The Importance of Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers are of vital importance to regulators, helping them put the pieces of the jigsaw together, says Reuben Guttman.

Back in 2013, HSBC whistleblower, Herve Falciani, told the German publication Der Spiegel: “Banks such as HSBC have created a system for making themselves rich at the expense of society, by assisting in tax evasion and money laundering.” Conclosury statements like this are levied all the time by public interest groups, legislators, opinion writers and pundits.  When they are made, they are often a matter of speculation or at most, an argument of inferences from loose facts. Of course, Herve Falciani is different. When he left HSBC in 2008, he reportedly took data from 130,000 customers. He took the facts to allow authorities to make solid claims of tax evasion; claims that can only be effectively levied with inside information.

In a global economy with complex transactions, communications occurring in multiple languages and transactions and communications made with the jargon of the industry, it is extraordinarily complicated for outside regulators to investigate and gather the facts to prove complex fraud cases.  To some degree, it is analogous to a large ship attempting to navigate a harbor without a local captain available to explain where the rocks are or where the water is shallow. Or, perhaps it is like a blind person walking into a room for the first time without having any sense of where the furniture is located.

Of course regulators have the ability to access documents through a subpoena or civil and investigative demands, and they might even have the ability to ask questions under oath.  But which documents do the regulators ask for?  And when the questions are asked, how should the questions be worded so that regulators target the facts with the precision of a laser guided missile?   Imagine an investigator questioning an HSBC official: Question:“Have you aided and abetted foreign citizens in ways that allow them to avoid paying taxes?”  Answer: “No, that is not our mission … we are a bank.”

The problem is that most sophisticated lawbreakers understand the concept of a smoking gun.  Never create a document that summarizes the wrongdoing for regulators.  Never create a document that lays out the facts leading regulators to pinpoint the wrongdoing. And of course, in a large corporation, never create documents, rules, policies or plans that will cause the average employee to question the propriety of a corporation’s efforts. We live in an age where complex wrongdoing is orchestrated through communications and programmes which, if analysed independently, would seem harmless.

Yet, it is the whistleblower – the person inside the box – who can explain how patterns of innocent conduct, when linked together, amount to wrongful schemes involving fraud, money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion.  Whistleblowers like Falciani are so critically important to regulators and without their help, regulators face a daunting task of fully understanding the schemes and pinpointing and gathering the evidence to convince a trier effect that wrongful conduct has occurred.  Hence, “the importance of the whistleblower.”

Source: The Global Legal Post, 18 May 2015

Renewed Attention on an Old Legal Doctrine

by Reuben A. GuttmanGuttman practices law with Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC 

A half century ago, in Boire v. Greyhound, 376 US 473 (1964), the United States Supreme Court opined that two or more employers could exist as “joint employers” for the purposes of labor relations. Elaborating on this joint employer doctrine, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a case known as NLRB v. Browning-Ferris Industries of Pennsylvania, 691 F.2d 1117 (3rd Cir. 1982), held that “the joint employer concept recognizes that the business entities involved are in fact separate but that they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.”

The joint employer doctrine allows for the imposition of liability against entities that do not sign the employee’s paycheck and do not provide monetary benefits but – still – in other ways, exercise or share control over the terms and conditions of employment. Last month, this tiny gem of labor doctrine formed the basis of 13 complaints, encompassing 78 separate charges, brought by the General Counsel to the National Labor Relations Board against McDonald’s USA, LLC, and McDonald’s franchisees as “joint employers.”

The complaints allege that the respondents interfered with employees’ rights to engage in concerted-protected activity, that is, organize a labor union, and in some cases retaliated against employees for doing so. While the substantive allegations are to some degree routine, the use of the “joint employer” doctrine to impose liability on the parent company – albeit the entity that probably does not pay workers directly – is the more interesting part of the case. The issuance of a complaint by the NLRB General Counsel is not a finding of liability; it is the beginning of a process that will cause the case to proceed to trial before an Administrative Law Judge, review of any decision by the full NLRB, and perhaps a hearing before a United States Court of Appeals where the decision will be enforced or overturned. Whatever the outcome, renewed focus on the joint employer doctrine is important in an era where employment paradigms are so complex that a myriad of entities may play a role in decisions that impact individual workers.

The control over labor relations exercised by a franchisor over franchisees – as in the case of McDonald’s — may provide a set of facts to establish common law applicable to more attenuated or complex relationships. While the McDonald’s matter will only have immediate precedential value to cases brought under the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB’s ultimate ruling may be useful in analyzing employment settings not directly regulated by US Labor Law.

One need only consider US retailers that manufacture their products in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India. When problems occur at the local workplaces, the retailors – back home – often hide behind the excuse that their products are manufactured by “independent” employers. But is this really the case? When these retailers – for marketing purposes – tout their strict oversight on production and thus quality, can they truly say that responsibilities for local labor conditions are outside their control? Is it really possible for Apple Computers to manufacture its products in Southern China and tout them as true Apple products but when labor problems arise say that they are really the product of an independent company that is responsible for labor conditions at the local level? And so to some degree the McDonald’s case asks the question: “is it really possible for a company to tout the uniform quality of its product and then maintain that it does not exercise at least some control over those at the front line of production who make the product?”

For its part, the NLRB’s remedial abilities are limited and it must go to court to enforce its orders. Other than requiring employers to post notices acknowledging a violation of the law and informing employees of their rights to engage in protected concerted activity, the most the NLRB can require is that employees be given back pay where the employer’s conduct has caused the loss of work or an employment opportunity.

