Whistleblower Fired for Disclosing Improper Asbestos Removal Wins at Trial

A jury awarded approximately $174,00 to a whistleblower who was fired for reporting improper asbestos removal practices at asbestos abatement and demolition company Champagne Demolition, LLC.  OSHA brought suit on his behalf under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the jury awarded $103,000 in back wages, $20,000 in compensatory, and $50,000 in punitive damages.  The jury instructions are available here.

According to the complaint, the company fired the whistleblower one day after he raised concerns about improper asbestos removal at a high school in Alexandria Bay, NY, and entered the worksite when it was closed to take pictures of the asbestos. The whistleblower also removed a bag containing the improperly removed asbestos.  A few weeks after Champagne Demolition terminated the whistleblowers’ employment, they sued him for defamation.  Champagne Demolition subsequently stipulated to the dismissal of the defamation claim.  OSHA alleged that both the termination of the whistleblower’s employment and the filing of a defamation action were retaliatory acts prohibited by Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Although for procedural reasons the court did not rule on whether the filing of the defamation action against the whistleblower was retaliatory, the Secretary’s motion for summary judgment   stakes out an important position on retaliatory lawsuits against whistleblowers:

Lawsuits filed with the intent to punish or dissuade employees from exercising their statutory rights are a well- established form of adverse action. See BE & K Constr. Co. v. NLRB, 536 U.S. 516, 531 (2002) (Finding that a lawsuit that was both objectively baseless and subjectively motivated by an unlawful purpose could violate the National Labor Relations Act’s prohibition on retaliation); Torres v. Gristede’s Operating Corp., 628 F. Supp. 2d 447, 472 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (“Courts have held that baseless claims or lawsuits designed to deter claimants from seeking legal redress constitute impermissibly adverse retaliatory actions.”); Spencer v. Int’l Shoppes, Inc., 902 F. Supp. 2d 287, 299 (E.D.N.Y. 2012) (Under Title VII, the filing of a lawsuit with a retaliatory motive constitutes adverse action).

OSHA should be commended for taking the case to trial and obtaining punitive damages.  As approximately 4,379 workers in the U.S. are killed annually due to unsafe workplaces, it is critical for OSHA to vigorously enforce Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and counter retaliatory lawsuits against whistleblowers, an especially pernicious form of retaliation.

 

© 2017 Zuckerman Law
Written by Jason Zuckerman of Zuckerman Law.
Read more on court decisions on the National Law Review’s Litigation page.

U.S. State Department Contractor to Resolve Allegations of Improper Vetting with $5 Million Settlement

On September 14, 2017, Pacific Architects & Engineers Incorporated (PAE) settled a whistleblower lawsuit alleging the company did not follow proper vetting procedures for its personnel that performed and billed work to the U.S. State Department. The $5 million settlement resolves allegations without any determination of liability of contract violations.

PAE is a company originally incorporated in California in 1955. The company first served the rebuilding of Japan after WWII and has since grown to participate in projects and government contracts globally. In 2007, already a contractor with the U.S. State Department, PAE was assigned the task of training U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and conducting extensive background checks and documentation for those in high-risk positions. Reporting the names, nationalities and background information on contract employees in these positions was a requirement of the contract for work between PAE and the U.S. government.

After its investigation, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that “PAE was aware of these contractual requirements but did not comply with them for extended periods.”

Robert Palombo, the former PAE manager, filed this whistleblower lawsuit against his employer alleging that this was the case and that PAE continued billing for work done under the contract.

PAE, however, contends that “The invoices specifically identified the names of employees for whom the lawsuit alleges that requisite notice was not made. The employees whose background investigations were allegedly inadequate were not involved in any security incidents or injuries. The services called for under the contract were provided in full.”

Without admitting fault or liability, PAE has decided to settle these allegations of improper vetting by paying the U.S. government $5 million, $875,000 of which whistleblower Robert Palumbo is entitled to receive.

This post was written by Tycko & Zavareei Whistleblower Practice Group of Tycko & Zavareei LLP © 2017

For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review

Potential Obstacle To Effective Internal Compliance Reporting System? The False Claims Act

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly.  Under the False Claims Act, a whistleblower is not required to report compliance concerns internally through a company’s internal reporting system before filing a “qui tam” court action.  Indeed, the False Claims Act — with its potential “bounty” of 15 to 30 percent of the government’s recovery — may actually encourage employees to file suit in the first instance, to qualify as an “original source,” and bypass the organization’s reporting system altogether, thereby frustrating a key component of an effective compliance program.  Whistleblower organizations have recently gone so far as to discourage individuals employed by health care providers from bringing compliance concerns directly to their employer so that they can get a share of the government’s recovery.

A provider or other entity participating in the Medicare or Medicaid programs, however, can mitigate that risk through, among other things, employee training and disciplinary policies encouraging good-faith reporting and the promotion of a culture of compliance, including setting the right “tone from the top.”

