Last summer, we covered in depth the resounding repercussions from American Apparel’s decision to terminate its CEO and founder, Dov Charney. Now, the sequel has arrived – and it promises lots of action.
Matt Townsend of Bloomberg Business reports that Charney has resumed his arbitration against his former employer, in which he is seeking $40 million from the clothing company. Charney previously agreed to put his claims on hold while American Apparel made its final decision about whether to terminate him. After an investigation, the board decided in December to cut Charney loose.
In the previous blog post, we discussed the ongoing bankruptcy litigation between Crystal Cathedral Ministries and its founder Dr. Robert Schuller over the rejection of his Transition Agreement. That contract purported to spell out the relationship between the parties as Dr. Schuller stepped aside from his post as senior pastor. The determination of whether that agreement was intended to be an employment agreement, and subject to the strict limitations of section 502(b)(7), or a retirement benefit which is not so limited, is pending before the Supreme Court. However, Dr. Schuller’s case also presented other interesting issues that could be instructive for other employers.
In addition to his claim for damages based on the rejection of the Transition Agreement, Dr. Schuller sought compensation from tCrystal Cathedral (the bankruptcy debtor) in an undetermined amount, for allegedly improper use of his intellectual property. The intellectual property, which consisted of more than 35 years of books, sermons and other writings, had been produced by Dr. Schuller while he was employed by the debtor as its senior pastor. Dr. Schuller, individually and through a wholly owned corporation, asserted a copyright to these materials. Under the Transition Agreement between the debtor and Dr. Schuller, the intellectual property was made available to the debtor for use pursuant to a royalty free license.
Transition for corporate leadership is frequently complex. When the transition involves a charismatic founder, this step can be even more stressful. Planning well in advance for the inevitable segue between leaders and outlining the respective roles of both new and departing management can help, but may not fully resolve the issues. A recent decision involving Crystal Cathedral Ministries, the megachurch founded by famed televangelist Dr. Robert H. Schuller, reflects how nuanced this process can be. Because this case presents many issues of corporate succession, it provides a gateway for discussing various employment issues that may crop up in a corporate reorganization. We will focus on the case in a series of articles designed to spotlight these issues.
Dr. Schuller founded the Crystal Cathedral in the 1950s. Later, Crystal Cathedral Ministries was formally incorporated in 1970 with Dr. Schuller as the senior pastor. During his 36-year tenure in this position, Dr. Schuller wrote numerous books and gave countless sermons and other talks, particularly in his role as the executive creator and director of content for The Hour of Power, a weekly television show produced by Crystal Cathedral Ministries. In exchange for these services, Dr. Schuller received a salary and benefits, including a housing allowance and health insurance.
When Dodd-Frank became law in 2010, companies with corporate compliance programs viewed the whistleblower provisions warily and anticipated a potential negative impact on the success of their own internal reporting programs. According to a Law360 piece authored by Vinson & Elkins partner Amy Riella, some companies feared that employees would circumvent the internal reporting process in favor of taking information directly to the SEC to reap the financial awards. A related fear was that corporate officers would be incentivized to do the same as they learned of misconduct through compliance channels. The SEC sought to allay these concerns by creating implementation regulations that disallowed corporate officers from bringing actions when they learned of the relevant information through the role they played in the compliance process. In other words, the officer would have to learn of the fraudulent activity through his or her own “independent knowledge or independent analysis.” There is an important exception to this rule – an exception that recently earned a former company officer a six-figure award for reporting securities fraud. The exception states that once the company becomes aware of the issue, it has 120 days to address the alleged misconduct. If the company fails to act within the allotted time frame, the door opens for the otherwise ineligible corporate officer to use the second-hand information to become the corporate whistleblower.
