SOX Whistleblower Protections at Mutual Fund Companies

We know that Sarbanes-Oxley offers protections to employees at public companies, but does it also protect employees at mutual fund companies?

Yes. At least according to Judge Woodcock of the Massachusetts U.S. District Court.

The Employees

The decision is for two cases that were combined because of the common defendant. According to the decision, Jackie Hosang Lawson worked at Fidelity for more than a decade, before she questioned (1) an expense for "Guidance Interactions", (2) the improper retention of 12b-1 fees, (3) the methodology that affected fund profitability models, (4) issues with a new source system, (5) allocations of internet expenses, and (6) errors in a back office group. She claims to have received poor job performance ratings, missed a promotion and other bad acts as a result of her raising the issues. She filed four separate whistleblower complaints with OSHA that ended up as this federal district court case.

Jonathan M. Zang started at Fidelity in 1997 as an equity research analyst and eventually became a portfolio manager. Zang objected to what he saw as inaccurate disclosure of portfolio manager compensation in an SEC filing for one of his funds. Zang contended that Fidelity retaliated by giving him poor performance ratings and ultimately fired him.

The Mutual Funds

The Fidelity mutual funds are publicly traded, but do not have any employees. The mutual funds hired FMR LLC and other Fidelity affiliates to act as advisers to the funds and those advisers have the employees. (This is the typical arrangement for mutual funds.)

The fund company took the position that Lawson and Zang were employees of a private company (FMR is private) and are not covered by the SOX whistleblower protection. Lawson and Zang argue that SOX protections are not only for employees of public companies but also for employees of private companies, particularly those that act as investment advisers to public investment companies.

The Statute

The statutory provision in question [18 U.S.C. §1514A(a)]provides:

No company with a class of securities registered under section 12 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 ... or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company, may discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or in any other manner discriminate against an employee in the terms and conditions of employment because of any lawful act done by the employee ....

The Reasoning

If Zang or Lawson were direct employees of the mutual fund there is little question that they would be protected.

Judge Woodlock looked at the broader provision of Sarbanes-Oxley and found that the intent was to address the problems of shareholder fraud in the public markets.  The judge feels that the protections applies to employees of  "any related entity of a public company."

The Lawson and Zang are either contractors, subcontractors, or agents of publicly held investment companies. "If the Funds did not
have investment advisers as their agents, the only activity that could take place on the Funds' behalf would be actions taken by the Board of Trustees."

Judge Woodlock did not rule on the substance of the plaintiffs' claims. He did side with Fidelity and dismissed wrongful discharge claims under state law.

The Future

I expect we will hear more about this case on appeal.

Sources:

 

For additional commentary on developments in compliance and ethics, visit Compliance Building, a blog hosted by Doug Cornelius.