Internal Reporting System.  The cornerstone of any effective compliance program is developing and implementing a robust internal reporting system that employees can use to raise any compliance concerns on an anonymous basis.  Among other things, when compliance concerns are brought to the attention of the organization’s compliance personnel, the organization can investigate the issue and take appropriate steps to prevent or remediate any continued potential misconduct.  Likewise, having such a system in place may serve as a defense to liability under the False Claims Act.  Even if improper billing is found to have taken place, evidence that the organization has an effective, anonymous internal compliance reporting system may show that the improprieties were not the result of deliberate indifference or reckless disregard for such practices.

False Claims Act.  Plainly, the risk of treble damages and per claim penalties under the False Claims Act is a powerful incentive for a health care organization to implement an effective compliance program.  What is more, the provision for whistleblower awards under the False Claims Act can be an effective tool to aid the government in detecting and preventing overpayments by Medicare and Medicaid to fraudulent operators and other bad actors.  By allowing whistleblowers to file relator actions under seal and potentially share in any of the government’s recovery — as well as to seek damages for any retaliatory employment action — the False Claims incentivizes employees in the health care industry to come forward with information about fraudulent billing, without the fear of reprisal.

The Tension Between The Two.  At the same time, a whistleblower’s potential recovery can operate as a countervailing disincentive for an employee to report compliance concerns internally.  That is because under the False Claims Act, a qui tam relator is entitled to a “bounty” only if the individual is the “original source” of information to the government about the improper billing practices that are the subject of the relator’s action.  On the other hand, if an employee does dutifully report a compliance concern internally through the organization’s reporting system, and the organization itself reports any overpayments to the government or remediates the misconduct itself, the whistleblower may be unable to sue and recover any “bounty.”  As noted earlier, this point is not lost on the relator bar.

Overcoming The Tension.  How does a provider overcome the entreaties of the relator bar, along with the incentives under the False Claims Act whistleblower provisions, to convince employees with compliance concerns to avail themselves of the company’s internal reporting system?  At the outset, the reporting system may be both effective and credible to instill  confidence in the system so that employees will take full advantage of it – that is, the organization must deliver on its promise of anonymity and protection of good-faith reporting and must follow through on a timely basis with a thorough investigation and meaningful corrective action, if indicated.  Further, a robust reporting system, standing alone, will not be effective unless all other elements of an organization’s compliance program are working effectively as well, starting with a “culture of compliance,” reinforced by the executive team and management, and continuing with inservice compliance training, underscoring the importance of timely reporting and the anonymity and other protections afforded to reporting employees.

Likewise, the organization must have personnel and disciplinary policies that reward good-faith reporting and punish compliance lapses, both for engaging in unlawful conduct as well as for failing to report it.  That said, taking any disciplinary action against an employee who files suit as a relator, without ever having reported the compliance concerns in breach of the employee’s duties, is fraught with the risk that the termination or other action will be challenged as retaliation for filing the False Claims Act action, and that the cited ground — failing to report   — is allegedly merely pretextual.

However, with the proper messaging and training, coupled with a robust anonymous reporting system, the company can give its employees good reason to “do the right thing” and report compliance concerns to the company in the first instance, despite the lure of a False Claims Act bounty.

This post was written byBrian T. McGovern of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.
For more legal analysis check out the National Law Review.

Comey’s Testimony Underscores Need for Strong Whistleblower Protections

For me, the most telling moment of former FBI Director Jim Comey’s June 8th testimony occurred early in the hearing, when Mr. Comey choked up as he recalled the White House’s publicly stating that the President had fired him because the “FBI was in disarray.”

This emotional display seemed out of character for Mr. Comey. While U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he successfully prosecuted organized crime. As Deputy Attorney General during the George W. Bush Administration, Mr. Comey refused to sign an extension of the warrantless domestic spying program and defied the White House Counsel and Chief of Staff. Mr. Comey can fairly be described as a “tough guy.” So how did he go from leading the most powerful law-enforcement agency worldwide to being labeled a “leaking liar”?

To an experienced whistleblower advocate, Mr. Comey’s predicament is not surprising. Mr. Comey’s experience, unfortunately, is like those of many whistleblowers I have represented over more than a decade. President Trump promised to bring a business approach to government—and his retaliation against Mr. Comey is straight out of the corporate defense playbook. Corporations typically take the following steps of escalating retaliation to silence whistleblowers:

Intimidate and Silence the Whistleblower

In his June 8th testimony, Mr. Comey described in detail how the President had asked him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn and had conditioned Mr. Comey’s job on “loyalty” to him. Senator Rubio expressed skepticism about Mr. Comey’s feeling intimidated by the President and blamed Mr. Comey for not pushing back. But that type of Monday-morning quarterbacking ignored the power dynamics of the conversation. Mr. Comey wanted to keep his job and was understandably reluctant to accuse the President of obstructing an investigation.

Whistleblowers often confront this intimidation tactic in the workplace. A supervisor or senior company official tells the whistleblower to “let it go,” “mind your own business,” or learn to be a “team player.” And in some cases, the whistleblower is told to shut up if he or she wants to remain employed. Threats of retaliation, whether express or implicit, are powerful tools to silence a whistleblower. When a company officer or senior manager orders a subordinate to do something unlawful or to cover up unlawful conduct, holding firm to one’s ethical values is not an easy avenue to follow. As Mr. Comey learned, refusing to carry out an unlawful order may be career suicide, at least in the short term.

