United States: Federal Whistleblower Laws Collide With The Attorney-Client Privilege: The Bio-Rad Case Study

Seyfarth Synopsis: Federal whistleblower laws collide with the in-house attorney-client privilege. The trial round goes to the whistleblower.  The expected appellate round still has not been fought.

In a February 7, 2017 jury verdict, the plaintiff, Sanford S. Wadler, the former General Counsel of Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., was awarded $7.29 million for compensatory and punitive damages in a case alleging Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Acts whistleblower retaliation – Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) claims, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.  It is exceedingly rare for a general counsel of a public company to be a whistleblower, much less file a lawsuit, take it to trial, and be awarded anti-retaliation whistleblower fees.

Whether unique in its own facts or a watershed case that will serve as a precursor for more to come, the case will surely be studied for both its impact and implications. And, given the high stakes, it is expected that the legal saga will continue on appeal.  If it does, until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules on whether federal whistleblower laws preempt state ethics and privilege rules, it is unclear whether Wadler's victory will stand the test of time.

With that: Law360 notes that "the case's turning point came in late December, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero ruled that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act's whistleblower protections preempt attorney-client privilege, thus allowing Wadler to use otherwise privileged information as evidence in the case. " (Emphasis in the original.)  The ruling bucked a Second Circuit decision from 2013 that found that the former General Counsel of Unilab, which was later acquired by Quest Diagnostics, could not bring a qui tam whistleblower suit against Quest under the False Claims Act because "the allegations relied on privileged information," amounting to a finding that "privilege took precedent over whistleblower protections," as noted by Law360. See United States ex rel. Fair Lab. Practices Assoc. v. Quest Diagnostics Inc., 734 F.3d 154 (2d Cir. 2013).

Wadler, who had worked at Bio-Rad for some 25 years, specifically alleged that "after learning of his employer Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc.'s involvement in extensive bribery occurring in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam, [he] investigated evidence of similar violations of the FCPA in China, where corruption is notoriously endemic." According to Wadler's Complaint, key Bio-Rad officers and directors wanted him to "turn a blind eye to this misconduct or sweep it under the rug, but he refused. Instead, and following his mandatory duties under federal securities laws as the Company's chief legal officer, Wadler investigated this potential criminal activity and reported it up the ladder." Wadler v. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., et al., No. 15-cv-02356-JCS, Complaint, p. 1.

Wadler's above-the-fold Complaint allegations went even further: "When Wadler began to believe that the conspiracy to violate the FCPA went all the way to the top of the corporate hierarchy, he reported his concerns to the Company's audit committee. Then, just shortly before Bio-Rad was scheduled to present to the SEC and DOJ regarding the Company's investigation into potential FCPA violations, the Company fired Wadler precisely because he refused to be complicit in its wrongdoing." Complaint, p. 1.

Law360 observed that the unique role of the general counsel came up prominently during the nearly three-week trial, as Bio-Rad defended its termination of Wadler. "The company argued that his incompetence had led him to misconstrue normal business practices as FCPA violations. One board member testified that when Wadler had raised FCPA concerns with the board, his initial reaction that Wadler had made a courageous move gave way to a belief that Wadler's suspicions actually stemmed from a misunderstanding of the FCPA. Others testified that Wadler wasn't a team player." Even Bio-Rad's outside counsel testified as a defense witness against Wadler.  But that strand of argument was met by another, this one raised by Wadler, as noted by Law360:  That the role of the general counsel is "that of a generalist who is trained to spot issues and call in specialized experts when necessary" and that an attorney's duty is to "bring attention to legal risks even when management doesn't want to hear about them."

Although a plaintiff's victory at trial is a critical statement to legal observers and practitioners on both sides of the "v" in a whistleblower claim, the legal battle over Wadler's allegations and treatment is far from over. With competing precedent out of the Second Circuit, Bio-Rad is surely expected to appeal the jury's verdict and ask the Ninth Circuit to toss out the verdict and either dismiss the case entirely or return the case to the district court for a retrial.  How the Ninth Circuit will rule remains to be seen, but the legal saga is sure to continue until then and the state of the law on whistleblower preemption can hardly be viewed as settled.

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Craig B. Simonsen
 
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