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of testimony in the Pao/Kleiner Perkins sexism trial. This week’s installment pitted one female venture capitalist against another. Mary Meeker, the top-ranking female partner at Kleiner Perkins, testified to the virtues of Kleiner Perkins and her belief in its fair treatment of women. When gender is a fundamental issue, the testimony of one woman’s experience versus the other can prove pivotal. According to Fortune, Ms. Meeker, a well-known investor who was once dubbed “Queen of the Net,” by Barron’s Magazine, offered a perspective designed to undercut the claims of discrimination advanced by Pao in the previous weeks’ testimony. According to USA Today, Ms. Meeker testified that "Kleiner Perkins is the best place to be a woman in the business." That said, high-ranking women are a minority in the firm and their representation in the senior partnership has remained relatively constant. Kleiner Perkins has seven senior partners, two of whom are women. At the time of Ms. Pao’s termination in October 2012, three of the eleven senior partners were women.
The ongoing trial in Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers has made headline news across the country. It’s being covered by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among other national publications. Those interested in following the trial can monitor the #ellenpao hashtag on Twitter, or watch liveblogs from Re/code or the San Jose Mercury-News.
Why is the trial so newsworthy? As we reported here, Pao claims that Kleiner Perkins, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm, discriminated against her because of her gender and then retaliated because she complained. She claims that she was not promoted to a plum senior partner position because she was a woman, and that the firm fired her because she complained and later sued it. Her story involves sex, boorish behavior, and office intrigue that ranges from the mundane to the highly dramatic.
With that introduction, here are some -- of many -- takeaways for employers from what has transpired thus far:
Should executives include an arbitration clause in their employment contracts? There’s no uniform answer, of course. Arbitration proponents cite its speed, cost, privacy, informality, minimal discovery, and limited appellate rights. Opponents cite pretty much the same list. Volumes have been written about whether arbitration is a better form of dispute resolution than litigation, and we can’t resolve that question here.
But thanks to relatively new state laws requiring public disclosure of certain arbitration information, we can look at the question statistically. Even better, people who understand statistics can look at the question statistically, and we can report what they say.
We started by looking at the data set disclosed by the American Arbitration Association (AAA) concerning employment-based arbitrations. (A detailed explanation of the data, and the data itself, is available on this page of the AAA’s website.) One field of the data reports the employee’s salary in four categories: $250,000 or greater; $100,000 to $250,000; $0 to $100,000; and, regrettably, “not provided by parties.” Over the past five years, the AAA database reports about 7700 employment arbitrations (not necessarily separate “cases”; some cases have multiple records, usually reflecting multiple respondents), but only 2912 of these included data for the employee’s salary range. The following table shows the breakout of records by salary range:
Pct of Total
$0 to $100,000
$100,000 to $250,000
Total (excl. no data)
LSU is used to battling with its Southeastern Conference (SEC) foes on the gridiron. Now, it’s fighting in court with a former assistant who jumped ship to conference rival Texas A&M.
John Chavis, LSU’s ballyhooed former defensive coordinator, left LSU for A&M at the beginning of this year, sparking headlines about “winning big” at his new home in College Station. But storm clouds were brewing – LSU’s athletic director, Joe Alleva, said that he expected Chavis to comply with a $400,000 contractual buyout.
On February 27, Chavis sued LSU in Texas state court, seeking to avoid the buyout. He named A&M as a defendant as well, but only as an “indispensable party,” reported Jerry Hinnen of cbssports.com. The Associated Press reported that A&M agreed to pay the buyout for Chavis if he was found to owe it.
LSU, seeking a home field against Chavis, quickly filed a separate case against him in Baton Rouge, claiming that it is entitled to receive the buyout money.
Chavis’s contract reportedly said that if Chavis left in the first 11 months of his contract, before January 31, 2015, he would have to pay the buyout. The sequence of events appears to be that Chavis gave a required 30-day notice on January 5 that he was resigning and terminating his contract. Chavis says that he left LSU by February 4 – after the January 31 end to the buyout period – and didn’t join the Aggie payroll until February 13.
