Harold “Skip” Garner is a tenured professor at Virginia Tech who makes $342,000 a year, according to this article in the Roanoke Times. Yet he is still suing university officials, including former president Charles Steger, for $11 million. Why?
He says that the officials violated his constitutional rights when they removed him from his position as Executive Director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI). In his complaint, available here, he claims that he was demoted without “advance notice of his removal or demotion” and without any “opportunity whatsoever to contest the merits of the action.” He alleges that this lack of procedural protections “deprived [him] of property and liberty without due process of law.” This kind of claim is known as a “Section 1983” claim: i.e., a claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a federal cause of action to individuals who are deprived of constitutional rights by the actions of state officials. In the employment context, Section 1983 claims can arise when state officials discipline employees without affording them notice and an opportunity to be heard. See, e.g., Ridpath v. Board of Governors Marshall University, 447 F.3d 292 (4th Cir. 2006). That’s the kind of claim Garner is alleging here.
Talk about your inter-family disputes: one federal agency – the Department of Labor – has filed suit against the United States Postal Service, an independent federal agency (but one of the few explicitly authorized by the Constitution). The reason for the federal lawsuit, filed in Missouri: the Postal Service’s alleged poor treatment, firing, and alleged harassment of an employee who claims he blew the whistle on safety hazards in a mail facility.
Here’s the background, delivered despite any contrary weather: Thomas Purviance worked for the Postal Service for 35 years, most recently as a maintenance supervisor at a mail distribution center near St. Louis. He had no record of disciplinary or performance issues. In late December 2009, Purviance complained to his supervisors about what he perceived to be carbon monoxide and fuel oil leaks from some of the equipment at the center, as well as a pile of oil-soaked rags which he thought was a safety hazard. Getting no response, Purviance eventually called the local fire marshal and made a 911 call to report the carbon monoxide leak.
We’re in the midst of summer and the news outlets are replete with anti-compete and whistleblower developments. But before we get to those, let’s turn our attention to China:
If the dog days of summer here in the U.S. aren’t sweltering enough, imagine what they must feel like in the bustling, smog-laden cities of China. The Wall Street Journal reports that Coca- Cola Co. offers “environmental hardship pay” to some employees as a condition for relocating to some of China’s cities. Ed Hannibal of the HR consulting firm, Mercer LLC, indicates that it is not uncommon for multinational companies to offer the extra pay to incentivize workers to relocate to polluted cities. It helps to offset severe living conditions and ensure the company’s continued presence on the ground.
These days it seems employers face an uphill battle to see non-compete agreements prevail in court. Recently, a Louisiana state court carefully examined the terms of a non-compete in Gulf Industries, Inc. v. Boylan (La. App. 1 Cir. June 6, 2014). The National Law Review reports that the employer in this case inserted a two year non-compete provision into a one-year employment contract. According to the Court, even though Boylan’s employment extended two years past the date specified in the employment contract, the non-compete provision kicked in when the one year employment term was satisfied. The employer sought to extend the non-compete, arguing that it did not take effect until Boylan resigned. The Court disagreed and held that the non-compete had run during Boylan’s continued employment with the company. Little did he realize at the time, but Boylan was quite the multi-tasker.
Firing a key executive can have repercussions beyond a severance dispute or a wrongful termination or discrimination claim by the executive. American Apparel’s recent termination of its CEO, Dov Charney, provides the latest example of the wide-ranging consequences that can arise when a C-level employee is let go. In American Apparel’s case, the consequences have included the threat of default on a $15 million loan and a resulting shareholder lawsuit.
How did this happen? According to the New York Post, when Lion Capital LLC lent American Apparel the $15 million, the two entered into a lending agreement that said American Apparel would be in default if it fired Charney. After American Apparel’s board told Charney it was going to fire him in 30 days, Lion Capital accelerated its demand for payment on the loan, threatening the company with bankruptcy. American Apparel argued in an SEC filing that it wasn’t in default because Charney was still technically CEO. However, it continued to work behind the scenes to remedy the situation. Now, the company now appears to have struck a deal with a hedge fund to save it from Chapter 11.
Happy 4th of July! While many Americans enjoy a festive day of parades, barbecues and fireworks, let’s see if this week’s highlights spark your interest:
No one likes to be wrong, and being proven wrong stinks. And that’s especially true for folks in my profession – we’re not known for being gracious losers.
But even worse than just being proven wrong is having to pay the other side what they spent to prove you wrong. This is a relatively rare thing in the United States: the “American Rule” means that each side pays its own attorney’s fees, unless a contract or statute shifts the winner’s fees to the losing party’s side of the ledger.
But those fees – over $200,000 of them – were shifted to the loser in Stuart Irby Co. v. Tipton, et al., an Arkansas case involving a non-compete clause that the plaintiff said prevented three of its former salesmen from going to work for another business in the electrical supply industry. As we’ve noted, Arkansas can be a tough place for businesses trying to enforce non-competes: for example, its courts won’t rewrite them for the parties if they’re overly broad or otherwise unenforceable.
On Thursday, even though the United States lost to Germany, they moved on from the Group of Death to take on Belgium in the World Cup round of 16. In honor of US Soccer’s achievement, we are glad to present this footy-themed edition of the Inbox.
