Fifth Circuit Clarifies What Constitutes Protected Conduct under Sarbanes-Oxley

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important opinion last week in Allen v. Administrative Review Board clarifying the definition of protected conduct under Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act. SOX prohibits a publicly-traded company from retaliating against an employee who reports information to a supervisor “regarding any conduct which the employee reasonably believes constitutes” various types of fraud (mail, wire, bank or securities fraud), a violation of any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or a violation of any provision of federal law relating to fraud against shareholders.

Although the Fifth Circuit in Allen held that the employees did not engage in protected conduct, the opinion provided guidance on what exactly constitutes such conduct. Among other things, the court opined that an employee’s whistleblowing activity must be “definitively and specifically” related to prohibited conduct defined under §1514A ; the whistleblower’s belief of improprieties will be scrutinized under both the subjective and objective standards; a whistleblower’s mistaken, but reasonable, belief that an employer engaged in prohibited conduct still constitutes protected activity.

A whistleblower under SOX will need to also show a nexus between the protected conduct and the adverse employment action. Suspicious timing is typically sufficient to carry this burden. In Collins v. Beazer Homes USA, Inc., the District Court of Georgia held that a two-week temporal proximity between reporting improprieties and termination is sufficient to suggest that the employee’s protected activity was a contributing factor to unfavorable personnel action. The Company may only avoid liability where it demonstrates by “clear and convincing” evidence that it would have taken the same unfavorable personnel action in the absence of the employee’s protected conduct.