Miriam Draper 

This October, the Supreme Court will review Murray v. UBS Securities, LLC—a case that created a circuit split involving the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s (“SOX”) whistleblower anti-retaliation provision.[1] Section 1514A of SOX prohibits employers of publicly traded companies from adversely affecting the employment conditions of employees who report fraudulent business activities.[2]  Congress enacted this provision to give whistleblowing employees of public companies similar protections to those held by whistleblowing federal employees.[3] As noted by the Act’s sponsor, “this distinction does not serve the public good,” especially because “an unprecedented portion of the American public invest[s] in these companies and depend[s] upon their honesty.”[4]

Whistleblower protections for federal employees are codified in the Whistleblower Protection Act (“WPA”) of 1989, which prohibits agencies from retaliating against federal employees who report unethical agency activities.[5] In such an event, the WPA calls for corrective action against the agency if the whistleblowing employee demonstrates that his or her report was a “contributing factor” in the retaliatory action.[6] “Contributing factor” is defined as “any disclosure that affects an agency’s decisions to threaten, propose, take, or not take a personnel action with respect to the individual making the disclosure.”[7] Proof that the agency acted with retaliatory intent is not necessary.[8]  Congress reasoned that “[r]egardless of the official’s motives, personnel actions against employees should quite [simply] not be based on protected activities such as whistleblowing.”[9] The burden of proof for the “contributing factor” element of a WPA claim was intended to be light:

“The words ‘a contributing factor’ mean any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision. This test is specifically intended to overrule existing case law, which requires a whistleblower to prove that his protected conduct was a ‘significant,’ ‘motivating,’ ‘substantial,’ or ‘predominant’ factor in a personnel action in order to overturn that action.”[10]

The WPA nevertheless allows agencies to avoid corrective action if “after a finding that a protected disclosure was a contributing factor, the agency demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same personnel action in the absence of such disclosure.”[11]

This “contributing factor” burden-shifting framework appeared again in 2000 when Congress enacted the AIR21 Whistleblower Protection Program to protect whistleblowing employees connected to U.S. aviation operations.[12] Section 1514A of SOX was passed two years later to account for whistleblowing employees of publicly traded companies.[13] It explicitly applies the burden of proof standard set forth in AIR21—i.e., the “contributing factor” burden-shifting framework.[14]

The elements of a prima facie § 1514A claim include: (1) the employee engaged in protected activity or conduct; (2) the employer knew of the employee’s protected activity; (3) the employee suffered an unfavorable personnel action; and (4) the employee’s protected activity was a contributing factor in the adverse action.[15] Once the employee establishes these elements, the employer may skirt liability by asserting “clear and convincing evidence” that the adverse action would have occurred absent the protected conduct.[16]  

In Murray, the Second Circuit diverged from the majority’s standard by adding a sub-requirement to the “contributing factor” element: retaliatory intent.[17] The plaintiff in that case was terminated after he reported fraudulent business practices to his supervisor.[18] The former employee sued his employer under § 1514A, but the appellate court denied relief because the employee failed to demonstrate that his termination was ordered with retaliatory intent in response to his report.[19]

The court extrapolated its “retaliatory intent” requirement through a flawed textual analysis of § 1514A(a). The provision states that employers of publicly traded companies may not “discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or in any other manner discriminate against an employee in the terms and conditions of employment because of” the employee’s lawful whistleblowing.[20] Even though the plaintiff in Murray was discharged because he reported fraudulent business activities—an action explicitly prohibited in the provision’s language—the court focused its analysis on the plain meaning of “discriminate.”[21] It opined:

“To ‘discriminate’ means ‘[t]o act on the basis of prejudice,’ which requires a conscious decision to act based on a protected characteristic or action.

The statute thus prohibits discriminatory actions caused by—or ‘because of’—whistleblowing, and actions are ‘discriminat[ory]’ when they are based on the employer’s conscious disfavor of an employee for whistleblowing. A discriminatory action ‘because of’ whistleblowing therefore necessarily requires retaliatory intent—i.e., that the employer’s adverse action was motivated by the employee’s whistleblowing. The plain meaning of section 1514A’s statutory language thus compels our conclusion that retaliatory intent is required to sustain a SOX anti-retaliation claim.”[22]

This 2+2=5 analysis is overreaching and misguided. First, the court injects a requisite motive into the ordinary meaning of “discriminate” where one does not otherwise exist.[23] Second, the court ignores the provision’s syntax. The term “discriminate” is embedded in a catchall phrase—“or in any other manner discriminate”—attached to the end of a disjunctive list.[24]  Under the principle of ejusdem generis, the phrase is intended to account for the unenumerated adverse acts that employers may take.[25] “Discriminate” is not an indispensable requirement; it may characterize the class of prohibited actions, but it does not demand malicious motivation from the employer.[26]

To further support its “retaliatory intent” requirement, the court circularly pointed to its analysis of the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”)[27] in Tompkins v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company.[28] Because FRSA and § 1514A of SOX use similar language, the court reasoned that they should be interpreted identically.[29] Since the Tompkins court extracted a “retaliatory intent” requirement from FRSA, the Murray court also extracted aretaliatory intent” requirement from § 1514A.[30]

However, in Bechtel v. Administrative Review Board, the Second Circuit directly contemplated the elements of a § 1514A claim.[31] In that case, the court applied the majority’s standard and did not require proof of retaliatory intent.[32] Rather than follow this far more analogous precedent, the Murray court criticized Bechtel for failing to “account for the statute’s explicit requirement that the employer’s conduct be ‘discriminat[ory].’”[33] As previously discussed, this point is misguided and overreaching.

