We continue our King Arthur themed week with an exploration of one of the most interesting characters in the Arthur canon, The Green Knight, so called because his skin and clothes are green. The meaning of his greenness has puzzled scholars since the discovery of the poem, that identifies him as the Green Man, a vegetation being in medieval art; a recollection of a figure from Celtic mythology; a Christian symbol or the Devil himself. According to Wikipedia, C. S. Lewis suggested the character was “as vivid and concrete as any image in literature” and J. R. R. Tolkien called him the “most difficult character” to interpret in the introduction to his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His major role in Arthurian literature includes being a judge and tester of knights, and as such the other characters see him as friendly but terrifying and somewhat mysterious.
In his primary story with Sir Gawain, the Green Knight arrives at Camelot during a Christmas feast, holding a bough of holly in one hand and a battle-axe in the other. Despite disclaim of war, the knight issues a challenge: he will allow one man to strike him once with his axe, under the condition that he return the blow the following year. At first, Arthur takes up the challenge, but Gawain takes his place and decapitates the Green Knight, who retrieves his head and tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel at the stipulated time. One year later, while Gawain is traveling to meet the Green Knight, he stays at the castle of Bercilak de Hautedesert. At Bercilak’s castle, Gawain’s loyalty and chastity is tested, Bercilak sends his wife to seduce Gawain and arranges that they shall exchange their gains for the other’s. On New Year’s Day, Gawain meets the Green Knight and prepares to meet his fate, where upon the Green Knight feints two blows and barely nicks him on the third. He then reveals that he is Bercilak, and that Morgan le Fay had given him the double identity to test Gawain and Arthur.
I thought about this story of testing when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “SEC Gives More Than $600,000 to Whistleblower in Retaliation Case” by Rachel Louise Ensign. She reported on the Paradigm securities matter where an award was made to the whistleblower, which was settled by the firm late last year. The settlement was for $2.2MM and $600, 000 of that amount was paid to the whistleblower for the firm’s retaliation against him. This was the first award to a whistleblower for retaliation from the act of whistleblowing. The award is 30% of $2.2MM, which is the maximum amount a tipster can get under the program. The agency said the “unique hardships” he faced were a factor in the size of his award. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Enforcement Director, Andrew Ceresney, was quoted in the article as saying ““We appreciate and recognize the sacrifice this whistleblower made and the important role the whistleblower played in the success of the SEC’s first anti-retaliation enforcement action.””
This award to a whistleblower caps a stunning couple of weeks for whistleblowers who have brought information forward under the Dodd-Frank whistleblowing provisions. First there was the KBR pre-taliation fine and Cease and Desist Order. In this matter, KBR was fined for having language in its internal employee Confidentiality Agreement (CA) that required employees to go to the company’s legal department before releasing certain confidential information to outside parties such as the SEC. The SEC held that such restrictions violated the “whistleblower protection Rule 21F-17 enacted under the Dodd-Frank Act. KBR required witnesses in certain internal investigations interviews to sign confidentiality statements with language warning that they could face discipline and even be fired if they discussed the matters with outside parties without the prior approval of KBR’s legal department. Since these investigations included allegations of possible securities law violations, the SEC found that these terms violated Rule 21F-17, which prohibits companies from taking any action to impede whistleblowers from reporting possible securities violations to the SEC.” This was in the face of zero findings that KBR had actually used such language or restrictions to prevent any employees from whistleblowing to the SEC.
In another part if its Press Release regarding the KBR case Director Ceresney said, “By requiring its employees and former employees to sign confidentiality agreements imposing pre-notification requirements before contacting the SEC, KBR potentially discouraged employees from reporting securities violations to us. SEC rules prohibit employers from taking measures through confidentiality, employment, severance, or other type of agreements that may silence potential whistleblowers before they can reach out to the SEC. We will vigorously enforce this provision.”
Then we have the case of Tony Menendez, who was profiled by Jessie Eisinger in an article entitled “The Whistleblower’s Tale: How An Accountant Took on Halliburton”. The article told the story of a whistleblower, who took his concerns to government regulators and was then outed by the company as the SEC whistleblower and retaliated against. Interestingly, the SEC took no action on the whistleblower claims and the company argued on appeal that “since the SEC hadn’t brought any enforcement action, his complaint about the accounting was unfounded.” The company also claimed that simply because the whistleblower was identified by name, this alone was not the basis for a “material adverse action” against him. While Halliburton won at the administrative hearing level, it lost at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
So now there is a Court of Appeals opinion holding that if whistleblowing was a “contributing factor” only to the retaliation. Further, the employee is not required to prove motive. Well-known whistleblower expert Jordan Thomas also explained in the Eisinger article, “Whistleblowers can be victims of retaliation even if they are ultimately proved wrong as long as they have a “reasonable” belief that the company was doing something wrong.”
It appears that the SEC will be more like the Green Knight going forward. It will be a tester to determine if retaliation against whistleblowers occurs. From preventing companies from trying to stop whistleblowing via CA’s, to monetary awards for retaliation even where there is no SEC or government action taken, to the award to whistleblowers as a part of an SEC settlement for retaliation by their former employers; the SEC is making very clear that they will test how your company treats whistleblowers. If the SEC finds your company’s conduct lacking, you may well be facing something like the Green Knight going forward.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015