August 24, 2014

Made for the U.S.A. Only: Second Circuit Holds That the Dodd-Frank Act’s Antiretaliation Provision Applies Only Domestically

By Kevin A. Wisniewski and Mary P. Hansen and William L. Carr

According to the SEC, in fiscal year 2013, foreign whistleblowers accounted for 404 of the 3,238 whistleblower reports received by the SEC (nearly 12%). Recently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals may have significantly undermined incentives for foreign tipsters to report potential violations to the SEC.

On August 14, 2014, the Second Circuit held that the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower antiretaliation provision (15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)) does not apply “extraterritorially” and thus did not cover a foreign tipster’s allegation that he had been terminated for reporting potential Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations to his employer. Liu v. Siemens AG, Docket No. 13-cv-4385 (2d Cir. Aug. 14, 2014). The antiretaliation provision of the Dodd-Frank Act, which gives employees easy access to U.S. district courts, prohibits employers from retaliating against whistleblowers employees who make certain protected disclosures. The provision incentivizes reporting and facilitates the SEC’s enforcement of securities law violations.

The plaintiff Liu, a citizen and resident of Taiwan, alleged that he was fired from a Siemens Chinese subsidiary after he reported potential FCPA violations and other misconduct to his superiors. None of the alleged events related to Liu’s firing occurred in the United States. Nevertheless, Liu filed suit in the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York claiming that Siemens had violated the antiretaliation provision of the Dodd-Frank Act.

The Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s order dismissing the complaint with prejudice and held that the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower antiretaliation provision does not apply “extraterritorially.” The Second Circuit reasoned that the Dodd-Frank Act, like any statute, is presumed, in the “absence of clear congressional intent to the contrary, to apply only domestically.” Id., slip op. at 2. And the Second Circuit found “absolutely nothing in the text of the [antiretaliation] provision … or in the legislative history of the Dodd-Frank Act, that suggests that Congress intended the antiretaliation provision to regulate relationships between foreign employers and their foreign employees working outside the United States.” Id. at 12.

Because the antiretaliation provision did not extent extraterritorially, the court found that it did not cover Liu’s allegations since all events related to his termination — the alleged misconduct, Liu’s discovery of the misconduct, and Liu’s termination — occurred outside the United States. As such, the District Court correctly dismissed Liu’s complaint. The Second Circuit’s decision will likely impact the willingness of potential whistleblowers outside the United States to report misconduct to the SEC. Moreover, the lack of protection afforded to foreign-based whistleblower may adversely effect on the SEC’s FCPA investigations which usually involve misconduct that occurs outside of the United States. There is nothing in the Second Circuit’s decision, however, to indicate that foreign-based whistleblowers are prohibited from receiving payment under the Dodd-Frank bounty program.

While the ruling clarifies the Dodd-Frank Act’s geographical reach, it did not resolve another outstanding issue, namely whether or not Dodd-Frank applies to reports made internally, as opposed to reports made directly to the SEC.

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