The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in Verfuerth v. Orion Energy Systems, Inc., No. 14-cv-352 (E.D. Wis. Nov. 4, 2014) recently ruled that the Dodd-Frank whistleblower protection provision does not protect employees who only report alleged violations of the securities laws internally.  In dismissing a former CEO’s whistleblower retaliation claim, the court followed the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Asadi v. F.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C., 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013) and held that the text of the statute requires that a “whistleblower” report an alleged violation to the SEC to be covered by Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower protection provision.

Background

In his complaint, Plaintiff Neal Verfeurth (Plaintiff), the former CEO of Orion Energy Systems, Inc. (Company), alleged that he sent an e-mail to the Company’s board of directors about potential securities law violations.  That same day, the board allegedly terminated Plaintiff’s employment for cause due to misconduct that occurred prior to the email.  After the termination, Plaintiff allegedly sent a copy of his e-mail to an attorney at the SEC, and filed a lawsuit against the Company asserting a Dodd-Frank whistleblower retaliation claim.

Ruling 

The Company moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) on the grounds that he did not complain to the SEC and thus was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd Frank.  Plaintiff argued that because there is a “conflict between the Act’s definition of whistleblower and the kinds of activity the statute protects,” the statute is “ambiguous.”  However, the court found that there is “no ambiguity in the statute at all” because the definition of “whistleblower” is “perfectly clear.”  The court stressed that “reporting to the SEC is the precondition that triggers the anti-retaliation protections of the statute” and that “the fact that the retaliation protections are broader than the definition of whistleblower does not create any ambiguity.” Id. at 6.  Notably, the court declined to follow other district court decisions holding that the statute does not require whistleblowers to make complaints to the SEC, explaining that those decisions were flawed because they are based upon public policy concerns, and did not strictly interpret the statute.

Implications

This decision is in line with the only circuit court decision to address the question of whether an individual must report directly to the SEC to receive whistleblower protection under Dodd-Frank.  This deepens the divide in district court decisions, a conflict we are continuing to monitor closely.  To illustrate, as we reported, a California district court recently declined to dismiss a whistleblower claim even though the plaintiff failed to report the alleged misconduct to the SEC.  It may be just a matter of time before this issue is considered by additional circuit courts.  Stay tuned …

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Photo of Steven J. Pearlman Steven J. Pearlman

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular…

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular focus on defending companies against claims of employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment; whistleblower retaliation; restrictive covenant violations; theft of trade secrets; and wage-and-hour violations. He has successfully tried cases in multiple jurisdictions, and defended one of the largest Illinois-only class actions in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He also secured one of only a few ex parte seizures orders that have been issued under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, and obtained a world-wide injunction in federal litigation against a high-level executive who jumped ship to a competitor.

Reporting to boards of directors, their audit committees, CEOs and in-house counsel, Steven conducts sensitive investigations and has testified in federal court. His investigations have involved complaints of sexual harassment involving C-suite officers; systemic violations of employment laws and company policies; and fraud, compliance failures and unethical conduct.

Steven was recognized as Lawyer of the Year for Chicago Labor & Employment Litigation in the 2023 edition of The Best Lawyers in America. He is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.  Chambers describes Steven as an “outstanding lawyer” who is “very sharp and very responsive,” a “strong advocate,” and an “expert in his field.” Steven was 1 of 12 individuals selected by Compliance Week as a “Top Mind.” Earlier in his career, he was 1 of 5 U.S. lawyers selected by Law360 as a “Rising Star Under 40” in the area of employment law and 1 of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch” selected by Law Bulletin Publishing Company. Steven is a Burton Award Winner (U.S. Library of Congress) for “Distinguished Legal Writing.”

Steven has served on Law360’s Employment Editorial Advisory Board and is a Contributor to Forbes.com. He has appeared on Bloomberg News (television and radio) and Yahoo! Finance, and is regularly quoted in leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has engaged Steven to serve as lead counsel on amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal circuit courts of appeal. He was appointed to serve as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois in employment litigation matters. He has presented with the Solicitor of the DOL, the Acting Chair of the EEOC, an EEOC Commissioner, Legal Counsel to the EEOC and heads of the SEC, CFTC and OSHA whistleblower programs. He is also a member of the Sedona Conference, focusing on trade secret matters.