Retaliate Swiftly and Severely Against the Whistleblower

Initially, the bizarre method of firing Mr. Comey seemed surprising for a President who perfected the art of firing on his reality show, The Apprentice. Mr. Comey was not given an opportunity to resign; he was not even notified that he had been fired. But now that we know about the President’s real motive for firing Mr. Comey, it’s clear that his tack was deliberate.

Mr. Comey learned of his firing while addressing FBI agents at a Los Angeles field office when the announcement flashed across a television screen. The White House had announced Mr. Comey’s firing without notifying Mr. Comey himself. President Trump sent a loud and clear message to Mr. Comey and to every senior government official about the consequence of disloyalty.

In the corporate workplace, whistleblower-employees are similarly humiliated as a warning to their colleagues. A whistleblower may be escorted out of the office with security guards while other employees are present, pulled out of a meeting and fired on the spot in front of colleagues, or simply fired via text message. When a corporation fires a whistleblower in this humiliating fashion, it ensures that all other employees know the consequence of whistleblowing.

Badmouth the Whistleblower and Their Work History

Firing Mr. Comey in a humiliating and offensive manner served only as phase one. President Trump then defamed Mr. Comey and asserted that he fired him because of chaos within the FBI, as well as the alleged loss of confidence in Mr. Comey among FBI agents.

These statements stand in stark contrast to the President’s repeated, public praise of Mr. Comey before Mr. Comey refused to comply with the President’s “hope” that Mr. Comey drop the investigation of Flynn. Indeed, if President Trump believed that Mr. Comey’s leadership caused chaos within the FBI, then why did the President invite Mr. Comey to continue to serve as FBI Director?

This patent distortion of Mr. Comey’s performance record is an all-too-common experience of whistleblowers. Prior to blowing the whistle, they receive strong performance evaluations and bonuses; they are valued members of the team. But once they blow the whistle and refuse to drop their concerns, they are suddenly deemed incompetent and unqualified for their position. And when a company realizes that it lacks any existing basis to fire the whistleblower, it creates one by subjecting the whistleblower to heightened scrutiny and setting the whistleblower up to fail. For example, a company might place the whistleblower on a performance-improvement plan that contains impossible objectives, and then fire the whistleblower for not meeting those unattainable goals.

This tactic may backfire and enable a whistleblower to ultimately prevail at trial, but the damage to the whistleblower’s reputation is permanent. Prospective employers are reluctant to hire someone who previously fired for poor performance and are especially reluctant to hire a whistleblower. Many whistleblowers never find comparable employment and must accept lower-level positions, earning a fraction of what they did before their wrongful termination.

Attack the Whistleblower’s Credibility

Apparently, President Trump has no evidence to rebut Mr. Comey’s vivid account of the President’s alleged attempts to obstruct justice. So President Trump called him a “liar.”

Desperate to defend themselves at all costs, corporations frequently employ this tactic—labeling the whistleblower a disgruntled former employee who will say anything to win his or her case. So far, this is not working well for President Trump, whose accusation merely serves to shine a spotlight on his own questionable credibility.

Attacking a whistleblower’s credibility is an effective and pernicious tactic in many whistleblower cases. Once expelled from a company, a whistleblower is marginalized and alienated from former coworkers. The key witnesses continue to work at the company and, fearing retaliation, are reluctant to corroborate the whistleblower’s testimony. Though whistleblowers may still prevail (for example, by using documentary evidence), the attack on a whistleblower’s credibility is odious because the company fired the whistleblower precisely for having integrity.

Create a Post-Hoc Justification for Firing the Whistleblower

Prior to firing Mr. Comey, President Trump papered the file with a post-hoc justification for the firing. After the President decided to fire Mr. Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was tasked with drafting a memorandum to the Attorney General outlining concerns about Mr. Comey’s performance. Most of those concerns focus on Mr. Comey’s statements about the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Surely President Trump knew of those public statements when he repeatedly asked Mr. Comey to remain as FBI Director (as long as he could pledge “loyalty” and drop the Flynn investigation).

In this case, the White House’s initial reliance on the Rosenstein memo as the basis for the decision to fire Mr. Comey backfired because President Trump told NBC anchor Lester Holt that he had decided to fire Mr. Comey regardless of the memo. In many whistleblower-retaliation cases, however, these types of pretextual memos may be persuasive. Some judges even rely on such memos, which mask the real reason for a firing or other adverse action, to grant the company summary judgment and deny the whistleblower a jury trial.

On the other hand, creating a post-hoc justification for a retaliatory adverse action sometimes misfires by providing strong evidence of pretext and spurring a jury to award punitive damages. For instance, a former in-house counsel at Bio-Rad Laboratories recently secured more than $11 million in damages at trial in a Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower-retaliation case. The jury awarded $5 million in punitive damages because Bio-Rad had backdated a negative performance evaluation of the whistleblower that the company drafted after it fired him.

