The National Law Forum

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Jury Awards $1.6M to Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower

A New York federal jury awarded $1.6M in compensatory damages to a whistleblower in a Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower retaliation lawsuit. The verdict is consistent with a recent trend of large jury verdicts in whistleblower retaliation claims, including a six million dollar verdict in the Zulfer SOX case. According to the verdict form, the full amount of the verdict awarded to whistleblower Julio Perez was for compensatory damages. Under the whistleblower provision of SOX, there is no cap on compensatory damages.

While employed at Progenics Pharmaceuticals as a Senior Manager of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Perez worked with representatives of Progenics and Wyeth to develop Relistor, a drug that treats post-operative bowel dysfunction and opioid-induced constipation. In May 2008, Progenics and Wyeth issued a press release stating that the second phase of trials “showed positive activity” and that the two companies were “pleased by the preliminary findings of this oral formulation” of Relistor. Within two months of the issuance of the press release, Wyeth executives sent a memo to Progenics senior executives informing them that the second phase of clinical trials failed to show sufficient clinical activity to warrant a third phase of trials. The Wyeth memo specifically stated: “Do not pursue immediate initiation of Phase 3 studies with either available oral tablets or capsule formulations.”

Perez saw the confidential Wyeth memo and on August 4, 2008, he sent a memo to Progenics’ Senior Vice-President and General Counsel in which he alleged that Progenics was “committing fraud against shareholders since representations made to the public were not consistent with the actual results of the relevant clinical trial, and [Plaintiff] think[s] this is illegal.” The next day, Progenics’ General Counsel questioned Perez about the confidential Wyeth memo. Progenics then terminated Perez’s employment, claiming he had refused to reveal how he had obtained the Wyeth memorandum.

Perez brought suit under SOX, alleging that Progenics terminated his employment because of his August 4, 2008 Memorandum, and denying that he refused to answer questions about his access to the Wyeth memo. Progenics again claimed that it terminated Perez’s employment because he failed to explain how he got the memo. The memo’s intended recipients denied giving Perez a copy of the memo. During the litigation, Perez argued that the memo was distributed widely within Wyeth and that he had not “misappropriated” it.

Following an investigation, OSHA did not substantiate Perez’s SOX complaint. Perez removed his SOX complaint to federal court in November 2010. On July 25, 2013, Judge Kenneth Karas issued an order denying Progenics’ motion for summary judgment. The case was hard-fought, with more than 120 docket entries concerning pre-trial matters. Perez was represented by counsel when he filed his SOX claim in federal court, but proceeded pro seshortly before Progenics moved for summary judgment through trial.

Recent Sarbanes-Oxley Whistleblower Jury Verdicts

On March 5, 2014, a California jury awarded $6 million to Catherine Zulfer in her SOX whistleblower retaliation against Playboy, Inc. (“Playboy”).  Zulfer, a former accounting executive, alleged that Playboy had terminated her in retaliation for raising concerns about executive bonuses to Playboy’s Chief Financial Officer and Chief Compliance Officer.  Zulfer v. Playboy Enterprises Inc., JVR No. 1405010041, 2014 WL 1891246 (C.D.Cal. 2014).  She contended that she had been instructed by Playboy’s CFO to set aside $1 million for executive bonuses that had not been approved by the Board of Directors.  Id.  Zulfer refused to carry out this instruction, warning Playboy’s General Counsel that the bonuses were contrary to Playboy’s internal controls over financial reporting.  Id.  After Zulfer’s disclosure, the CFO retaliated by ostracizing Zulfer, excluding her from meetings, forcing her to take on additional duties, and eventually terminating her employment.  Id.  After a short trial, a jury awarded Zulfer $6 million in compensatory damages and also ruled that Zulfer was entitled to punitive damages.  Id.  Zulfer and Playboy reached a settlement before a determination of punitive damages.  The $6 million compensatory damages award is the highest award to date in a SOX anti-retaliation case.  Id.

The Ninth Circuit recently affirmed a SOX jury verdict awarding $2.2 million in damages, plus $2.4 million in attorneys’ fees, to two former in-house counsel.  Van Asdale v. Int’l Game Tech., 549 F. App’x 611, 614 (9th Cir. 2013).  The plaintiffs, both former in-house counsel at International Game Technology, alleged that they had been terminated in retaliation for disclosing shareholder fraud related to International’s merger with rival game company Anchor Gaming.  Id.  Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that Anchor had withheld important information about its value, causing International to commit shareholder fraud by paying above market value to acquire Anchor.  Van Asdale v. Int’l Game Tech., 577 F.3d 989, 992 (9th Cir. 2009).  When the plaintiffs discovered the issue, they brought their concerns about the potential fraud to their boss, who had served as Anchor’s general counsel prior to the merger. Id. at 993.  International terminated both plaintiffs shortly thereafter. Id. 

In addition, a former financial planner at Bancorp Investments, Inc. who alleged that he was terminated for disclosing trade unsuitability obtained a $250,000 jury verdict in the Eastern District of Kentucky in late 2013.   Rhinehimer v. Bancorp Investment, Inc., 2013 WL 9235343 (E.D.Ky. Dec. 27, 2013), aff’d 2015 WL 3404658 (6th Cir. 2014).

Zulfer, Van Asdale, and Rhinehimer highlight the importance of the removal or “kick out” provision in SOX that authorizes SOX whistleblowers to remove their claims from the Department of Labor to federal court for de novo review 180 days after filing the complaint with OSHA.

© 2014 Zuckerman Law

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