A unanimous panel of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a decision last Friday reinstating Plaintiff Kevin Wallace’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) whistleblower claim against Tesoro Corp.
Wallace worked for the petroleum company Tesoro as Vice President of Pricing and Commercial Analysis. He discovered structural flaws in Tesoro’s accounting system that garbled important financial results and tax reporting used by management, the Board of Directors, and Tesoro’s public filings. Wallace confirmed his findings with company experts and reported them internally. On March 12, 2010, Wallace reported internally that he was being retaliated against by management. He was fired within hours of this report.
The district court had previously dismissed the case based on several procedural motions filed by Tesoro. Tesoro argued that the case needed to be plead pursuant to FRCP 9(b)'s strict fraud pleading requirements. Tesoro also argued that the lawsuit raised factual issues that had not been presented with particularity to OSHA (the administrative agency charged with conducting initial investigation into SOX charges).
The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the case back to district court for further proceedings and discovery. In rejecting Tesoro's arguments, the Court stated:
The requirements of Rule 9(b) show how poorly it would work as a benchmark for reasonable belief that fraud is occurring. “At a minimum, Rule 9(b) requires allegations of the particulars of time, place, and contents of the false representations, as well as the identity of the person making the misrepresentation and what he obtained thereby.” Benchmark Elecs., Inc. v. J.M. Huber Corp., 343 F.3d 719, 724 (5th Cir. 2003). But an employee who is providing information about potential fraud or assisting in a nascent fraud investigation might not know who is making the false representations or what that person is obtaining by the fraud; indeed, that may be the point of the investigation. Leaving those employees unprotected would have grave consequences for the statutory scheme of employee protection embodied in § 1514A and would do so in a way that appears completely unrelated to whether a belief actually is reasonable.
SOX was enacted as a reaction to a number of major corporate and accounting scandals, including Enron, and Worldcom. The law protects employees from retaliation for engaging in protected activity, which is defined as:
"any lawful act done by the employee to provide information, cause information to be provided, or otherwise assist in an investigation regarding any conduct which the employee reasonably believes constitutes a violation of section 1341 [mail fraud], 1343 [wire fraud], 1344 [bank fraud], or 1348 [securities fraud], any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or any provision of Federal law relating to fraud against shareholders . . ."
The undersigned is counsel for Mr. Wallace, co-counseling with San Antonio attorney Alex Katzman and Washington D.C. attorney Richard Renner. The U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor of Labor, participated with an amicus brief asking the Fifth Circuit to reverse.