Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Provision: U.S. Supreme Court Significantly Expands Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Provision to Include Employees of Non-Public Contractors and Subcontractors of Public Companies

Sullivan & Cromwell LLP - March 6, 2014

In Lawson v. FMR LLC, No. 12-3 (Mar. 4, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the scope of whistleblower protection provided by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”), holding that employees of private contractors and subcontractors of public companies are protected by the whistleblower provision set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 1514A of the Act. The Court, acknowledging that the language of the Act is ambiguous, interpreted it to allow persons employed by non-public contractors to public companies—such as lawyers or accounting firms—to bring whistleblower claims under the Act. In a strong dissent, Justice Sotomayor objected to the “stunning reach” of this interpretation. The majority opinion, responding to that criticism, cited “various limiting principles” proposed by the plaintiffs and Solicitor General, which employers will need to rely on in the future. Among other things, the “limiting principles” include that the types of contractors whose employees could make use of SOX are those “whose performance will take place over a significant period of time,” and that an employee of a contractor would only be able to invoke SOX as to complaints arising out of the contractor’s “fulfilling its role as contractor for the public company, not the contractor in some other capacity.” Ultimately, however, the Court declined to address the precise bounds of § 1514A, finding that the whistleblower claims at issue fell squarely within the “mainstream application” of the statute, as both plaintiffs claimed retaliation after reporting allegedly fraudulent activity that plainly implicated mutual funds’ shareholders.