On March 8, 2017, a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the anti-retaliation provision of the Dodd-Frank Act protects individuals who make purely internal disclosures of alleged securities violations. The decision, Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, Inc., No. 15-17352 (9th Cir. March 8, 2017), aligns the Ninth Circuit with the Second Circuit, which reached the same result in Berman v. Neo@ogilvy, LLC, 801 F.3d 145 (2d Cir. 2015). These opinions stand in stark contrast to the position of the Fifth Circuit, which concluded in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C., 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013), that in order to enjoy the protection of the anti-retaliation provision an individual must report the alleged securities violation to the SEC. While the Ninth Circuit’s decision is the latest entry in this evolving circuit split, it is unlikely to be the last—the Third Circuit is considering this very issue.
The Dodd-Frank Act defines a “whistleblower” as “any individual who provides, or 2 or more individuals acting jointly who provide, information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the Commission, in a matter established by rule or regulation, by the Commission.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(a)(6).
As even the Ninth Circuit acknowledged, the definition above describes only those who report information to the SEC. But the Ninth Circuit did not regard this as determinative of the issue. Instead, the court analyzed both the purpose of the Dodd-Frank Act and the scope of the activities specifically covered by the anti-retaliation provision to reach its ultimate conclusion. In particular, the anti-retaliation provision protects those who engage in lawful activities “in making disclosures that are required or protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 . . . and any other law, rule, or regulation subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(A)(iii). The Ninth Circuit, like the Second Circuit, noted that Sarbanes-Oxley requires both accountants and lawyers to report internally before they report to the SEC. Thus, using the “whistleblower” definition from Section 78u-6(a)(6) for purposes of the anti-retaliation provision would provide almost no protection to such lawyers and accountants—they would be forced to report internally first, and could legally be subject to retaliation in the period between their mandatory internal reporting and the time they made the report to the SEC. The Ninth Circuit concluded that such an approach “would make little practical sense and undercut congressional intent.”
The Ninth Circuit also agreed with the Second Circuit that the SEC regulation promulgated to implement anti-retaliation provision is entitled to deference. That regulation, Exchange Act Rule 21F-2, 17 C.F.R. § 240.21F-2, makes clear that the anti-retaliation provision protects anyone who engages in activities protected by 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(A), including those who make internal disclosures under Sarbanes-Oxley.
Continuing its trend in Court of Appeals cases on this issue, the SEC appeared and argued as amicus in favor of expansive coverage of the anti-retaliation provision.