In many respects, employees with employment agreements seem to have made it to the corporate “Promised Land.”
Through skill and hard work, these employees have distinguished themselves enough to merit individualized attention to the various types of compensation they will receive. However, these agreements may also contain land mines that spring into action when the relationship between the employee and the employer sours.
In my last post, I boldly predicted a possible winner—a dark horse if you will—emerging from the new Department of Justice policy announced by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and immortalized in the so-called Yates memo.
But this post is less optimistic. Today, I’m talking about the sure loser post-Yates: the upper-middle executive.
Or, as Ms. Yates memorably described to The New York Times, the Vice President in Charge of Going to Jail.
What does the Yates memo do to squeeze the upper-middle executive like never before?
In the corporate world, the treats offered to executives can be as sweet as stock incentives and cash bonuses. But the tricks can be as sour as individual liability for wrongdoing and salary disgorgement.
NJ Supreme Court Makes It Easier For Employers To Take Back Executive Salaries
Lately, we’ve been discussing the Yates Memo and the alarms it must be sounding in corporate board rooms across the country. In a similar vein, the New Jersey Supreme Court offered little comfort to spooked executives when it recently decided to broaden the remedies available to employers who seek disgorgement of former high-level employees’ salaries.
When a company sues an executive, one question is who will pay the legal bills. As we covered earlier this year, that’s been an issue in Dov Charney’s ongoing legal battle with his former employer, American Apparel. Specifically, after American Apparel sued Charney for violating their standstill agreement by getting involved in shareholder suits and commenting to the press, Charney sued American Apparel in Delaware for indemnification and advancement. He claimed that the suit was brought “by reason of the fact” that he had been CEO, and thus fell within the indemnification provisions in various corporate documents.
On September 9, 2015, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates issued a memorandum to all Department of Justice attorneys concerning “Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing.” Referred to as the “Yates Memo,” the memorandum consolidates several statements from other DOJ officials over the past year, memorializes new policy, and reiterates long-established practices. Significantly, the Yates Memo recognizes what every American has understood since the inception of our legal system: living, breathing individuals commit crimes or engage in civil misconduct, not the business entities (fictional “persons”) on behalf of which the individual acts.
The Justice Department issued a memo to United States attorneys nationwide that might have Wall Street executives shifting nervously in their seats. The memo signifies a new focus as it instructs both civil and criminal prosecutors to pursue individuals, not just their companies, when conducting white collar investigations. According to The New York Times, the memo is a “tacit acknowledgement” that very few executives who played a role in the housing crisis, the financial meltdown, and other corporate scandals have been punished by the Justice Department in recent years. Typically when a company is suspected of wrongdoing, the company settles with the government after supplying the authorities with the results of its own internal investigation. This paradigm has led to corporations paying record penalties, while individuals usually escape criminal prosecution. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates authored the memo and articulated the Justice Department’s new resolve. “Corporations can only commit crimes through flesh-and-blood people. It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable.” To achieve this end, U.S. attorneys are directed to focus on individuals from the beginning, and will refuse “cooperation credit” to the company if they refuse to provide names and evidence against culpable employees. And don’t think about naming a fall guy to take the blame. Ms. Yates said the Justice Department wants big names in senior positions. “We’re not going to be accepting a company’s cooperation when they just offer up the vice president in charge of going to jail.” We’ll have more on the Yates Memo and its potential implications in weeks to come.
The famous scientist Nikola Tesla was prolific not only in his scientific writings and experiments, but he has also become quite the posthumous eponym. From 80s rock bands to electric car manufacturers, the Tesla name continues to find its way into the headlines. Nikola’s more recent namesake, Tesla Motors (named for Mr. Tesla’s patented AC induction motor), was allegedly the target of a former disgruntled employee, Nima Kalbasi. Prosecutors say that Mr. Kalbasi, a Canadian national and mechanical engineer, hacked the company’s servers. According to The Washington Times, Mr. Kalbasi was terminated on December 3rd of last year, but not before he was able to ferret out his boss’s email credentials. For the next few weeks, according to allegations in Mr. Kalbasi’s criminal case, Mr. Kalbasi repeatedly accessed Tesla’s corporate server to retrieve employee reviews and at least one consumer complaint against the company, which he published online along with some other disparaging commentary. Ironically, Mr. Kalbasi allegedly used in his computer hacking the wireless technology that many credit to Mr. Tesla himself.
Normally, in litigation between executives and employees, the executive will bring suit after he or she is fired, alleging wrongdoing by the former employer. This makes sense: the employer, after all, is the one who took the adverse action against the exec. And it’s the one that caused the damage, assuming that the executive can prove his or her claims.
