We have written about SEC enforcement actions related to severance and confidentiality agreements that restrict reporting matters to the SEC. OSHA has also issued guidance regarding settlement agreements with whistleblowers under Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. According to the guidance:
“OSHA will not approve a “gag” provision that prohibits, restricts, or otherwise discourages a complainant from participating in protected activity. Protected activity includes, but is not limited to, filing a complaint with a government agency, participating in an investigation, testifying in proceedings, or otherwise providing information to the government. These constraints often arise from broad confidentiality or non-disparagement clauses, which complainants may interpret as restricting their ability to engage in protected activity. Other times, these constraints are found in specific provisions, such as the following:
- A provision that restricts the complainant’s ability to provide information to the government, participate in investigations, file a complaint, or testify in proceedings based on a respondent’s past or future conduct. For example, OSHA will not approve a provision that restricts a complainant’s right to provide information to the government related to an occupational injury or exposure.
- A provision that requires a complainant to notify his or her employer before filing a complaint or voluntarily communicating with the government regarding the employer’s past or future conduct.
- A provision that requires a complainant to affirm that he or she has not previously provided information to the government or engaged in other protected activity, or to disclaim any knowledge that the employer has violated the law. Such requirements may compromise statutory and regulatory mechanisms for allowing individuals to provide information confidentially to the government, and thereby discourage complainants from engaging in protected activity.
- A provision that requires a complainant to waive his or her right to receive a monetary award (sometimes referred to in settlement agreements as a “reward”) from a government-administered whistleblower award program for providing information to a government agency. For example, OSHA will not approve a provision that requires a complainant to waive his or her right to receive a monetary award from the Securities and Exchange Commission, under Section 21F of the Securities Exchange Act, for providing information to the government related to a potential violation of securities laws.1 Such an award waiver may discourage a complainant from engaging in protected activity under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, such as providing information to the Commission about a possible securities law violation. For the same reason, OSHA will also not approve a provision that requires a complainant to remit any portion of such an award to respondent. For example, OSHA will not approve a provision that requires a complainant to transfer award funds to respondent to offset payments made to the complainant under the settlement agreement.”
Hat tip to Broc Romanek of TheCoruporateCounsel.net for pointing this out.