Craig Watts, a chicken farmer from North Carolina, recently brought a whistleblower complaint against Perdue, claiming that the poultry seller retaliated against him for bringing certain animal welfare claims to light. Mr. Watts owns the farm on which the chickens are raised, but, according to the Government Accountability Project, the terms and conditions of the farm operations are strictly governed by the poultry giant. The Food Integrity Campaign (a program operated by the Government Accountability Project) filed the action on behalf of Mr. Watts, defending his right to speak out about the conditions on the farm, which Watts claims run far “afowl” of Perdue’s marketing claims of “cage-free” and “humanely-raised” chickens. After publicizing the conditions on his farm, Watts was placed on a performance improvement plan and is routinely subjected to surprise audits of his farm.
A former executive at L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising is seeing red over the school’s termination of her employment, which allegedly came after she demanded more diverse branding in the school’s publications. Tamar Rosenthal filed a civil rights complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that the school, seemingly interested only in shades of white, opposed her attempts to showcase student diversity on the website and explicitly advised her not to showcase gay, black or non-white students in any school publications. According to My News LA, the complaint further alleged that Ms. Rosenthal’s supervisors created an “ultra-conservative, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim political atmosphere in the school’s front office.”
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard argument in the religious discrimination case of EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., which made our list as one of our five issues to watch for 2015. The case arises under Title VII, the federal law that makes it illegal for an employer “to discriminate against any individual with respect to h[er] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . . religion.” The EEOC alleges that Abercrombie, purveyor of “authentic American clothing,” discriminated against Samantha Elauf on religious grounds. The company refused to hire Elauf because she wore a headscarf, or hijab, to her job interview, and the company’s “Look Policy” prohibited employees from wearing “caps.”
In earlier depositions in the case, Elauf’s interviewer at Abercrombie testified that she “assumed that [Elauf] was Muslim,” and “figured that was the religious reason why she wore her head scarf.” The interviewer said that she went to her district manager to discuss the headscarf issue, and told him that “[Elauf] wears the head scarf for religious reasons, I believe.” The interviewer testified that the district manager then told her not to hire Elauf because of the headscarf and said, “[S]omeone can come in and paint themselves green and say they were doing it for religious reasons, and we can’t hire them.” As a result, the interviewer lowered Elauf’s “appearance” score on her evaluation, and Elauf didn’t get the job.
Despite this testimony, the Tenth Circuit still entered summary judgment for Abercrombie, holding that the EEOC’s discrimination claim could not proceed to trial because Elauf “never informed Abercrombie prior to its hiring decision that she wore her headscarf or ‘hijab’ for religious reasons and that she needed an accommodation for that practice, due to a conflict between the practice and Abercrombie’s clothing policy.”
The fact that the Tenth Circuit granted summary judgment, even though the interviewer admitted that she assumed that Elauf wore the scarf for religious reasons, helps explain the concerns, and potential solutions, that the Justices raised in yesterday’s argument.
Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requires the CEO and CFO of an issuer that has restated its financial statements to reimburse the company for any incentive or equity-based compensation, and for the profits on any stock sales of the company’s stock, during the 12-month period following the first issuance of the offending financial statements. Although this provision has been used sparingly by the SEC, the recent settlement of SEC investigatory charges by Saba Software, in which executives who were not charged with any wrongdoing agreed to repay bonuses and stock profits, is a cautionary tale for CEOs and CFOs of publicly traded companies.
Saba Software became the subject of an SEC investigation and enforcement action arising out of an alleged scheme to overstate revenues by overbooking and pre-booking time statements of international consultants in order to meet pre-arranged time estimates. As part of the settlement of the SEC charges in the fall of 2014, Saba was required to restate its financial records for the years 2009 through part of 2012. In a contemporaneous settlement, Saba’s CEO agreed to reimburse the company for over $2.5 million in incentive and equity compensation and profits from stock sales earned following the issuance of the financial statements the company restated. http://www.sec.gov/News/PressRelease/Detail/PressRelease/1370543035992#.VOtSdC6LXfc.