Yet, any back pay award is often offset by compensation received by the employee if he or she were able to find substitute work. And for employees who cannot document their efforts to find new jobs, there is sometimes even a
presumption that they would have found work. The NLRB’s processes are also extremely slow and workers and their unions are not entitled to pursue relief if the General Counsel does not believe their allegations merit a “complaint.”

Against this backdrop, unions have claimed that employers routinely violate Federal Labor Law because the chances of being civilly prosecuted are small and if the General Counsel pursues and secures a remedy, the remedies are worth the price of an infraction which may have the impact of chilling a union organizing campaign. Of course these criticisms of the NLRB are not new and it is because of them that many unions have strategized about ways to protect workers and organise without resort to the NLRB. And so, as the NLRB nears its 80th Anniversary – it was established in 1935 – there are more than a few people who are contemplating its relevance. Curiously, with the pursuit of McDonald’s, all eyes are back on the Board not because any remedy will have a material impact on the hamburger chain’s bottom line, but because the ultimate remedy may provide some insight into the protection of those who are part of attenuated supply chains or complex employment paradigms.

Reuben Guttman name Health MVP

Law360, New York (December 1, 2014, 7:18 PM ET) — False Claims Act expert Reuben Guttman helped negotiate a $98.15 million settlement this year with Community Health Systems Inc. in a whistleblower suit accusing the hospital chain of health care fraud, landing Guttman on Law360’s list of Health Care MVPs. Read the full article here. (Registration is required.)

Another Reminder of Why Corporations Cannot Police Themselves

This article, written by Reuben Guttman and Traci Buschner who practice law with Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC in Washington DC. Published in the McClatchy-Tribune News Service on August 13, 2014.

What kind of people would knowingly expose someone to the risk of infection just to make a buck?

Read carefully the allegations underlying the recent $97 million settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Community Health Systems and that question may be answered.

Responding to lawsuits brought under the False Claims Act by multiple whistleblowers, the government investigated and came to terms with the Nashville-based hospital giant resolving allegations that patients were admitted from emergency rooms to overnight stays not for medical necessity but for the purpose of racking up Medicare and Medicaid revenue and bilking private payers.

No harm, no foul. Right? Just skimming a few dollars off the government with no potential harm to patients? Right? Wrong on both counts!

While hospitals are places to get well, staying in a hospital is – these days – a place to acquire a hospital infection. According to allegations brought by three of the whistleblowers, including a physician at a CHS-owned Philadelphia hospital, overnight admission to a hospital absent medical necessity is not prudent medical practice. And, the rationale behind that conclusion is not just about saving dollars. It is a question of health and safety.

So, according to the allegations spanning multiple whistleblower law suits – as the publicly traded CHS was gobbling up community hospitals across the country, it was supporting its buying fling by admitting patients who allegedly did not need hospitalization.

And so the story goes; once again whistleblower lawsuits brought under the False Claims Act – a law allowing private citizens with knowledge of wrongdoing to bring suit in behalf of the government – was being used to recover taxpayer dollars and expose conduct placing citizens at risk. Technically these suits are about the submission of false claims for government payment or approval. In reality they are about much more.

In recent years, whistleblower litigation under the False Claims Act has uncovered conduct by giant pharmaceutical manufacturers including Abbott, GlaxoSmithKline, Amgen and Pfizer that has resulted in criminal convictions and billions of dollars in recovery for hard-pressed government payers. In each case the Government paid hundreds of millions of dollars in reimbursement for prescriptions that were the resulted of marketing tactics that violated the law. Patients were given medicine for reasons not solely grounded in medical necessity or rationale.

To be clear where companies including Abbott and Glaxo pleaded guilty to marketing schemes that placed patients at risk, they did so knowingly and in each case told the court they were pleading guilty because they were indeed guilty.

The tragedy is that the CHS settlement – a civil settlement – is yet another reminder that people captured by a corporate culture have willingly placed countless unwitting citizens at health risk all for the purpose of making additional profit. That is indeed the tragedy. The travesty is that even after the health care providers we once trusted have plead guilty to conduct that places people at risk, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – or at least a few lawyers speaking on its behalf – still claim that these purportedly outstanding companies need to be cut some slack. Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice on July 30, lawyers for the Chamber attacked the False Claims Act, arguing that corporations should police themselves with whistleblowers being required to first report their concerns to corporate internal compliance personnel before alerting government officials.

Of course, these mouthpieces for the Chamber neglected to mention that every pharmacy giant that has pleaded guilty over the last five years had internal compliance programs that did not work so well. Actually, come to think of it, CHS also had an internal compliance program.

So what kind of people would knowingly expose someone to the risk of infection just to make a buck? One quick answer is definitely not the kind of people we want policing themselves for good behavior.

Reuben Guttman on “Internal Compliance”

With the growth of multinationals whose business transcends geographic boundaries and whose revenue streams exceed the gross national product of some nations, legislators and regulators—at least in the United States—have looked to leverage the resources of whistleblowers to bolster compliance enforcement. Under the right circumstances whistleblowers can be an invaluable resource.

First, whistleblowers can surface information not readily available, or otherwise concealed from regulators. Second, in places like India and China they add eyes and ears with cultural and language sensitivity and skills that the enforcement agency itself may not have available, at least in these particular locales. Third, they can have technical or scientific skills in areas that will assist the enforcement agency. Fourth, they often come equipped with counsel who can spend the time translating lay complaints into cogent legal arguments.

Read the entire article at Harvard University, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.