Focus on the Whistleblower’s Alleged Misconduct

To distract attention from what may be obstruction of justice, President Trump and his attorney have focused on Mr. Comey’s leak to the press and have alleged that the leak was unlawful. This accusation seems frivolous because Mr. Comey did not leak classified information, grand jury material, or other sensitive information. Instead, he revealed that President Trump had conditioned his continued service as FBI Director on his agreeing to drop the investigation of Flynn. As a private citizen, Mr. Comey has a constitutional right to blow the whistle to the media about this matter of public concern. Mr. Comey did not reveal to the media information from FBI investigative files or classified information. Yet President Trump and his allies compare Mr. Comey to leakers who illegally disclosed classified information. This is an appalling accusation against the former head of a law-enforcement agency.

But this is another standard corporate defense tactic in whistleblower cases. To divert attention from the wrongdoing that the whistleblower exposed, the company uses its substantial resources to dig up dirt on the whistleblower. The company or its outside counsel examines the whistleblower’s timesheets and expense reports with a fine-tooth comb to find any discrepancy, reviews every email to find some inappropriate communication, and places all of the whistleblower’s work under a microscope to find any shortcoming.

Sue the Whistleblower and Initiate a Retaliatory Investigation

Firing Comey, concocting a pretextual basis for the firing, and branding him a leaking liar apparently was not sufficient retaliation.  So shortly after his testimony, President Trump’s personal attorney announced his intention to sue Mr. Comey and/or file a complaint with the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG).  I am skeptical that a civil action against Mr. Comey or an OIG complaint poses any real legal threat to Mr. Comey.  To the contrary, such a complaint would likely pose a greater risk for President Trump, including potential counterclaims and the risk of being deposed or questioned under oath by the OIG.

The misuse of legal process against corporate whistleblowers, however, is an especially powerful form of retaliation in that it can dissuade a whistleblower from pursuing their claims.  When I defend against this form of abuse of process, I am always struck at the seemingly endless resources that the company will spend to prosecute claims lacking any merit or value.  Fortunately, these claims can go awry by spawning additional retaliation claims under the whistleblower protection laws.  And a jury can punish the employer for subjecting the whistleblower to abuse of process.

Why Whistleblowers Deserve Strong Legal Protection

In light of Mr. Comey’s distinguished record, he will likely bounce back and rebuild his career. But most corporate whistleblowers never fully recover. Too often they find their careers and reputations destroyed. Even when whistleblowers obtain monetary relief at trial, they are usually blacklisted from comparable positions, especially if they work in a small industry.

Mr. Comey’s experience as a whistleblower is a stark reminder of what can happen to any employee who is pressured by a powerful superior to engage in unlawful conduct or to cover up wrongdoing. When intimidation tactics succeed, the public suffers. The company could be covering up threats to public health or safety, environmental contamination, financial fraud, defective products, or any other conceivable harmful wrongdoing.

Courageous whistleblowers who put their jobs on the line deserve strong protection. As Congress embarks on a mission to gut “job killing” agencies, let us hope it will spare the very limited resources that are spent enforcing whistleblower-protection laws. Without such a large backlog of whistleblower cases, OSHA could have, for example, addressed the complaints of Wells Fargo whistleblowers years ago, potentially curbing or halting the bank’s defrauding of its customers. And Congress should consider filling the gaps in existing whistleblower laws. If Mr. Comey “lacked the presence of mind” to explicitly reject the President’s improper demand for him to drop the Flynn investigation, then surely most employees would also be reluctant to refuse an order to commit an unethical or unlawful act.

After Mr. Comey’s testimony, Speaker Ryan pointed out that “[t]he President’s new at this. He’s new to government.” Mr. Comey’s testimony should be a lesson for the President about how to treat whistleblowers. To make America great again, the President should abandon the Rambo litigation tactics that apparently served him well in New York real-estate disputes, and instead view whistleblowers as allies, not as enemies. As Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project and I argue in an article in the Emory Corporate Governance and Accountability ReviewDraining the Swamp Requires Robust Whistleblower Protections and Incentives.

This post was written by Jason Zuckerman of Zuckerman Law.

How the Trump Administration May Impact the Oversight and Enforcement of Dodd-Frank’s Whistleblower Protections

Dodd-frank, WhistleblowerOn the campaign trail, President Trump vowed to “dismantle” Dodd-Frank. Dodd-Frank was enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to curtail risky investment activities and stop financial fraud through increased oversight and regulation of the banking and securities industries. Among other things, it amended the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Securities Exchange Act, and Commodity Exchange Act to include monetary incentives for individuals to blow the whistle on suspected financial fraud and stronger protections for whistleblowers against retaliation by their employers. President Trump has criticized Dodd-Frank, arguing that it is overbroad and inhibits economic growth. Now that he is in office, President Trump has the statute squarely in his crosshairs, and he is poised to impact its whistleblower protections on the legislative, administrative, and judicial fronts.