Silicon Valley is buzzing about the trial in Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers LLP, which got underway on Tuesday. According to USA Today, a UC-Berkeley professor says that you “can’t be within a stone’s throw of the Valley without hearing” about the case.
The cast of characters (described here by the San Francisco Business Times) includes a number of heavy hitters, including Pao herself. Pao, a graduate of Princeton, Harvard Law, and Harvard Business School, is now the CEO of Reddit. Kleiner Perkins is a well-known venture capital firm in Menlo Park, a city that has been described as the “center of the venture capital universe.”
Pao’s allegations are explosive. She contends that she had a brief affair with a married junior partner who continued to harass her after she broke off their relationship. Her claims about the firm go deeper than just this harassment; she contends that the firm had an overarching culture of discrimination against women, culminating in her dismissal in October 2012.
An earlier generation of Baltimore lawyers used to say that the outcome of a case should not depend on which side of Calvert Street it was filed. This made sense when the federal court was on the east side of Calvert and the state court on the west. The statement was a colloquial expression of the Erie doctrine, which requires federal courts to apply state law when federal jurisdiction depends on diversity of the parties’ citizenship.
The Erie doctrine requires federal judges to figure out how state judges would rule in certain matters. You might imagine a federal judge strolling across Calvert Street to ask for some advice. But that’s not how state and federal judges speak to one another (and not just because the federal court long ago moved to a dismal building on Lombard Street).
Instead, federal judges read the published judicial decisions from the state whose law applies. Under Erie, federal judges are required to follow the holding of decisions from the state’s highest court. They are not required to follow “dicta” – statements in a judicial opinion that are not necessary to the outcome. In many cases, the state’s highest court has not ruled on the particular legal question at issue. In that event, the federal court must predict how the state court would rule based on other sources of state law. One of those sources is “considered dicta” (or well-reasoned dicta) from the decisions of the state’s highest court.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s whistleblower protection provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, allows a wrongfully terminated whistleblower to recover “all relief necessary to make [her] whole.” 18 U.S.C. § 1514A(c)(1). The statute then goes on to say that compensatory damages include reinstatement, back pay, and “special damages,” including expert fees and reasonable attorneys fees. In an opinion issued this week, the Fourth Circuit held that Sarbanes-Oxley damages don’t just include these enumerated damages. Rather, an employee can obtain other compensation for harm, including emotional distress damages. Jones v. SouthPeak Interactive Corp. of Delaware, Nos. 13-2399, 14-1765 (4th Cir. Jan. 26, 2015).
The plaintiff in the case, Andrea Gail Jones, was the former chief financial officer of SouthPeak, a video game manufacturer. According to the opinion, in 2009, SouthPeak wanted to buy copies of a video game for distribution, but didn’t have the cash to buy the games up front. Instead, SouthPeak’s chairman, Terry Phillips, personally fronted Nintendo over $300,000. When SouthPeak didn’t record this debt, Jones raised a stink, eventually telling the company’s outside counsel that the company was committing fraud. The same day, the company’s board fired her.
Last November, we covered the Supreme Court oral argument in the case of Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean. As a refresher, MacLean was an air marshal who was fired by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after he blew the whistle to MSNBC on the agency’s plan to cancel marshal missions to Las Vegas. After the argument, Prof. Steve Vladeck of American University predicted that the TSA would lose the case.
He was right. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion, in which it held in favor of MacLean. The TSA argued that it could fire MacLean because his disclosures were “specifically prohibited by law” in two ways: first, it had adopted regulations on sensitive security information, which applied to the information MacLean disclosed; second, a provision of the U.S. Code had authorized TSA to adopt those regulations. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, rejected both arguments.
