DETROIT — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles told a federal judge in Michigan last week that sales chief Reid Bigland doesn't merit whistleblower protections in a pay dispute.
In court records filed Monday, July 8, FCA asked U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain to reject Bigland's request to retool his lawsuit to add a claim for violation of the whistleblower provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
FCA argues that Bigland's own allegations undercut his case for whistleblower status. The automaker argues that it — not Bigland — alerted the Securities and Exchange Commission to sales-reporting issues, that Bigland didn't voluntarily testify to the SEC and that he didn't identify any legal violations.
"Unlike the typical whistleblower case, [Bigland] expressly alleges that the staff of the SEC accuses him of engaging in some wrongdoing as to [FCA's] monthly sales reporting," FCA's counsel said. "Deferring incentive compensation to an individual the government has asked to acknowledge that he has engaged in some wrongdoing is not unlawful retaliation, but an eminently reasonable thing to do."
Bigland, 52, is claiming that his compensation was slashed 90 percent in retaliation for his participation in the SEC's investigation into the company's sales reporting and his decision to sell his FCA stock. The complaint, initially filed in June under the Michigan Whistleblowers' Protection Act, portrays Bigland as a scapegoat for sales practices that were changed in July 2016, when the company admitted that a 75-month streak of year-over-year gains had actually ended three years earlier.
The unusual case has continued to fester in the courts while Bigland remains the face of FCA to its dealers in the U.S. and Canada.
FCA contends Bigland "admittedly failed" to comply with contractual requirements and sought to add a Sarbanes-Oxley Act claim a mere 11 days after filing his previous amendment.
"For a [Sarbanes-Oxley Act] claim of workplace retaliation to proceed in federal court, the plaintiff must first file a complaint with the Department of Labor through OSHA," FCA said.
Bigland's lawyer, Deborah Gordon, told Automotive News on Friday, July 12, that FCA's opposition to her client's Sarbanes-Oxley status is a typical move "to try to nitpick the complaint and get it whittled down as much as possible."
The federal statute says before a Sarbanes-Oxley count can be filed in federal court — unless the defendants agree — an individual must wait 180 days for the administrative agency to try to resolve it, Gordon said.
"They obviously want to slow me down and they want to drag this out, so they're going to do what they can to not let me amend my complaint," she said. "They are just saying that we can't do this right now, which is fine because whether I can or can't [do it now,] I'm going to do this Sarbanes-Oxley count. I will just have to wait until the 180 days." She added: "It's a technical issue, not substantive."
The automaker also argues that Bigland did not engage in protected whistleblowing activity because he "never provided any information regarding any alleged violation of the securities laws to the SEC in his own allegations."
The automaker is arguing that for Bigland to claim whistleblower protection, he must actually believe he violated the law. He claimed he did nothing wrong.
It remains unclear if any settlement talks are taking place between attorneys for Bigland and FCA.
A spokesman for FCA said the company would have no additional comment on the litigation.