From a legislative standpoint, President Trump has wasted no time in seeking to roll back Dodd-Frank’s statutory framework. Only two weeks after his inauguration, he issued an EO titled “Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System,” which directs the Treasury Secretary to consult with the heads of financial agencies, including the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), to find ways to conform U.S. financial regulations, including Dodd-Frank, to the Trump administration’s “Core Principles.” These “Core Principles” (detailed in the second article of this Take 5) are broad-sweeping and include, among other things, requiring “more rigorous regulatory impact analysis” for new laws and “mak[ing] regulation efficient, effective, and appropriately tailored.” While the precise scope of these principles is undefined (perhaps intentionally so), they appear to demonstrate a clear first step toward deregulation in the financial sector and may be a shot across the bow signaling the President’s intent to scale back—or at least halt any expansion of—Dodd-Frank, including its whistleblower protections.

Additionally, President Trump is well positioned to substantially affect the SEC’s administrative enforcement of Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower laws. Dodd-Frank created the SEC Office of the Whistleblower (“OWB”) to enforce its comprehensive whistleblower program. As reported in the 2016 Annual Report to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program, since the OWB was established, the SEC has (i) awarded more than $100 million in bounty awards to whistleblowers who provided information leading to successful enforcement actions, (ii) independently sued employers for retaliating against employees for reporting alleged securities violations, and (iii) made it a top priority to find and prosecute employers that use confidentiality, severance, and other agreements that impede their employees from communicating with the SEC.

The SEC’s enforcement agenda could change significantly, however, under the Trump administration. Specifically, in 2017, President Trump will have the opportunity to appoint four out of the five SEC Commissioners (three seats are now vacant, and another will become vacant in June). He has nominated Jay Clayton—a corporate attorney who has spent his career representing financial services firms in business transactions and regulatory disputes—to fill one of those vacancies and serve as SEC Chair. New SEC leadership may result in the potential replacement of the sitting OWB Chief and alter the OWB’s current enforcement strategies. Thus, through his administrative appointments, President Trump may attempt to temper the SEC’s aggressiveness and focus when it comes to enforcement of Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower protections to more closely reflect his vision for less onerous regulation of the financial sector.

The President is also uniquely situated to influence the application of Dodd-Frank in the courtroom. Indeed, President Trump has inherited more than 100 federal court vacancies that he must fill, including one on the U.S. Supreme Court, giving him the opportunity to shape how Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower laws will be interpreted and applied by federal judges across the country. One of the most critical issues that hangs in the balance is whether an employee who reports an alleged securities violation only to his or her employer, and not to the SEC, is protected by Dodd-Frank’s anti-whistleblower retaliation provision. At present, there is a circuit court split on this issue. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held in Asadi v. G.E. Energy United States, LLC, that an employee who only reports a suspected violation internally is not a protected whistleblower for the purposes of Dodd-Frank’s anti-relation provision. In 2015, however, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC. The question has since come before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which declined to rule on it) and is currently pending before the Courts of Appeals for the Ninth and Third Circuits, and it will almost certainly end up before the U.S. Supreme Court for resolution. Accordingly, President Trump’s federal judicial appointments—particularly his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court—may play a pivotal role in establishing exactly who is protected under Dodd-Frank’s proscription against whistleblower retaliation.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that President Trump will actually be in a position to completely “dismantle” Dodd-Frank. Yet, there is no question that he has at his disposal the power to greatly impact the statute at the legislative, administrative, and judicial levels, and there is little doubt that change is on the horizon.

©2017 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.

Judge Gorsuch’s Opinion in Whistleblower Case Reveals the Dishonesty of his Alleged Strict Textualism

Neil Gorsuch Supreme CourtIf Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, he will play a critical role in construing laws that protect worker health and safety, including laws protecting whistleblowers who suffer retaliation for opposing illegal or unsafe conduct that jeopardizes public health and safety. According to the Bureau of Labor Standards, 4836 workers were killed on the job in 2015—on average, that’s more than 93 a week, or more than 13 deaths every day. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) is already severely understaffed and will soon be further weakened by a political appointee charged with gutting it, the last thing workers need is an activist judge who has expressed disdain for worker-protection laws. But that is exactly what we can expect from Judge Gorsuch.

In a recent dissent in TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, 833 F.3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2016), Judge Gorsuch demonstrated that he will construe worker-protection laws as narrowly as possible and that he deems worker “health and safety” as “ephemeral and generic” statutory goals.  His opinion also reveals that his alleged values-neutral approach to statutory construction is intellectually dishonest.  The majority decision affirming the whistleblower’s win at the Department of Labor was based on the plain meaning of the statute, well-established precedent construing the statutory term at issue, and the purpose of the statute.  Judge Gorsuch’s dissent, however, was arguably activist in that it rewrites the statute.  In other words, Judge Gorsuch does not check his policy preferences or values at the courthouse door and render value-neutral decisions based on the dictionary definitions of statutory terms.  Instead, as this opinion demonstrates, his alleged strict textualism appears to be a cloak for his policy preferences, including his apparent disdain for worker protection laws.