Photo of Lloyd B. Chinn Lloyd B. Chinn

Lloyd B. Chinn is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group. He litigates employment disputes of all types before federal and state courts, arbitration tribunals (e.g., FINRA, JAMS and AAA), and before administrative…

Lloyd B. Chinn is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group. He litigates employment disputes of all types before federal and state courts, arbitration tribunals (e.g., FINRA, JAMS and AAA), and before administrative agencies in New York and across the country. Lloyd’s practice ranges from litigating compensation disputes to defending whistleblower, discrimination and sexual harassment claims. Although he represents employers in a wide range of industries, including law, insurance, health care, consulting, media, education and technology, he focuses a substantial portion of his practice on the financial services sector. He has tried to final verdict or arbitration award substantial disputes in this area.

Due to Lloyd’s litigation experience, clients regularly turn to him for advice regarding the full range of employment matters, including terminations, whistleblower policy and procedure, reductions in force, employment agreements, and employment policies. For example, in the wake of the financial crisis, he has counseled a number of firms through reductions in force and related bonus and deferred compensation disputes. Lloyd has also been retained to conduct internal investigations of allegations of workplace misconduct, including claims leveled against senior executives.

Lloyd has represented global businesses in matters involving Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank whistleblower claims. He has taken an active role in the American Bar Association on these issues, currently serving as Co-Chair of the Whistleblower subcommittee of the ABA Employee Rights and Responsibilities Committee. Lloyd has spoken on whistleblowing topics before a numerous organizations, including the American Bar Association, ALI-ABA, Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and New York University School of Law. He has testified twice before Congressional subcommittees regarding whistleblower legislation and has also published blog postings, articles and client alerts on a variety of topics in this area, including the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower provisions. Lloyd is a co-editor of Proskauer’s Whistleblower Defense Blog, and he has been widely quoted by on whistleblower topics by a number of publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the National Law Journal and Law 360.

Lloyd has also become active in the International Bar Association, presenting on a variety of subjects, including: the #MeToo movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and employment law, and cross-border harmonization of employment provisions in transactions. Lloyd also hosts a quarterly roundtable discussion among financial services industry in-house employment lawyers. He has also published articles and given speeches on a variety of other employment-law topics, including non-solicitation provisions, FINRA arbitration rules, cross-border discovery, e-discovery, and the use of experts.

Photo of Noa Baddish Noa Baddish

Noa M. Baddish is a senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department. She is a member of the Sports, Employment Litigation & Arbitration, Class and Collective Action, Wage & Hour and Whistleblower & Retaliation Practice Groups.

Noa’s practice concentrates on all…

Noa M. Baddish is a senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department. She is a member of the Sports, Employment Litigation & Arbitration, Class and Collective Action, Wage & Hour and Whistleblower & Retaliation Practice Groups.

Noa’s practice concentrates on all aspects of labor and employment law. Her employment litigation practice in state and federal courts includes class and collective actions and defending claims of discrimination, harassment, breach of contract and violations of wage and hour laws. Noa represents Major League Baseball and its clubs in an ongoing litigation brought by current and former minor league players who allege minimum wage and overtime violations. In addition, Noa has represented clients in the media and entertainment and fashion industries in lawsuits brought by unpaid interns in wage and hour disputes.

Noa also provides significant assistance on counseling matters on a wide array of issues for clients in various industries, including, but not limited to, sports, law firms, financial institutions, media and fashion.

Noa has been recognized as a Rising Star by New York Super Lawyers since 2015. She has authored and contributed to several articles and newsletters on employment and labor topics, including “State Whistleblowing Laws Provide Whopping Verdicts,” New York Law Journal (January 2014). Noa is also a frequent contributor to the Firm’s Whistleblower Defense blog.

Previously served as Assistant General Counsel to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations, Noa defended the Mayor and City agencies against both employee grievances at arbitration and improper practice petitions before the Board of Collective Bargaining. Prior to that, she was a Law Clerk to Judge Ellen L. Koblitz of the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court.

While in law school, Noa served on the Executive Board as notes and articles editor of the Fordham Urban Law Journal.