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Retaliation Claims By Corporate Whistleblowers – What Is Too Far?

This week, a French court announced an indictment against UBS related to its alleged treatment of Nicholas Forissier, a former audit manager who provided information to French authorities a decade ago in a tax evasion investigation of UBS.  According to at least one press account, the indictment alleges that Forissier was “forced to work under difficult conditions, including internal criticism and eventual dismissal for gross misconduct in 2009” in retaliation for his cooperation with French authorities. Forissier’s case is apparently one of several whistleblower retaliation claims percolating in the French courts against UBS regarding non-disclosure of offshore accounts for tax purposes.

US law provides significant protections of potential whistleblowers for alleged tax violations. Revisions to IRC section 7623, effective from December 20, 2006, make whistleblower awards mandatory in some cases. The revised law has resulted in several large, public awards (the $104 million award given to Bradley Birkenfeld, for example, also related to UBS disclosures).

Protection for IRS whistleblower claimants is found under a number of statutes and rules.  IRC section 6103(i)(6) provides stringent confidentiality rules (including personal liability for government violators) regarding the government’s disclosure of information tending to reveal the existence of a whistleblower or confidential informant.  Also, the grand jury secrecy rule, Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e), may provide an additional protection in an ongoing grand jury investigation. Further, OSHA, the False Claims Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act may provide protections against termination of whistleblowers and against adverse employment decisions related to a current employee’s status as a whistleblower, in an appropriate case.

Practice point:  It is also worth noting that these protections are not absolute. In fact, because an IRS whistleblower claimant may be in a privileged relationship with the target of an investigation, the IRS has more recently been called upon to clarify that the agency cannot and should not gather or use privileged information to develop a case, or else undermine the entire case as a violation of that privilege, i.e., the “fruit of the poisonous tree”. See our prior coverage on this issue here.

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Supreme Court Issues Opinion Addressing Interplay between APA Procedural Compliance and Chevron Difference

In Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, Sup. Ct. No. 15-415 (June 20, 2016), the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated a regulation issued by the US Department of Labor (DOL) under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In doing so, it affirmed long-standing precedent regarding the procedural requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and addressed the effect of noncompliance with those requirements on the deference, if any, courts must afford agency pronouncements. Thus, even though it is not a tax case, it is likely to have an effect on cases in which taxpayers argue that a treasury regulation is invalid.

The Court’s holding here is based upon an agency’s unexplained change in a long-standing position. The FLSA requires employers to pay overtime compensation to covered employees who work more than 40 hours in a given week. It exempts from this requirement “any salesman, partman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles” at a covered dealership. From 1978 to 2011, the DOL’s position was that such employees were exempt from the overtime-pay rule. This position was set forth in a number of published pronouncements, including proposed regulations in 2008. However, when the regulations were finalized in 2011, the DOL took the opposite position. In a suit brought by a number of service advisors against a dealership for overtime pay, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit resolved the matter by giving Chevron deference to the DOL’s interpretation embodied in the 2011 regulations, holding for the plaintiff employees. The Supreme Court majority denied Chevron deference and remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings on the meaning of the underlying statutory language. (more…)

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