Background of TransAm Trucking Whistleblower-Retaliation Case

Alphonse Maddin worked as a truck driver for TransAm Trucking, Inc. (“TransAm”). He was driving a tractor-trailer down an Illinois freeway on a subzero night in 2009, when he noticed that his truck was nearly out of gas. He pulled over because he could not find a fuel station, and ten minutes later, the trailer’s brakes locked up due to the frigid temperatures. Mr. Maddin was unable to resume driving the tractor-trailer and reported the truck’s unsafe condition to a TransAm dispatcher. The dispatcher told Mr. Maddin that a repairperson would be sent to fix the brakes.

Mr. Maddin dozed off briefly and awoke to find that his torso was numb and he could not feel his feet. He told the dispatcher about his physical condition and asked when the repairperson would arrive. “[H]ang in there,” the dispatcher responded.

Half an hour later, Mr. Maddin called his supervisor, Larry Cluck, and told Mr. Cluck that his feet were going numb and that he was having difficulty breathing. Mr. Cluck told Mr. Maddin not to leave the trailer and gave him two options: drag the trailer with inoperable brakes, or stay put until the repairperson arrives. Mr. Maddin knew that dragging the trailer is illegal and concluded that he might not live much longer if he were to wait for a repairperson. So, Mr. Maddin unhitched the trailer and drove off.

Fifteen minutes after Mr. Maddin left—i.e., more than three hours after he first notified TransAm that he was stranded in subzero temperatures—the repairperson arrived. Mr. Maddin drove the truck back to meet the repairperson, who then fixed the trailer’s brakes. Less than a week later, TransAm terminated Mr. Maddin’s employment for abandoning the trailer.

Mr. Maddin filed a complaint with OSHA, alleging that TransAm violated the whistleblower provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”) by firing him. OSHA dismissed the claim, but a Department of Labor (“DOL”) administrative-law judge (“ALJ”) later ruled, after a hearing, that TransAm violated the STAA. TransAm appealed, and the DOL Administrative Review Board (“ARB”) affirmed.

Mr. Maddin’s STAA Whistleblower-Retaliation Claim

The relevant STAA provision prohibits an employer from firing an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because . . . the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.” TransAm Trucking, 833 F.3d at 1211 (alteration in original) (quoting 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)(1)(B)(ii)). An employee’s apprehension is “reasonable” if a reasonable person in the same circumstances “would conclude that the hazardous safety or security condition establishes a real danger of accident, injury, or serious impairment to health.” Id. (quoting § 31105(a)(2)). To prevail under this provision, an employee must demonstrate that he or she “sought from the employer, and [was] unable to obtain, correction of the hazardous safety or security condition.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting § 31105(a)(2)).

The ALJ found, and the ARB affirmed, that Mr. Maddin had engaged in protected conduct when he unhitched the trailer and “refused to operate the truck under the conditions set by Mr. [C]luck.” Id. (alteration in original). TransAm argued, on appeal, that this finding was in error because Mr. Maddin had not “refused to operate” the truck but rather in fact “operated” the truck when he drove off without the trailer.

The Tenth Circuit engaged in a Chevron analysis to determine whether to defer to the ARB’s interpretation of the STAA. Because the statute does not define “operate,” the Tenth Circuit found that Congress had not “directly spoken to the precise question at issue.” Id. (quoting Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842 (1984)). Therefore, the Tenth Circuit turned to the question whether the ARB’s interpretation was “based on a permissible construction of the statute.” Id. (quoting Chevron, 467 U.S. at 843).

TransAm argued, in effect, that “operate” was synonymous with “drive.” The ARB, on the other hand, interpreted “operate” to encompass driving as well as “other uses of a vehicle when it is within the control of the employee.” Id.

The Tenth Circuit looked to the purpose of the STAA whistleblower provisions—to “encourage employee reporting of noncompliance with safety regulations governing commercial motor vehicles.” Id. at 1212 (quoting Brock v. Roadway Express, Inc., 481 U.S. 252, 258 (1987)). The court found that the ARB’s interpretation of “operate,” and not TransAm’s, furthered that purpose because it “prohibit[ed] an employer from discharging an insubordinate employee whose insubordination was motivated by the employee’s reasonable apprehension of serious injury to himself or members of the public.” Id.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit deferred to the ARB’s interpretation of “operate” and affirmed the ARB’s finding that Mr. Maddin’s unhitching the trailer and driving away in the truck, against his supervisor’s instructions, constituted a “refusal to operate” and so was protected conduct under the STAA. Id. at 1213. The court explained that “although Maddin actually drove the truck after unhitching it, he refused to operate his tractor-trailer in the manner instructed by his employer.” Id.

The Tenth Circuit found, moreover, that Mr. Maddin’s protected activity was a contributing factor in his firing. Id. Having found that the ARB’s findings—that Mr. Maddin engaged in STAA-protected conduct and was fired for doing so—were supported by substantial evidence, the Tenth Circuit denied TransAm’s petition for review.