The case of Stephen Stradtman, former CEO of Otto Industries North America, Inc., was not a normal case. For one thing, Stradtman wasn’t fired – he quit. And Stradtman didn’t sue Otto – he sued two other companies (Republic Services, Inc. and Republic Services of Virginia, LLC) and one of their employees.
On his way through the San Francisco International Airport with the hopes of boarding his flight to China, Silicon Valley former employee Jing Zeng was not greeted by the friendly faces of a flight crew, but rather the handcuff-wielding agents of the FBI. Detained on charges of stealing trade secrets, Mr. Zeng will have to remain in the US and explain the behavior that led up to his August 20th airport arrest. The Wall Street Journal explains that Mr. Zeng, a new employee with Machine Zone, maker of Game of War: Fire Age (you may have seen the ads prominently featuring model Kate Upton sporting medieval garb), sought to change teams and work under a different boss. His request was denied and the company eventually asked Mr. Zeng to leave. Mr. Zeng then allegedly began to download highly valuable user data from a proprietary database in an attempt to leverage his possession of the information for a more lucrative severance agreement. The company contacted the FBI, and Mr. Zeng’s arrest followed. Now, Mr. Zeng finds himself in the custody of federal authorities, although his LinkedIn profile indicates that he is “ready for next venture.”
Indemnification and advancement are intended to protect individuals from claims asserted against them by shareholders or regulators by virtue of their position with a business entity. A minimum level of protection is guaranteed by statute for corporate officers and directors. As we covered in this post, statutory backstops do not exist for employees of alternative business entities, such as limited partnerships (“LPs”), limited liability partnerships (“LLPs”) and limited liability companies (“LLCs”). Because these alternative business entities offer different advantages, they are chosen as frequently as corporations when a new business is formed. Therefore, protection of individuals working for these entities will be a growing issue.
Alternative business entities are desirable because, among other things, the laws under which they are formed are designed to favor flexibility. Management of an alternative business entity is principally controlled by the operating agreement among the stakeholders, which may contain whatever provisions the stakeholders deem appropriate. For example, the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act (the “DLLCA”), which governs the formation and operation of Delaware limited liability companies, specifically provides that “it is the policy of this Chapter to give maximum effect to the principal of freedom of contract and to the enforceability of limited liability company agreements.” 6 Del. C.§ 18-1101(b). The Delaware Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act (“DRULPA”) has a similar policy statement, 6 Del. C.§ 17-1101(c). However, if the agreement pursuant to which the alternative entity was formed does not expressly create a right to indemnification and advancement, employees may not have protection or resources to mount a proper defense in a time of need.
We’ve frequently discussed the well-established indemnification and advancement rights of corporate directors and officers (see here and here, for example). These benefits protect individuals from claims asserted against them by shareholders or regulators. Corporate charters and bylaws typically expand these rights to the fullest extent permitted by law, but these provisions are merely an overlay to the statutory provisions which guarantee basic indemnification protections for directors and officers.
However, that isn’t the case for alternative business entities, such as limited partnerships (“LPs”), limited liability partnerships (“LLPs”) and limited liability companies (“LLCs”). Those entities don’t always have a statutory back stop that guarantees indemnification and advancement for their employees. In recent years, founders are just as likely to choose these alternative structures for their new business as they are to choose the corporate form. Therefore, protection of these key employees will be a growing issue.
We recently discussed the SEC’s proposed rules pursuant to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act regarding the clawback of executive compensation under various circumstances related to accounting restatements. Now it seems Hertz’s former CEO, Mark Frissora, may become one of the first test cases should these rules survive the comment period. According to Footnoted, upon Frissora’s resignation last September, he received over $10 million plus other benefits. But the company recently filed a 10-K for 2014 that not only included restated results for 2012 and 2013, but also made a disclosure that could suggest a possible future effort to claw back Frissora’s severance package. The disclosure blamed Frissora for creating an environment that “in some instances may have led to inappropriate accounting decisions and the failure to disclose information critical to an effective review of transactions and accounting entries.” Perhaps another interesting twist is whether any potential clawback will have an effect on Frissora in his new role as CEO of Caesar’s Entertainment, a position he assumed two weeks ahead of Hertz’s delayed filings.
California is known for its skeptical treatment of employers’ efforts to enforce non-competes, but it may not be as friendly toward all employees as originally suspected, according to The National Law Review. In 2014, California resident Stacey Sabol-Krutz left her position with Quad Electronics, a Michigan-based employer, to take a position with a rival company, which was also based in Michigan. Sabol-Krutz had started working for Quad in Michigan, and signed her employment contract there, but moved to California in 2011. Her employment contract specifically named her new employer as a company that Sabol-Krutz wouldn’t join for 12 months after leaving Quad. After Quad found out about Sabol-Krutz’s new job, it sued her for breach of contract. She, in turn, filed suit in California, attempting to invalidate the agreement under California law. The California court, noting the absence of a choice of law provision in the agreement, found that Michigan law applied, using a “governmental interest” test. Although courts may refuse to apply a choice of law provision when construing restrictive covenants (as we illuminated here), Sabol-Krutz’s move to California to work for an out-of-state employer did not win her the protection of California law.