The Supreme Court’s decision could significantly impact the public market and whistleblower litigation. Requiring plaintiffs to prove retaliatory intent adds another barrier to whistleblower protections, which may deter employees from reporting fraudulent business activities. The SOX Act was intended to statutorily “encourage and protect those who report fraudulent activity that can damage innocent investors in publicly traded companies.”[34] The majority’s standard advances the objective; it gives employees the confidence to report fraudulent business activities by increasing their chances of recovery through litigation, should their reports adversely affect their employment.[35] In fact, “[s]ince the federal government switched the burden of proof in whistleblower laws, the rate to prevail on the merits has increased from 1–5% annually, which institutionalizes a chilling effect, to 25–33%, which gives whistleblowers a fighting chance to successfully defend themselves.”[36]

The SOX anti-retaliation provision mends the “patchwork and vagaries of current state laws” by giving employees of publicly traded companies nationwide whistleblower protections.[37]  As a remedial statute, it should be liberally construed in the plaintiff’s favor to help advance its beneficial purpose.[38] The majority’s plaintiff-friendly standard is consistent with this notion. Upon review of the Second Circuit’s decision in Murray, the Supreme Court should rid the “retaliatory intent” requirement and instead apply the majority’s standard.

[1] See Murray v. UBS Sec., LLC, 43 F.4th 254 (2d Cir. 2022), cert. granted, 143 S. Ct. 2429 (2023).

[2] 18 U.S.C. § 1514A.

[3] 148 Cong. Rec. S7420 (daily ed. July 26, 2002) (“Although current law protects many government employees who act in the public interest by reporting wrongdoing, there is no similar protection for employees of publicly traded companies who blow the whistle on fraud and protect investors.”).

[4] Id.

[5] See 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8).

[6] Id. § 1221.

[7] 5 C.F.R. § 1209.4 (2013).

[8] See Marano v. Dep’t. of Just., 2 F.3d 1137, 1141 (Fed. Cir. 1993).

[9] Id. (quoting S. Rep. No. 100-413, at 18 (1988)).

[10] Id. at 1140 (quoting 101 Cong. Rec. H5033 (daily ed. Mar. 21, 1989) (explanatory statement on WPA)).

[11] 5 U.S.C. § 1214(b)(4)(B)(ii).

[12] See 49 U.S.C. § 42121.

[13] See 148 Cong. Rec. S7420 (daily ed. July 26, 2002).

[14] See 18 U.S.C. § 1514A(b)(2)(C); 49 U.S.C. § 42121(b).

[15] See Lockheed Martin Corp. v. Admin. Rev. Bd., 717 F.3d 1121, 1129 (10th Cir. 2013); Coppinger-Martin v. Solis, 627 F.3d 745, 750 (9th Cir. 2010); Halliburton, Inc. v. Admin. Rev. Bd., 771 F.3d 254, 259 (5th Cir. 2014); Feldman v. Law Enf’t Ass’n, 752 F.3d 339, 344 (4th Cir. 2014).

[16] E.g., Feldman, 752 F.3d at 345.

[17] See Murray v. UBS Sec., LLC, 43 F.4th 254, 260 (2d Cir. 2022), cert. granted, 143 S. Ct. 2429 (2023).

[18] See id. at 258.

[19] See id.

[20] 18 U.S.C § 1514A.

[21] See Murray, 43 F.4th at 259–60.

[22] Id. at 259 (citations omitted).

[23] See Haley K. Hurst, Resolving the SOX Act Circuit Split: Contributing Factor, Not Retaliatory Intent 16–17 (May 4, 2023) (unpublished manuscript) (on file with author). The plain meaning of “discriminate” carries a neutral connotation and does not contemplate the actor’s consciousness. See, e.g., Discriminate, The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed. 1989) (defining “discriminate” as “to distinguish, differentiate”).

[24] See 18 U.S.C. § 1514A(a) (emphasis added); see also 1A Norman Singer & Shambie Singer, Sutherland Statutes and Statutory Construction § 21:14 (7th ed.), Westlaw (database updated 2022).

[25] See 2A Singer & Singer, supra note 24, § 47:17; see also Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioner at 15, Murray, 143 S. Ct. 2429 (No. 22-660) [hereinafter U.S. Brief].

[26] See U.S. Brief, supra note 25, at 15.

[27] 49 U.S.C. § 20109.

[28] 983 F.3d 74 (2d Cir. 2020).

[29] See Murray, 43 F.4th at 261.

[30] See id.

[31] 710 F.3d 443, 447 (2d Cir. 2013).

[32] See id.

[33] Murray, 43 F.4th at 259.

[34] 148 Cong. Rec. S7420 (daily ed. July 26, 2002).

[35] Whistleblowers and Job Safety: Are Existing Protections Adequate to Build a Safer Workplace?: Hearing on Examining Workers’ Memorial Day, Focusing on if Existing Private Sector Whistleblower Protections are Adequate to Ensure Safe Workplaces Before the Subcomm. on Emp. & Workplace Safety of the S. Comm. on Health, Educ., Lab. & Pensions, 113th Cong. 32 (2014) (statement of Thomas Devine, Legal Director, Government Accountability Project).

[36] Id.

[37] 148 Cong. Rec. S7420 (daily ed. July 26, 2002).

[38] See 3 Singer, supra note 24, § 60:1 (8th ed.); see also Hurst, supra note 23, at 23.