As to the regulations, he wrote, Congress could have said that whistleblowers were not protected if their disclosures were “specifically prohibited by law, rule, or regulation,” but did not. Thus, its choice to only use the word “law” appeared to be deliberate. Further, interpreting the word “law” broadly “could defeat the purpose of the whistleblower statute,” because an agency could insulate itself from liability by promulgating a regulation that prohibited whistleblowing. And as to the argument that Congress-passed “law” prohibited the disclosure, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the statute in question did not prohibit MacLean’s disclosures. Instead, it was the agency’s exercise of discretion, not the statute, that determined what disclosures were prohibited.
The hacking of Sony’s private data has been one of the biggest stories in the country over the past couple of months. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that lawsuits have been filed over the breach. Indeed, the plaintiffs in several class action lawsuits are seeking to consolidate their cases into one massive Sony Data Breach Litigation case.
So far, the plaintiffs in those cases haven’t alleged claims against individual Sony officers or directors. This begs a couple of questions: is that something that plaintiffs do? And what kinds of allegations can they bring?
The answer is that a number of plaintiffs have brought claims against officers and directors who worked at companies that suffered data breaches. Typically, they allege that the defendants did not properly manage the company’s cyber risks.
For example, in February 2014, Kevin LaCroix of D&O Diary brought to our attention lawsuits that Target shareholders filed against the company’s officers and directors, arising from the massive theft of Target’s private customer information. The shareholders alleged that the company’s executives and board knew how important the security of private customer information was, and failed to take reasonable steps to put controls in order to detect and prevent a breach. Further, they alleged, the defendants exacerbated the damage by publicly minimizing the breach.
As an executive, there is a strong likelihood that at some point in your career, you will be asked to make a campaign contribution—especially if you work in an area with a close affiliation with government. The rules are complex, and there is wide variation among federal and state rules. In addition, those differing rules are constantly in flux. For instance, the Maryland General Assembly has made several changes to Maryland campaign finance law that took effect on January 1, 2015, the start of the State’s new four-year election cycle.
First, the Maryland legislature raised the individual contribution limit from $4,000 to $6,000. (The legislature also raised the so-called “aggregate limit” on all contributions from $10,000 to $24,000. But as a result of the Supreme Court’s intervening decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, Maryland’s aggregate contribution limit was unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable even before the change took effect.)
Second, the legislature addressed a peculiar aspect of pre-2015 Maryland campaign finance law. Under Maryland law, unlike federal law, corporations may make campaign contributions. But if a corporation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of another corporation, contributions from these entities are considered to be made by a single contributor. Likewise, if multiple corporations are owned by the same stockholder, they are deemed to be a single contributor. We’ll call this the corporate attribution rule.
In our last post, we counted down our most popular posts of 2014, from A-Rod to Walgreen. Now it’s time to take a look at the issues in executive disputes that are likely to draw plenty of attention in 2015.
1. Dodd-Frank Bounties and Whistleblower Litigation on the Rise
In November 2014, the SEC released its annual report on its Dodd-Frank whistleblower award program. The theme of the report is that Dodd-Frank is paying off – both for the SEC and for whistleblowing employees. The SEC reported that it issued whistleblower awards to more people in its 2014 fiscal year than in all previous years combined, including a $30 million bounty to one whistleblower in a foreign country. The number of whistleblower tips received continues to increase, and we expect news of more substantial awards in 2015. Meanwhile, litigation over various Dodd-Frank issues, such as whether a whistleblower claim is subject to arbitration, whether the shield against whistleblower retaliation applies overseas, and whether a whistleblower must report to the SEC in order to bring a retaliation claim, will continue to percolate in the federal courts.
2. The Supreme Court Weighs in on Employment Issues
A couple of key Supreme Court cases will address employee rights that apply across the board, from the C-suite to the assembly line. In Young v. United Parcel Service, the Court will decide whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires an employer that accommodates non-pregnant employees with work limitations to accommodate pregnant employees who have similar limitations. And in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Court will address whether an employer can be liable under the Civil Rights Act for refusing to hire an employee based on religion only if the employer actually knew that a religious accommodation was required based on knowledge received directly from the job applicant.