The legal saga of American Apparel and its founder and former CEO, Dov Charney, has more twists and turns than the latest season of Game of Thrones. We’ve previously blogged about the sundry clashes between the two, including Charney’s ongoing arbitration for severance, the sexual harassment allegations against Charney, and a lender’s threat of default on a major loan after Charney was fired.
Now, Charney and American Apparel are battling in two separate cases in Delaware Chancery Court. In the first, American Apparel has sued Charney for violating a standstill agreement by becoming involved in shareholder suits and commenting to the press. The second case is a follow-on to the first: Charney has sued to force the company to advance his fees for the standstill lawsuit. In this Game of Thrones, you win or you pay for your defense out of your own pocket.
On July 1, the SEC issued long-awaited proposed rules pursuant to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. As we've discussed in prior posts here and here, Section 954 of Dodd-Frank required the SEC to direct national security exchanges not to list any company that does not adopt a policy requiring recovery of incentive-based pay received by executive officers in excess of what would have been received under an accounting restatement. Although the new rules are only proposals and they could change after public comment, it's not too early for executives to begin to plan for the financial issues they will face in the event their company issues a financial restatement, as 746 companies did in 2014.
Clawbacks of executive compensation after a financial restatement are not new, of course. After the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act authorized the SEC to claw back one year’s worth of incentive compensation from a CEO or CFO whenever there has been a financial restatement resulting from "misconduct," companies began voluntarily adopting clawback policies applicable to financial restatements. And after the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 required clawback policies for companies receiving financial assistance under TARP that applied to "any bonus, retention award, or incentive compensation... based on statements of earnings, revenues, gains or other criteria that are later found to be materially inaccurate," additional companies adopted or expanded their clawback regimes. Today, most Fortune 100 companies have a clawback policy applicable to restatements (although they differ widely as to the triggering events, the types of compensation subject to clawback, whether the executive must have caused or contributed to the false or incorrect financial reporting, and the board's discretion to forgo a clawback, among other variables). But many large companies and most mid-cap and small companies have not adopted clawback policies, and virtually no company has implemented a clawback policy as severe as the Dodd-Frank legislation’s mandate. Most have been waiting for the SEC's proposed rules.
Benjamin Wey immigrated to Oklahoma from China as a teenager with scant dollars in his pocket. He parlayed ambition and ties to Chinese businesses into a lucrative investment firm engaged in the controversial practice of reverse mergers. According to the Washington Post, this so-called “Wolf of Wall Street” hired a beautiful Swedish model, Hanna Bouveng, to serve as his assistant, and used her Swedish contacts to further his business interests while heaping monetary rewards on her to seemingly win her affections. According to Bouveng, Wey pressured her into a sexual relationship, and when she refused his advances, he allegedly terminated her employment, waged war on her reputation through social media, stalked her, and threatened her with further ruin. Ms. Bouveng fought back in Manhattan federal court where she sued Wey for sexual harassment, retaliation and defamation. The jury returned an $18 million verdict in favor of Ms. Bouveng. While Ms. Bouveng likely feels vindicated, Wey is claiming victory on his twitter account.
National employers sometimes include choice-of-law provisions in their employment agreements, selecting one particular state’s law even for employees who don’t work in that state. For example, a company based in Massachusetts might ask its California employees to sign agreements selecting Massachusetts law. Applying one state’s law to all of the employer’s relationships can make outcomes more predictable, especially when the employer knows that law well.
But not always, as the New York Court of Appeals held earlier this month in Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Johnson. In Brown & Brown, the Court of Appeals refused to apply an employment agreement’s selection of Florida law, holding that New York law should determine whether a customer non-solicitation provision in that same agreement was enforceable.
In our last post, we discussed differences between “pay to stay” arrangements, which face stricter scrutiny in bankruptcy cases, and “Produce Value for Pay” plans, which provide incentives for executives based on strong corporate performance. As promised, we now examine two cases that illustrate acceptable ways for companies to motivate their executives to perform through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The first is the case of Chassix Holdings, Inc., which manufactures parts for approximately two-thirds of automobiles made in North America. After a sequence of unfortunate financial and operational setbacks during 2014, Chassix found itself a petitioner under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code last month. Included among the operational setbacks was the fact that approximately 1,100 employees voluntarily left Chassix during 2014. Since it was critical to have a work force with the proper experience, skill, and know-how to manufacture the auto parts, Chassix found itself exploring ways to enhance its compensation options prior to the petition date in order to retain more of its employees. Unfortunately, it didn’t finish these plans prior to the petition date.
