Why Whistleblowers Should Act Quickly and Consult Competent Legal Counsel

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed that an ex-Nordstrom Inc’s (JWN) technology official’s complaint that her firing violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s whistleblower protections is untimely. According to Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., SOX’s 90-day limitations period started running on plaintiff Carole Coppinger-Martin’s last day on the job and not when she discovered that her termination by Nordstrom was in alleged retaliation for reporting potential Securities and Exchange Commission violations. The decision affirms an administrative law judge’s ruling.

Coppinger-Martin was hired as the business information systems strategic planning group chief technical architect for Nordstrom in 1999. Per the court, during the summer of 2005, she told her immediate supervisor that she thought that Nordstrom’s information systems had “security vulnerabilities” that exposed the company to the possible SEC violations. Soon after making her report, Coppinger-Martin was given an unfavorable review. In November of that year, Nordstrom told her that it was eliminating her job responsibilities, there were no other opportunities for her within the company, and that they were terminating her employment in January 2006. Coppinger-Martin worked for the company until April 21, 2006.

On July 19, a Nordstrom employee allegedly told her that other workers were attending to her former job duties. It was then that she realized that she may have been let go for notifying senior management about her SEC concerns.

On October 13, Coppinger-Martin submitted a SOX whistleblower claim to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which denied her relief. While asked that an administrative law judge hear case, Nordstrom moved to have the case dropped as untimely on the grounds that the 90-day limitations period started running either in November 2005, when she was told that she was being let go, or on April 21, 2006, which was her last day on the job.

Coppinger-Martin argued that the 90-day limitations period did not start running until July 19 when she first found out that her job duties had not been eliminated. She attributed Nordstrom’s alleged hiding of the facts behind its retaliatory motive to her accrual date of claim.

In affirming the ALJ’s finding, the 9th Circuit noted that it has held in the past that a plaintiff’s claim accrues upon finding out about the actual injury and not when a “legal wrong” is suspected. The court concluded for Coppinger-Martin, this would have been when she found out that she was fired.

Related Web Resources:
Coppinger-Martin v. Solis

Sarbanes-Oxley Act

Institutional Investor Securities Blog

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