Who doesn’t love the year-end countdown? We’re here to offer you one of our own – our most-read posts in 2014 about executive disputes. The posts run the gamut from A (Alex Rodriguez) to Z, or at least to W (Walgreen). They cover subjects from sanctified (Buddhists and the Bible) to sultry (pornographic materials found in an executive’s email). Later this week, we’ll bring you a look at what to expect in 2015.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin!
8. The Basics: Dodd-Frank v. Sarbanes-Oxley
This post is an oldie but a goodie. It includes a handy PDF chart that breaks down the differences in the Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower laws. Each of these laws continues to be a hot-button issue for plaintiffs and employers.
7. When Employment Relationships Break Bad
America may have bidden adieu to Walter White and his pals on Breaking Bad, but employment relationships continue to spin off in some very unpleasant ways. Such was the case with Stephen Marty Ward, who ended up in federal prison after he threatened his employer with disclosure of its trade secrets, as we covered in this post.
A D&O liability policy protects key individuals in a corporate structure. These individuals are likely targets for shareholder frustration if an entity is underperforming or suffering from other troubles. In addition, they may be exposed to personal scrutiny from regulators if the corporation is investigated for any wrongdoing. As previously discussed in this space, an insurance policy can provide more reliable protection for the indemnification rights of the officers and directors in times of financial distress because corporations plagued by regulatory or other legal problems frequently suffer financial setbacks. However, when a bankruptcy results from the financial troubles, not all insurance policies offer the same protection for the payment of fees and expenses for its directors and officers.
Under section 541 of the Bankruptcy Code, a debtor’s liability insurance policy is the property of a bankruptcy estate and is subject to the jurisdiction of the Bankruptcy Court, including the automatic stay. There is considerable disagreement among the courts over whether the proceeds of the policy are also property of the estate. The actual determination of whether the proceeds are property of the estate is made on a case by case basis and is controlled by the express language and scope of the policy.
When the D&O policy only provides direct coverage to the debtor, there is little doubt that the proceeds are part of the debtor’s estate and are to be administered by the Bankruptcy Court for the benefit of all creditors. Similarly, when the policies only provide direct coverage to the individuals for their indemnification claims courts generally hold that the bankruptcy estate has no interest in the proceeds. However, when the policy provides direct coverage to both the debtor and the directors and officers, the proceeds will be property of the estate if depletion of the proceeds would have an adverse effect on the estate. Depletion of the proceeds will be construed to have an adverse effect on the estate if the policy proceeds actually protect the estate’s other assets from diminution.
Corporate directors and officers may think indemnification provisions are sufficient to protect them from claims asserted against them by shareholders or regulators. However, if a director or officer chooses to rely solely on indemnification in bylaws or contracts, and ignores the availability of directors & officers (“D&O”) liability insurance, he or she could be making a significant mistake. In particular, a D&O policy can offer these individuals more reliable protection in times of financial distress. When corporations are plagued by regulatory or other legal problems, they may also suffer from financial setbacks, eventually leading to bankruptcy proceedings. The manner in which a bankrupt corporation has provided for the payment of fees and expenses for its directors and officers may be critical to the individuals affected.
Under section 502(e) of the Bankruptcy Code, a claim for indemnification is subordinated to the class of claims in which the underlying claim is placed. This means that, to the extent that the directors and officers are jointly liable with the corporation to a third party on an adverse claim, they will not receive any distribution on their resulting indemnification claim unless, and until, all of the claims of the class in which the underlying obligation is placed have been paid in full. This provision is intended to provide for equality of distributions in favor of all similarly situated creditors: if the underlying claim receives payments from both the corporation and the director and officer defendants and then the defendants receive payment on account of any contributions they made on the claim, that claim will have received a higher rate of distribution at the expense of other creditors.
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.