Judge Gorsuch’s Dissent

Judge Gorsuch took issue with the ARB’s, and the majority’s, interpretation of “refusal to operate”:

The trucker in this case wasn’t fired for refusing to operate his vehicle. Indeed, his employer gave him the very option the statute says it must: once he voiced safety concerns, TransAm expressly—and by everyone’s admission—permitted him to sit and remain where he was and wait for help. The trucker was fired only after he declined the statutorily protected option (refuse to operate) and chose instead to operate his vehicle in a manner he thought wise but his employer did not. And there’s simply no law anyone has pointed us to giving employees the right to operate their vehicles in ways their employers forbid.

Id. at 1215–16 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). Judge Gorsuch said the majority should not have even engaged in a Chevron analysis because the STAA is “perfectly plain.”

Relying on the Oxford English Dictionary, Judge Gorsuch found that “refuse” means “[t]o decline positively, to express or show a determination not to do something”; and “operate” means “[t]o cause or actuate the working of; to work (a machine, etc.).” Id. at 1216 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (alterations in original) (quoting The Oxford English Dictionary 495, 848 (2d ed. 1989)). Putting those two definitions together, Judge Gorsuch concluded that, under the STAA, “employees who voice safety concerns about their vehicles may decline to cause those vehicles to work without fear of reprisal” but may not “cause those vehicles to work in ways they happen to wish but an employer forbids.” Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

To illustrate the alleged absurdity of the majority’s contrary interpretation, Judge Gorsuch used an analogy: “Imagine a boss telling an employee he may either ‘operate’ an office computer as directed or ‘refuse to operate’ that computer. What serious employee would take that as license to use an office computer not for work but to compose the great American novel? Good luck.” Id. at 1217 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

Judge Gorsuch then criticized the majority for its reliance on the STAA’s purpose of protecting public health and safety. In a statement revealing his policy preferences, Judge Gorsuch said that, particularly where a statute’s purpose is as “ephemeral and generic” as “health and safety,” the majority should stick strictly to the text of the statute. Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

Judge Gorsuch’s Dissent Reveals the Intellectual Dishonesty of his Alleged Strict Textualism

Read in isolation, Judge Gorsuch’s dissent sounds plausible. He takes a strict textualist approach to statutory interpretation and so rejects any consideration of legislative intent. But a closer examination reveals that his alleged use of textualism is really a cloak for his policy preferences.

Here, Judge Gorsuch purportedly relies on the Oxford English Dictionary to support his conclusion that “operate” means, by definition, “[t]o cause or actuate the working of; to work (a machine, etc.).” And the rest of his analysis follows naturally. But the same textualist approach was also relied upon by the majority to reach a contrary conclusion, one that is consistent with the purpose of the statute:

The dissent believes Congress’s intent can be easily determined by simply choosing a favorite dictionary definition of the word and applying that to quickly conclude the statute is not ambiguous at all. . . .

. . . We, too, have found a dictionary definition of the word “operate” and discovered it means to “control the functioning of.” This definition clearly encompasses activities other than driving. . . . The only logical explanation [for the dissent’s interpretation] is that the dissent has concluded Congress used the word “operate” in the statute when it really meant “drive.” We are more comfortable limiting our review to the language Congress actually used. 

Id. at 1212 n.4 (emphasis added) (quoting Operate, Oxford Dictionaries Pro, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/operate).

Judge Gorsuch artfully concealed the discretion inherent in his analysis, and in doing so maintained the facade of being bound by the text of the STAA. Here, he used his discretion to conclude that an employee’s firing did not violate the STAA—even though that employee spent more than three hours in subzero temperatures, without heat, after notifying his employer that his trailer’s brakes had frozen—because the employee’s actions did not meet Judge Gorsuch’s cherry-picked definition of refusal to “operate.”

Instead of taking statutory text out of context, Judge Gorsuch could have relied upon well-established STAA precedent holding that an employee who moves a disabled trailer from the middle of a busy roadway to the shoulder of the road, after being told by his employer to remain in the roadway, has refused to operate his vehicle for purposes of the STAA whistleblower law. He could also consider the purpose of the statute the majority relies upon: “to promote the safe operation of commercial motor vehicles,” “to minimize dangers to the health of operators of commercial motor vehicles,” and “to ensure increased compliance with traffic laws and with . . . commercial motor vehicle safety and health regulations and standards.” 49 U.S.C. § 31131(a).

Judge Gorsuch’s dissent fails to address the fact that Mr. Maddin’s supervisor gave him another option other than waiting in the truck without heat—dragging a 41,000-pound trailer with inoperable brakes, which is prohibited by Department of Transportation regulations. Mr. Maddin refused to carry out that instruction, and therefore he is protected under the STAA. And Judge Gorsuch’s dissent does not address the ARB’s finding that Mr. Maddin engaged in STAA-protected conduct by reporting the faulty condition of the trailer (i.e., the frozen brakes).

