This “favorite firing” story isn’t about some salacious or quirky set of facts. It involves whistleblowing under the Dodd-Frank Act—hardly a sexy topic. But the situation serves as a good reminder that there is always some reason that an employee can sue his or her employer. Thus, employers need to have good reasons for taking action against employees, and they need to stand ready to justify what they have done.
The Facts: Daniel Berman was fired from his position as finance director of Neo@Ogilvy LLC (“Neo”) in April 2013, after working there for two-and-a-half years. He was responsible for Neo’s financial reporting and compliance functions. He claimed that he discovered various fraudulent accounting practices and that he had reported these violations to others within the company. He alleged that a senior officer got angry at his reports and that as a result he was fired. After his termination Mr. Berman reported his allegations to the parent company’s Audit Committee, and later provided information to the SEC, but prior to the termination he had only reported the potential fraud internally.
A few months later, Berman sued Neo, alleging that he had been discharged in violation of the whistleblower protection provisions of section 21F of Dodd–Frank and in breach of his employment contract. See Berman v. Neo@Olgivy LLC, et al (2d Cir. Sept. 10, 2015).
The legal question in the case became whether Mr. Berman was a whistleblower and could therefore state a cause of action against Neo and its parent company. Under Section 21F(h) of the Exchange Act, which was added in the Dodd–Frank Act, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for reporting violations of the Exchange Act. Subsection 21F(a)(6) defines “whistleblower” to mean “any individual who provides “information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the [SEC].”
However, subdivision (iii) of subsection 21F(h)(1)(A)(iii) does not limit protection to those who report wrongdoing to the SEC. This subdivision (iii) expands the protections of Dodd–Frank to include the whistleblower protection provisions of Sarbanes–Oxley, and those provisions, which contemplate an employee reporting violations internally, do not require reporting violations to the SEC.
Since Mr. Berman did not report any potential violations to the SEC until after his discharge, the court had to decide whether his internal reports could give rise to a cause of action against Neo.
Neo and its parent company filed a motion to dismiss, and the District Court granted that motion, dismissing the Dodd-Frank claims, because Mr. Berman had not reported any potential violations to the SEC until after his discharge. (His breach of contract claim was also dismissed.)
Mr. Berman appealed the dismissal of the Dodd-Frank claims. After an extensive analysis of the tension between the two sub-sections of the Exchange Act created in the Dodd-Frank Act, the Second Circuit reversed and reinstated these claims.
The Moral: The specifics of the Second Circuit’s analysis are less interesting than the end result—this employee’s cause of action against his employer survived. Of course, the facts in the case remain to be proven. Neo will have an opportunity to show that he was not fired because he raised the possibility of fraudulent accounting practices to others within the company. But in the meantime, Neo will have to devote significant legal expenses and management time to defending a lawsuit.
I would hope that Neo had not relied on competing definitions of “whistleblower” in making the decision to discharge Mr. Berman. I would hope there is more to the story than what was revealed in the parties’ briefs on a motion to dismiss. The moral is that employee lawsuits can usually survive a motion to dismiss, and employers need to have solid facts to support their termination of employees. And the case is a reminder that retaliation claims are difficult to overcome.
When have you been surprised by a claim that an employee brought against his or her employer?