Tracy Chapman famously sang about needing “one reason to stay here.” But when severance is involved, employees may look for one reason to leave—one “Good Reason.”
While Ms. Chapman didn’t sing about them, many employment contracts include a “Good Reason” clause, which allows the employee to resign and still receive severance if certain conditions are met.
For example, many Good Reason clauses provide that an employee can receive severance upon resignation, so long as the employee has suffered from a reduction in salary or benefits, diminution of duties or responsibilities, or due to a forced relocation. In some cases, these Good Reason clauses only apply when an employee resigns following a change in control of the employer (for example, a merger or acquisition).
When Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, it bolstered protections for whistleblowers who report certain kinds of misconduct, such as violations of securities law. At the time, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act already provided many of these whistleblowers with a cause of action for retaliation. But the new Dodd-Frank cause of action included a longer statute of limitations, a more generous damages remedy, and a right to proceed straight to federal court rather than first bringing the claim to the Department of Labor (as Sarbanes-Oxley requires).
Sarbanes-Oxley provides protection for individuals who blow the whistle internally. But courts have struggled with whether Dodd-Frank provides that same protection, or if Dodd-Frank protects only individuals who report misconduct to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) directly.
A party seeking to enforce a contract has to show mutual assent, also referred to as “a meeting of the minds.” In other words, both parties actually have to agree on the same thing. If the parties don’t agree, then a contract does not exist.
In a recent case, T3 Motion, Inc. (a Segway competitor) used a lack of mutual assent to avoid arbitration of its claims against its former CEO, William Tsumpes. This posture was somewhat unusual - typically, employers try to enforce arbitration agreements, and employees try to avoid them so that they can present their claims publicly in court, before a jury of their peers.
Ghosts, ghouls, and ghastly liability; the last is certainly enough to spook any employer. For this Halloween, we take a trip down Elm Street to revisit the most startling nightmares we’ve ever covered.
It Came From the General Counsel’s Office. In March of this year, we told the story of an in-house attorney who won a $14.5 million verdict against his employer after he raised concerns about FCPA violations at the company. The company’s case faltered when the trial revealed that a negative review of the attorney had been backdated.
Under federal law, employers must pay employees time-and-a-half if they work over 40 hours in a workweek, unless the employees are exempt from the overtime law. Employers don’t usually think of an employee who takes home $900,000 in a year as a non-exempt employee who needs to receive overtime pay. But the case of Pierce v. Wyndham Vacation Resorts Inc. shows that these employers may need to think again, especially when those employees are mainly paid on commission.
In Pierce, a class of commissioned sales representatives sued Wyndham—a resort chain—claiming that they were not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) overtime provisions. Wyndham moved for summary judgment on some of the claims, arguing that certain sales reps earned more than $100,000 per year. Most made well over that amount, with some taking home upward of $700,000 or even $900,000 in a given year. Wyndham also argued that these reps performed “executive duties.”
An employer isn’t immune from a discrimination claim when an employee quits instead of being fired. An employee who quits can still bring a “constructive discharge” claim, arguing that his working conditions were intolerable and that he had no other option but to quit.
This is a high bar to clear. For example, in the recent case of Coleman v. City of Irondale, the employer won summary judgment on a constructive discharge claim, despite racial slurs, inappropriate screensavers, and—yes—a pro wrestling photo.
When a company believes that an employee has breached a non-compete agreement by going to work for a competitor, one remedy it can seek is a preliminary injunction. A preliminary injunction is meant to preserve the status quo in a case pending a trial on the merits. In the context of non-compete litigation, this means that an employer can file a lawsuit and quickly obtain an order barring its competitor from hiring the employee.
Getting such an injunction isn’t so easy, however, as shown by an Illinois federal court’s recent decision in Cortz, Inc. v. Doheny Enterprises, Inc.
White male discontent has been a major media talking point since the presidential election, and even long before. This talking point has made its way into the workplace, where tech firms are now being targeted for allegedly discriminating against white males in favor of women or non-white males.
Of course, discrimination lawsuits aren’t just for women or minorities; a white male can also sue for discrimination. A claim of discrimination by a white male based on gender or race is sometimes referred to as “reverse discrimination”—discrimination based on membership in a historically majority or advantaged group.
When investigating potential wrongdoing, government investigators have powerful tools that they can use to obtain information. As the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual explains, one such tool is the ability to enter into non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) in exchange for cooperation from companies and individuals.
For example, if a corporate executive has valuable information to offer in a criminal investigation of his employer or other employees, the DOJ can enter into an NPA with that exec, agreeing not to prosecute him or her in order to secure the information.