Judge Gorsuch will likely testify at his confirmation hearing that he is a values-neutral umpire who interprets statutes according to their plain meaning. Here, the umpire had two choices in a case decided under substantial-evidence review—a standard of review that is highly deferential to the agency. Option One was to rely on the majority’s equally compelling dictionary definition that favored the worker, the purpose of the STAA whistleblower law, well-established case precedent construing the STAA, and common sense. Option Two was to rely upon an out-of-context dictionary definition to reverse the agency, while omitting key facts from the record and ignoring case precedent and the purpose of the statute. Is it a mere coincidence that Option Two favored the employer and left the worker out in the cold? It strains credulity to claim that the author of this dissent is merely calling balls and strikes.

Judge Gorsuch’s Derision of Worker-Protection Laws

Perhaps more revealing than Judge Gorsuch’s selective use of the dictionary, however, are his characterization of “health and safety” as “ephemeral and generic” statutory goals, as well as the wording and tone of his dissent. Judge Gorsuch refuses to consider the purpose of the STAA whistleblower-protection law because “[a]fter all, what under the sun, at least at some level of generality, doesn’t relate to ‘health and safety’?” TransAm Trucking, 833 F.3d at 1217 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). If Judge Gorsuch were construing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, he would very likely consider and apply the purpose of the statute.  But according to Judge Gorsuch, the remedial goals of worker-protection laws should be ignored when construing those laws.

Note that in his dissent, Judge Gorsuch does not once refer to Mr. Maddin by name. Instead, he refers to Mr. Maddin repeatedly as a “trucker” and once as an “employee.” TransAm, on the other hand, is identified by name several times throughout the dissent. Moreover, Judge Gorsuch states that Mr. Maddin was stranded in “cold weather” and omits the fact that Mr. Madden was stuck in a truck, without heat, in subzero weather, and feared losing his feet, dying, and never seeing his family again. Minimizing Mr. Maddin’s precarious predicament enabled Judge Gorsuch to analogize Mr. Maddin’s conduct to that of an office worker who misused a work computer to “compose the great American novel.” Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). But presumably, the officer worker’s appendages are not going numb in this irrelevant analogy. Given Judge Gorsuch’s dehumanization of Mr. Maddin, it is no surprise that he admits in his dissent that he deems “health and safety” to be “ephemeral and generic” statutory goals.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were approximately 3500 fatal crashes involving large trucks from 2011–2014. There is nothing “ephemeral” about laws regulating the safe operation of tractor-trailers or a whistleblower-protection law that enables truck drivers to refuse to drive unsafe vehicles. As Judge Gorsuch sat comfortably in his chambers, penning his dissent, did it occur to him that human lives are at stake when TransAm orders a driver to drag a 41,000-pound trailer with frozen brakes? Did this “pro-life” jurist consider that Mr. Maddin was having difficulty breathing and his appendages were going numb when he pleaded with his supervisor for permission to drive the truck, without the trailer, to a nearby gas station? Apparently, all those considerations, along with the purpose of the statute, are irrelevant where a cherry-picked dictionary definition enables Judge Gorsuch to construe a remedial law narrowly enough for the employer to prevail. If Judge Gorsuch is really acting as a values-neutral umpire, why does he deride the purpose of the STAA whistleblower-protection law as “ephemeral” and “generic”?

Many American workers often face the daunting choice of engaging in unsafe practices on the job or instead losing their jobs for opposing such practices. Federal enforcement of worker-safety and worker-protection laws is already feeble due to Congress’s deliberately starving OSHA of resources. And with a new Administration committed to gutting worker-safety laws and enforcement thereof, we can expect that the current unacceptable number of workers killed on the job—4836 in 2015—will increase. Judge Gorsuch’s dissent in TransAm Trucking portends that such laws will be further crippled using sham textualism.

Undoubtedly Judge Gorsuch is a talented jurist and dedicated public servant. But the “forgotten man” that President Trump claims to represent would be far better served by a mainstream jurist, such as Judge Merrick Garland, who would be faithful to the statutory language and purpose of worker-protection laws.

Supreme Court Determines that Seal Violation Does Not Mandate Dismissal

Supreme Court qui tam seal violationOn December 6, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States decided State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. v. United States ex rel. Cori Rigsby and Kerri Rigsby. At issue was whether a qui tam relator’s violation of the seal requirement, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(2), requires a court to dismiss the suit. In a unanimous decision, the Court concluded that violation of the seal does not mandate dismissal, affirming a lower court decision to deny the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

Section 3730(b)(2) requires qui tam complaints to be filed under seal for at least 60 days and provides that they shall not be served on the defendants until the court so orders. The purpose of the seal is to give the government time to investigate. In practice, the government often seeks numerous extensions while it investigates the conduct alleged in the relator’s complaint.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, reasoned that the text of the False Claims Act (FCA) makes no mention of a remedy as harsh as dismissal. The Court also noted that the FCA was intended to protect the government’s interests, whereas mandatory dismissal would run contrary to those interests, as it would put an end to potentially meritorious qui tam suits. Although the Court made no definitive ruling as to what sanction would have been appropriate, it did note that dismissal “remains a possible form of relief,” while “[r]emedial tools like monetary penalties or attorney discipline remain available to punish and deter seal violations even when dismissal is not appropriate.”

We previously wrote about this matter, here.

© 2016 McDermott Will & Emery