In its May 28th, 2015 decision in Rhinehimer v. U.S. Bancorp Investments, Inc. (pdf), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an employee who reports alleged unlawful conduct has engaged in protected activity for the purposes of a retaliation claim under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”), 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, as long as he or she has an objectively reasonable belief that the activity reported is prohibited under SOX. The Sixth Circuit has joined the Second and Third Circuit Courts of Appeal in rejecting the previously adopted standard that an employee’s conduct must “definitively and specifically” relate to one of the enumerated categories of fraud by approximating the basic elements of the fraud claim. The issue has not yet been revisited in the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits since the Administrative Review Board rejected the “definitively and specifically” standard in Sylvester v. Parexel Int’l LLC, ARB Case No. 07-123 (May 25, 2011).
Rhinehimer was a certified financial planner at U.S. Bancorp who was terminated after he complained to his supervisor about questionable trades made by a coworker to the detriment of his elderly client – trades Rhinehimer claimed constituted unsuitability fraud. He alleged that his termination constituted unlawful whistleblower retaliation in violation of SOX, which makes it illegal for companies to retaliate against an employee who reports alleged fraudulent activity. Rhinehimer obtained a verdict at trial and U.S. Bancorp appealed. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit was asked to determine whether a jury could reasonably find that Rhinehimer engaged in protected activity under SOX.
SOX requires that an employee reasonably believe that the activity reported is prohibited by law. The defendants argued that Rhinehimer did not have a reasonable belief because he did not meet the “definitively and specifically” standard, which requires an employee to justifiably believe that each of the legally-defined elements of the suspected fraud occurred. Acknowledging decisions by other Courts of Appeals, including the Second and Third Circuit Courts, the Sixth Circuit similarly rejected the “definitively and specifically” standard, finding that such an interpretation is inconsistent with the purpose of SOX, which was designed to provide broad protection for employees who provide information regarding “any” conduct reasonably believed to constitute a violation of relevant law. Instead, the Sixth Circuit held that a plaintiff need only have a reasonable belief, based on the totality of the circumstances of the case, that the conduct complained of was prohibited under SOX. Ultimately, the Court held that a person in Rhinehimer’s position met this standard.
The trend is plainly in favor of rejecting the “definitively and specifically” standard of determining protected activity, but employers can still prevail by demonstrating that an employee lacked reasonable belief – a fact-specific inquiry that requires a showing of both subjective belief and objective reasonableness.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of summer associate Judah Rosenblatt in the preparation of this post.