Chassix took a couple of important steps in designing its KERP and seeking authority from the bankruptcy court to implement it. First, and foremost, it limited its KERP to a pool of employees who were not company “insiders.” Therefore, the bankruptcy court applied the more liberal standard of business judgment when it evaluated the plan, even though Chassix had not established and regularly implemented the plan before its bankruptcy petition. Under this standard, and considering the pre-petition employee turnover and the support of the various creditor constituencies, the bankruptcy court approved the KERP.
At the outset, the answer to the question posed in this article seems simple: employers should just pay their employees as much as is reasonably possible. However, when a corporation finds itself in Chapter 11 reorganization, the Bankruptcy Code restricts the use of some traditional motivational methods. Simultaneously, competitors might make tempting job offers to quality employees, inducing them to leave the business. This combination of factors can distract employees from the main task of getting the debtor through the reorganization process.
To provide sufficient compensation and persuade employees to remain with the business, a debtor can attempt to adopt a key employee retention plan (KERP for short), also known as a “pay to stay” arrangement. This is in contrast to a “Produce Value for Pay” plan that provides incentives for strong corporate performance.
Section 1514A of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act shields a whistleblower from retaliation if he reports “conduct [that he] reasonably believes” violates certain laws, including Securities and Exchange Commission regulations. Last month, the Sixth Circuit held that the question of a whistleblower’s “reasonable belief” is a “simple factual question requiring no subset of findings that the employee had a justifiable belief as to each of the legally-defined elements of the suspected fraud.” Rhinehimer v. U.S. Bancorp Investments, Inc., No. 13-6641 (6th Cir. May 28, 2015). Based on this principle, the court affirmed a $250,000 verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Michael Rhinehimer.
According to the Court’s opinion, Rhinehimer was a financial planner for U.S. Bancorp who helped his elderly customer, Norbert Purcell, set up a trust and a brokerage account. In November 2009, Rhinehimer went on disability leave, and asked a colleague not to conduct any transactions with Purcell. The colleague didn’t follow the instructions, and instead put Purcell into investments that Rhinehimer believed were unsuitable. (Unsuitability fraud under the securities laws occurs when a broker knows or reasonably believes certain securities to be unsuitable to a client’s needs, but recommends them anyway.) Rhinehimer complained about the trades, but his superiors warned him that he should “stay out of the matter” and stop criticizing the colleague. After Rhinehimer hired a lawyer, he was placed on a performance improvement plan and fired after he failed to meet it.
Big Brother is watching you, or at least tracking your movements through your smartphone. According to the Washington Post, employers have steadily increased their use of GPS-enabled technology to track the movements and location of “field employees” like salespeople and delivery drivers. In fact, a 2012 study by the Aberdeen Group cited an increase of over 30% in the tracking of employees over the previous 5 years. Legitimate reasons exist to track field employees, such as making sure that drivers take the best routes and sales calls are conducted efficiently. But it’s more tricky to justify the tracking of employees who are off the clock. For example, Myrna Arias, a former sales executive with Intermex, was allegedly fired for disabling a tracking app called Xora StreetSmart when she was off duty. Now Ms. Arias has sued the company, alleging wrongful termination and invasion of privacy. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, cautions employers against collecting off-the-clock data, because it opens the door to discriminatory practices. Mr. Stanley wondered, "What happens if an employer doesn't like the choices a worker makes in their personal lives and retaliates professionally?"
We discussed emerging trends in the c-suite recently, and found that companies are increasingly tying executive compensation to performance. For those that do not, we can imagine a corporate shareholder version of peasants storming the castle with pitchforks in hand, thanks to say-on-pay voting. In the case of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s 2014 compensation, the shareholders’ rebellion led to a relatively low approval rate for Dimon’s and other executives’ compensation. According to USA Today, 61.4% of shareholders approved the payouts, which starkly contrasts with an average 90% approval rating for companies that seek shareholder input on salary and bonus plans. Advisory firm ISS encouraged shareholders to rebuke the plan when they learned of Dimon’s $7.4 million cash bonus. ISS advised that “[t]he reintroduction of a large discretionary cash bonus in the CEO’s pay mix, without a compelling rationale, has substantially weakened the performance-basis of his pay.” If corporate leadership can provide a strong rationale for a big bonus, it’s more likely that the shareholders will drop their pitchforks and fall in line.
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.