On February 21, 2018, the Supreme Court decided Digital Realty Trust v. Somers. Among other things, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) endeavors to protect “whistleblowers,” who are defined as persons who provide “information relating to a violation of the securities to the [U.S. Securities and Exchange] Commission.” Employers are liable for discharging, harassing, or otherwise discriminating against a whistleblower “because of any lawful act done by the whistleblower” with respect to (1) “providing information to the Commission in accordance with [securities laws],” (2) “initiating, testifying in, or assisting in any investigation or … action of the Commission based upon” information provided to the Commission in accordance with securities laws, or (3) “making disclosures that are required or protected under” various statutes and regulations.
In 2014, then-Vice President of Digital Realty Trust, Inc. Paul Somers reported to his senior management that he suspected securities-law violations by the company. He was subsequently terminated. Prior to his termination, Somers had expressed his concerns internally only and not to the Securities and Exchange Commission. He sued Digital Realty Trust in federal district court, alleging unlawful whistleblower retaliation under Dodd-Frank. Digital Realty moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Somers did not qualify as a whistleblower because he had not reported his suspicions to the Commission. The district court rejected that argument and a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, concluding that whistleblower protection can extend to persons who have not actually reported suspected violations to the Commission. This decision aggravated a split in the federal circuit courts of appeals on the issue, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the conflict.
By a vote of 9-0 the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remanded the case. In an opinion delivered by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation whistleblower protection does not extend to an individual who has not reported a violation of securities laws to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Breyer. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, which was joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch.
To discuss the case, we have Todd Braunstein, Global Head of Legal Investigations at Willis Towers Watson.