Last August, we reported on two significant cease-and-desist orders issued by the SEC that, for the first time, found certain language in the confidentiality and release provisions of separation agreements to violate the SEC’s Rule 21F-17(a), which precludes anyone from impeding any individual (i.e., a whistleblower) from communicating directly with the agency.[1] Since then, the SEC has continued its aggressive oversight of separation and confidentiality agreements, with substantial repercussions for some employers. These orders, a select number of which we summarize here, have companies engaging in a serious review and rethinking of their confidentiality restrictions and other relevant provisions in their agreements and handbooks, and considering whether and what remedial steps to take proactively to cure any issues with the language in these key documents.

In Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (Sept. 28, 2016), the company entered into a separation agreement in late 2012 with a specific employee after his termination and subsequent mediation of various alleged employment law claims. The separation agreement contained provisions (i) prohibiting the employee from disclosing confidential or proprietary company information, with no carve-out for reporting to government agencies; (ii) prohibiting the employee from disclosing the substance of the separation agreement; and (iii) imposing a $250,000 liquidated damages provision in the event that the employee breached the confidentiality provisions. After signing the agreement, the employee, who had been voluntarily communicating with SEC in connection with an ongoing investigation, ceased doing so.

The cease-and-desist order—which is a negotiated resolution of the matter once the SEC determines that a company has violated its rules or regulations—did not require the company to make any additional changes to its separation agreements because, in September 2015, the company had amended separation agreements to state:

I understand and acknowledge that notwithstanding any other provision of this Agreement, I am not prohibited or in any way restricted from reporting possible violations of law to a governmental agency of entity, and I am not required to inform the Company if I make such reports.

The order required the company to contact only certain former employees identified by the SEC to inform them that they were not prohibited from providing information to the SEC, rather than all employees who had signed separation agreements since the rule was implemented in August 2011, as has been required in other cases. In addition, unlike other cases, it appears that there was no separate monetary penalty against the company for violating Rule 21F-17(a).

In NeuStar, Inc. (Dec. 19, 2016), the company’s severance agreements included a non-disparagement clause with the following language:

Except as specifically authorized in writing by NeuStar or as may be required by law or legal process, I agree not to engage in any communication that disparages, denigrates, maligns or impugns NeuStar . . . including but not limited to communication with . . . regulators (including but not limited to the Securities and Exchange Commission . . .) [emphasis added].

Any breach of this clause by the employee resulted in the required forfeiture of all but $100 of the severance paid under the agreement. The SEC found that “at least one” former employee was impeded by this clause from communicating with the agency—although the SEC does not hesitate to find violations of Rule 21F-17(a) even where there is no evidence that anyone has actually been impeded.

To settle the matter, the company agreed to pay a civil penalty of $180,000 and to contact 246 former employees to inform them that the severance agreements they signed between August 12, 2011, and May 21, 2015, did not prevent them from communicating concerns about potential violations of law or regulation to the SEC. No remedial revisions to the company’s template severance agreement were required because the company had voluntarily, after commencement of the investigation, removed the reference to “regulators” from the non-disparagement clause and included a more common provision that stated, “In addition, nothing herein prohibits me from communicating, without notice to or approval by NeuStar, with any federal government agency about a potential violation of a federal law or regulation.”

Most recently, in HomeStreet, Inc. (Jan. 19, 2017), certain severance agreements used by the company had contained common waiver language used, in form and substance, by many employers:

This release shall not prohibit Employee from filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or discussing any matter relevant to Employee’s employment with any government agency with jurisdiction over the Company but shall be considered a waiver of any damages or monetary recovery therefrom [emphasis added].

The SEC previously found that employees might interpret such waivers as applying to the agency’s whistleblower monetary incentive award program and, therefore, would unlawfully impede employees from coming forward to the SEC or reporting potential violations of the securities laws. The SEC reached the same conclusion in this case.

Prior to the investigation, however, the company had voluntarily revised its standard severance agreement to substitute the following:

Employee understands that nothing contained in this Agreement limits Employee’s ability to file a charge or complaint with any federal, state or local government agency or commission (“Government Agencies”). Employee further understands that this Agreement does not limit Employee’s ability to communicate with any Government Agencies or otherwise participate in any investigation or proceeding that may be commenced by any Government Agency including providing documents or other information without notice to the Company. This Agreement does not limit the Employee’s right to receive an award for information provided to any Government Agencies [emphasis added].

Thus, the cease-and-desist order did not require further revisions to the severance agreement because the foregoing language largely tracks revised language that the SEC had required in one of the previous orders issued last summer. Notwithstanding its proactive revisions to its agreements, the company still had to agree to a $500,000 civil penalty and to contact certain former employees who had signed the agreement to provide a link to the order and inform them that severance agreements did not prevent them from reporting information to the SEC or seeking and obtaining a whistleblower award from the SEC.

The NeuStar and HomeStreet orders serve to highlight that, even when a company has revised its agreements voluntarily to comply with Rule 21F-17(a), the SEC may still impose monetary penalties and potentially burdensome and undesirable obligations to contact former employees who have signed problematic separation agreements to inform them that, notwithstanding the money they were paid in conjunction with their separation agreements, they remain free to report any company wrongdoing—real or perceived—to the SEC.

What Employers Should Do Now

Companies wishing to avoid SEC scrutiny should do the following:

  • Review current separation and severance agreement templates to determine whether they are in compliance with Rule 21F-17, which would include a review of provisions such as, among others,
    • future monetary waivers,
    • non-disclosure of confidential information, and
    • non-disparagement clauses.
  • If necessary, work with legal counsel to determine appropriate revisions or “carve-outs” to bring those agreement templates into compliance.
  • Discuss with legal counsel whether to take affirmative steps to remedy past uses of confidentiality or waiver provisions that would be unlawful under the SEC orders.
  • Review other types of confidentiality and waiver agreements with employees, in whatever form they are used, to ensure that those agreements do not similarly violate Rule 21F-17.