Thursday, March 17, 2011

District Court Retroactively Applies Dodd-Frank Ban on Pre-dispute Arbitration in SOX Whistleblower Claims

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts applied the Dodd-Frank Act (“the Act” or “Dodd-Frank”) prohibition on pre-dispute arbitration agreements under the Sarbanes-Oxley (“SOX”) whistleblower protection retroactively. In a March 1 ruling, in Pezza v. Investors Capital, et al, Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, reasoned that retroactive application was appropriate due to the lack of clear Congressional intent to restrict the temporal scope and procedural nature of Section 922.

Section 922 of the Act, among other things, confers jurisdiction on the courts, rather than to a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration panel, by voiding arbitration provisions in employment agreements that purport to force an employee to arbitrate, rather than litigate disputes arising under Section 806 of SOX.

The suit arose from a claim of wrongful retaliation (in violation of SOX) against the plaintiff after he raised concerns about the defendant’s misconduct in connection with securities transactions. (The plaintiff had previously filed the requisite complaints with the Department of Labor.) The defendants, Investors Capital Corp., Investors Capital Holdings, Inc., and Timothy Murphy, argued that the plaintiff was required to submit his dispute to arbitration, not the courts, pursuant to a pre-dispute arbitration provision in his employment agreement. However, while the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration was under advisement, Congress enacted Dodd-Frank, which included the prohibition on pre-dispute arbitration agreements for whistleblower claims brought under SOX.

In determining whether to apply Section 922 retroactively, the court used the framework setup by the Supreme Court in Fernandez-Vargas v. Gonzales, which essentially instructs a court to first look to whether there is any Congressional intent allowing for retroactive application. If there is no clear indication by Congress, the court then must look to whether retroactive application would result in a disfavored consequence affecting a substantive right. If the court answers in the negative, retroactive application is appropriate.

Here, Section 922 did not include any express provisions or clear statements of Congressional intent regarding retroactivity. Further, after applying the standard rules of statutory construction, the court found nothing that indicated Congress intended for the provision to apply to existing arbitration agreements. The court also found it insufficient that Congress vested the authority to limit future pre-dispute arbitration provisions with the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection and the CFTC. Thus the court determined that the result regarding retroactivity under Fernandez-Vargas was inconclusive.

However, under Landgraf v. USI Film Prods, the Supreme Court recognized that jurisdictional statutes may be applied retroactively absent specific legislative authorization without raising retroactivity issues. As a result, the District Court construed Section 922 to be a jurisdictional statute and relied on the holding from Landgraf instead of the retroactivity test under Fernandez-Vargas. Accordingly, the court denied the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration and concluded that Section 922 should be applied retroactively to combat bad conduct arising prior to the enactment of Dodd-Frank.

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