Whistleblower Actions: Citizens Motivated By Doing Right

In 2006, whistleblower rewards were significantly increased, and the Whistleblower Office created, when President Bush signed into law the Tax Relief and Health Care Law.

” If the Secretary proceeds with any administrative or judicial action based upon information brought to the Secretary’s attention by an individual, the individual shall receive as an award at least 15 percent but not more than 30 percent of the collected proceeds (including penalties, interest, additions to tax, and additional amounts resulting from the action), or from any settlement in response to such action… .”

There are interesting limitations, however, on this apparent government largess. The good news was the large increase in IRS whistleblower awards, from 15 to a possible 30% maximum. There were some compromises, however. For example, the whistleblower award is predicated upon a claim against someone whose annual income exceeds $200,000, AND when the total amount in taxes, penalties, and interest owed is more than $2,000,000. In fact, revisions to the whistleblower statute suggest there may be more limits than many whistleblowers anticipate.

Courts have recently weighed in on saying how low can attorney fees in whistle blowing go. The answer is…quiet a tweet: the First US Circuit Court of Appeals lowered an attorney’s contingency-based recovery from $292,000 to $50,000. The court noted that government officials did the bulk of the work, and that the attorney was able to ‘piggy back’ on their efforts. Most importantly, the court reasoned the rationale of whistleblower laws was to protect and serve the interests of the public…and to a large extent, the whistle blower’s interests in an award are indistinguishable.

“The whole purpose of the discretionary award to whistleblowers under this statute is to create incentives for the whistleblower to take risks that may disadvantage the whistleblower in his relationship to his employer….The amount of the fee that will be siphoned off by the lawyer significantly affects the size of that award and the power of the incentive. The court in administering this statute is obligated to ensure his excessive legal fees will not diminish the statutory incentive.” Judge Dyk, U.S. v. Hawthorn, entered 10/18/2010.

The importance of any potential limitations, or even reductions in anticipated awards, is that whistleblowers, without adequately motivated legal counsel, frequently have no means to deal with the costly and career debilitating efforts to maintain a whistleblower case. Since first introduced in 1863, qui tam laws have routinely allowed up to 30% awards.

At the end of the process, however, government may always reduce a Whistleblower award the good old fashioned way: by collecting taxes on it. Happily, the IRS allows legal fees to be deducted. (Campbell  v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, January 21, 2010).