The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, includes a new cause of action for whistleblowers who claim that their employer retaliated against them for reporting wrongdoing. But it’s not yet certain whether a whistleblower who blew the whistle internally, but not to the Securities & Exchange Commission, can bring a Dodd-Frank claim. As we covered in this post, federal judges have issued conflicting decisions on this issue.
The Supreme Court is now ready to resolve this conflict. Today, the Court granted certiorari in Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Paul Somers, which presents the question of whether the Dodd-Frank protection extends to an internal whistleblower.
When an executive becomes embroiled in a dispute with an employer, the executive tends to take it personally. And when the executive’s conflict is with the government, the executive’s sense of outrage ratchets up even more.
Case in point: the new book from former Vascular Solutions, Inc., CEO Howard Root, titled Cardiac Arrest: Five Heart-Stopping Years as a CEO On the Feds' Hit-List. As the subtitle suggests, Root spent five years under investigation by the Department of Justice in connection with allegations that his company, VSI, engaged in off-label marketing of a medical device for the treatment of varicose veins known as the “Short Kit.”
In 2011, a group of executives left Horizon Health Corporation for a competitor, Acadia, but they didn’t leave everything behind. Horizon’s president took a “massive, massive amount” of Horizon documents with him on an external hard drive. And despite provisions in their contracts prohibiting them from soliciting Horizon’s employees, the executives recruited a key member of Horizon’s sales team, John Piechocki, who copied lists of sales leads and added them to his new company’s “master contact list.”
Federal employment law protects against a number of different types of discrimination, including treating employees differently because of age, gender, or race.
More and more often, employees bring discrimination claims based on harassment, rather than (or in addition to) claims based on employer decisions that appear to be discriminatory.
However, an employee can only bring a harassment claim under federal law if the employer has engaged in "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult" that was "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." See Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17 (1993).
An employee without an employment contract is typically deemed to be an at-will employee. In an at-will employment relationship, the employer has the right to terminate the employee for any reason permitted by law, with or without cause.
Moreover, when employers write their employee handbooks, they frequently adopt strong language describing this at-will employment structure and warning employees of this termination right. But sometimes even this handbook language isn’t enough to protect an employer from a claim that an employee is exempt from termination without good cause.
That’s exactly what happened to Barnes & Noble in Oakes v. Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, LLC, a recent decision from the California Court of Appeal.
Federal law—specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on a number of protected characteristics, including sex, race, national origin, and religion.
One major open question, however, is whether Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. For example, if a job candidate is openly gay, can the employee refuse to hire that person because of his sexual orientation without violating federal law?
The Supreme Court has never spoken on the issue.
In our last post, we detailed how Sanford Wadler, the former general counsel of Bio-Rad Laboratories, won a $14.5 million verdict against Bio-Rad.
Before Wadler could get to a jury, however, he had to surmount a significant hurdle: Bio-Rad asked the judge to exclude any testimony based on information Wadler learned in his role as in-house counsel. Bio-Rad relied on an attorney’s ethical duty to protect client confidences unless the client is threatening criminal activity that could lead to death or serious bodily harm.
Companies entrust their in-house attorneys with sensitive and confidential information in order to obtain legal advice on important matters. Thus, when an in-house attorney turns on his or her employer, the repercussions can be significant.
In a recent case involving just this situation, a jury awarded Sanford Wadler, the former general counsel for Bio-Rad Laboratories, an $8 million verdict for wrongful termination. The jury found that Wadler raised concerns about violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) at Bio-Rad, and that the company violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and California public policy when it terminated him after he raised those concerns.
The board of directors controls a corporation, but individual directors don’t always agree on the future direction of the company. Sometimes, boards can split into factions. A company’s CEO may align himself with one side and oppose the other.
In rarer circumstances, these disagreements can develop into corporate gridlock. This happens when the warring factions on a board are equally divided.
What can a court do to fix this situation?
As a new administration arrives in the nation’s capital amid heightened scrutiny over conflicts between government service and personal business interests, a little-used law—the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act (the “STOCK Act”)—is deservedly getting renewed attention.
Although enacted in 2012 primarily to eliminate the then-existing doubt that insider trading prohibitions applied to congressional members and their staff, the STOCK Act also explicitly confirmed the ban on insider trading by members of the executive (and judicial) branch as well.
We cover a broad range of issues that arise in employment disputes. Occasionally, we also spotlight other topics of relevant legal interest, ranging from health care to white-collar defense to sports, just to keep things interesting.
Led by Jason Knott and Andrew Goldfarb, and featuring attorneys with deep knowledge and expertise in their fields, Suits by Suits seeks to engage its readers on these relevant and often complicated topics. Comments and special requests are welcome and invited. Before reading, please view the disclaimer.