By: Christina Fletcher

Confronting an issue of first impression, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently held that the “whistleblower” protections of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”) cover only employees of public companies, and do not extend to the employees of a public company’s contractors or subcontractors which are themselves private companies. Lawson v. Fidelity Management & Research LLC, et al., No. 10-2240 (1st Cir. Feb. 3, 2012) (pdf). This holding provides private-company employers with a potentially strong defense to claims of retaliation against employees. However, it should be anticipated that Congress may revisit the scope of the protections and ultimately expand them in response to Lawson.

Section 806 of SOX prohibits discrimination against employees who engage in protected whistleblowing activities and work for publicly traded companies subject to the requirements of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. 18 U.S.C. § 1514A(a).  In Lawson, Fidelity Investments, a public company covered by Section 806 of SOX, contracted with a private investment advisory firm to provide investment advisory services. Plaintiff Zang alleged that he had been terminated in retaliation for raising concerns about inaccuracies in a draft revised registration statement for certain Fidelity funds. Plaintiff Lawson alleged retaliation for raising concerns relating to cost accounting methodologies. She resigned her employment in September 2007, claiming constructive discharge. Defendants’ motions to dismiss the complaints argued that the plaintiffs were not covered employees under Section 806 of SOX. The district court agreed with the plaintiffs, holding that subcontractors to a public company subject to SOX were protected by SOX’s whistleblower provision.

The First Circuit reversed, basing its decision on the language of SOX, principles of statutory interpretation, and SOX’s legislative history. The Court noted that plaintiffs’ suggested reading of the Act created anomalies and provided very broad coverage not intended by Congress. The Court explained that the clause “officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company” in the whistleblower protection provision goes to who is prohibited from retaliating or discriminating, not to who is a covered employee. Thus, covered employees are limited to employees of public companies

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