatory provision would both encourage and protect whistleblowers.
Based on his study of the whistleblower cases, the author suggests several statutory revisions that "would better reflect Congress’ goal of protecting whistleblowers and remedying retaliation."

First, the author found that many claimants ran afout of the short 90-day statute of limitations, which he recommends extending at least to 180 days.

Second, he found that there is uncertainty surrounding "boundary issues" such as whether the company was a "covered employer" or the employee engaged in "protected activity." He calls for Congressional clarification of these issues, and clarification that "employees of privately-held companies are protected when they report fraud at publicly-traded corporations." He also recommends that the Act be modified to requires whistleblower exposure on general fraud only, without the added requirement that the disclosure pertain to securities fraud.

The author concludes by observing that:


Ultimately, Sarbanes-Oxley failed to fulfill the great expectations generated by the Act’s purportedly-strong anti-retaliation provisions…The under enforcement of [the whistleblower provisions] undermines Congress’ policy goal of deterring corporate fraud and leaves literally millions of private-sector employees vulnerable to retaliation.
It may be important to note that in the author’s statistical analysis, he does not include as within his tally of employee "wins" the whistleblower cases that were settled. A significant percentage of cases (11.6%) have settled at the initial regulatory stage and a larger percentage (18.3%) have settled at the regulatory stage. While settlement suggests compromise, the fact that the affected employee was willing to compromise further suggests that the employee found the settlement acceptable under the circumstances. Employers for their part felt compelled to compromise, whether or not they agreed the case had merit, and so at least incurred the cost of settlement. So the "win" rate as expressed by the author’s analysis may not be a sufficient statement of employers’ exposure to SOX whistleblower claims. The risk to the employer extends beyond the concern that employees might prevail outright.

But in any event, it is hard to contradict the author’s conclusion that the SOX whistleblower provision apparently has failed to encourage fraud detection and disclosure or to provide employees from fear of retaliation for blowing the whistle.

Hat tip to the SOX First blog (here) for the link to the article.

Original Whistleblower Loses Case: As if to prove the point, a June 5, 2007 article on CFO.com reports (here) that David Welch, the first person to win a case under the Sarbanes Oxley Whistleblower provisions, has had the lower-level ruling in his favor overturned by the Department of Labor's Administrative Review Board. In part the Board overturned the decision because the Welch's complaints were not "protected activtity" (because they were not with SOX itself and because they did not relate to the federal securities laws). The Board also found that Welch could not have reasonably believed that the alleged fraud would have presented investors with a misleading picture of the company's financial picture.

The Administrative Review Board's May 31, 2007 opinion can be found here.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket Let Them Eat Self-Reliance: In his readable one-volume biography of Gandhi, Yogesh Chadha reports following incident that occured while Gandhi was still a young lawyer with a growing family:
Shortly after Gandhi took up chambers in Bombay, an American insurance agent visited him in his office. The smooth-talking agent discussed Gandhi’s future "as though we were old friends." He stressed the need for insurance coverage for the family. Gandhi was impressed and took out an insurance policy for ten thousand rupees. Later, however, he became annoyed with himself for having fallen into the agent’s trap, for he had earlier maintained that "life insurance implied fear and want of faith in God." He let the policy lapse. "In getting my life insured I had robbed my wife and children of their self-reliance," he reasoned. "Why should they not be expected to take care of themselves? What happened to the families of numberless poor in the world? Why should I not count myself as one of them?"
I don’t think I have ever heard anyone contend that life insurance is a moral hazard for the beneficiaries. How many among us would consciously allow a life policy to lapse to avoid "robbing" the putative widow and orphans-- by providing for their future? I guess only a truly moral person could see that an uneducated widow with life-long, chronic health problems and a squadron of children who were prevented by their father from receiving formal schooling would be much better off without the moral burden of financial protection.

Even though the life insurance agent is twice-disparaged (not only smooth-talking but American) in my mind the unnamed agent has to be the all-time, indoor-outdoor, world champion closer – to seal the deal, he managed to overcome Gandhi’s moral qualms, for crying out loud. Otherwise, how could Gandhi possibly have fallen into such a "trap" as providing for his dependants?

All in all, yet another example proving that a working professional’s continuing education necessarily requires a broad curriculum.

If it has been a while since you have seen Ben Kingsley's amazing portrayal of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough's 1983 academy award winning film biography of Gandhi, you may want to view this brief excerpt from the movie; the first scene shows how Gandhi's moral rigor complicated his relations with everyone, even his wife, and in the the second scene, he articulates his philosophy of nonviolence:


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