The Securities & Exchange Commission gained significant new enforcement powers in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Under the Act, the SEC can award bounties to whistleblowers who provide information leading to successful enforcement actions. It has already exercised this power, making eight whistleblower awards since starting its whistleblower program in late 2011. The Dodd-Frank Act also allows the SEC to sue an employer who retaliates against a whistleblower, but the SEC hasn’t previously taken that step.
Ten days ago, that changed. The SEC announced that it had charged Paradigm Capital Management and owner Candace King Weir with engaging in prohibited trades and retaliating against a head trader who reported the trades to the SEC, and that Paradigm and Weir had settled the charges for $2.2 million. Without its new enforcement authority under Dodd-Frank, the SEC wouldn’t have been able to bring the retaliation charge.
According to the SEC’s press release, Paradigm “removed [the whistleblower] from his head trader position, tasked him with investigating the very conduct he reported to the SEC, changed his job function from head trader to a full-time compliance assistant, stripped him of his supervisory responsibilities, and otherwise marginalized him.”
The formal order issued by the SEC further describes what happened to the whistleblower. The day after the trader told Paradigm that he had reported these particular trades to the SEC, Paradigm removed him from his position. The trader and Paradigm tried to negotiate a severance package, but when that fell through, Paradigm brought him back to investigate trades and work on compliance policies – but not to resume his head trading responsibilities.
Last week, American Apparel announced that its board had decided to terminate Dov Charney, the company’s founder, CEO, and Chairman, “for cause.” (We’ve discussed the meaning of terminations “for cause” in prior posts here and here.) The board also immediately suspended Charney from his positions with the company. Although the board didn’t initially disclose the reasons for its action, Charney is not new to controversy; in recent years, he has faced allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
The reasons for Charney’s termination have now become public, and they aren’t pretty. In its termination letter, available here, the board accuses Charney of putting the company at significant litigation risk. It complains that he sexually harassed employees and allowed another employee to post false information online about a former employee, which led to a substantial lawsuit. The board also says that Charney misused corporate assets for “personal, non-business reasons,” including making severance payments to protect himself from personal liability. According to the board, Charney’s behavior has harmed the company’s “business reputation,” scaring away potential financing sources.
This has been a noteworthy week here at Suits by Suits for developments in the law concerning whistleblowers; in addition to our in-depth articles we published this week, we also saw the following developments:
Of course, not everything that happened this week involved whistleblowers; here are a few other Suits by Suits that may be of interest:
While we’re talking about whistleblowers, it’s worth noting that two days ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument on appeal from the a federal district court’s opinion in Meng-Lin Liu v. Siemens AG, 978 F.Supp.2d 325 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). This case raises the significant question as to whether the anti-retaliation provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(a), apply to an employee who is terminated by a non-U.S. corporation that does business in (and is regulated by) the United States.
One recurring topic here at Suits by Suits is the default corporate practice of including mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts; we’ve written frequently about that practice. Such clauses typically specify that “the parties agree to submit any dispute arising out of this Agreement to binding arbitration.”
Non-competes are a frequent topic here on Suits by Suits. We have discussed how the laws of the 50 states vary - and boy do they. Some states (like California) flat out prohibit non-competes, while some states (like Delaware) not only permit non-competes but enforce broad restrictions on employment. Meanwhile, in boardrooms and statehouses (like Massachusetts's), a debate is raging about whether non-competes are in the public's interest - especially in today's world, where our work force is highly mobile and the states are in an arms race to attract start-up tech companies (and all those jobs). For those of us interested in the debate, three recent items in The New York Times should not be missed: an article reporting on the proliferation of non-competes in unexpected fields (such as summer camp counseling); a discussion among lawyers, professors and lobbyists about the merits or lack thereof of non-competes; and an opinion by New York Times Editorial Board that non-competes hurt workers - especially low-wage and unskilled workers lacking the bargaining power to resist entering into non-competes.
Summer humidity has arrived here in the mid-Atlantic, but the skies are blue and the thermometer isn’t creeping above 90 as of yet. Here are some tidbits of executive-employer news to print and read in the shade when it’s time to cool off:
In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act, strengthening legal protections for employees who report violations of the securities laws. However, as we’ve covered here, here, and here, the courts have diverged widely as to whether an employee must report directly to the SEC in order to be shielded from retaliation.
In Asadi v. GE Energy (USA), LLC, which we addressed in this post, the Fifth Circuit decided that to meet Dodd-Frank’s definition of a “whistleblower” – and to be protected by its anti-retaliation provision – an employee must in fact provide information to the SEC. However, most of the district courts that have addressed the issue have decided that an employee need not report to the SEC in order to be protected from adverse actions by his or her employer.
An executive’s right to severance payments isn’t always written in stone, even if his employer agrees to provide them. In this post, we described how one exec lost his severance pay after the Federal Reserve decided that his employer, a bank, was in a “troubled condition” at the time.
A recent decision from the U.S. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth Circuit, In re Adam Aircraft Industries, Inc., illustrates another scenario in which an executive’s golden parachute can collapse around him. Joseph Walker was the president of Adam Aircraft, an airplane designer and manufacturer. He was terminated in February 2007, and was allowed to resign, after which he negotiated a healthy severance package. Over the next year, Adam Aircraft paid him $250,000 in severance, $100,002 to repurchase his stock, and $105,704 as a refund on a deposit he had made on a plane.
It's that time again... time to check in on the week's news in Suits by Suits:
As long-standing readers of Suits by Suits know, California is at the forefront of the “state-by-state smackdown” regarding covenants not to compete, having prohibited essentially all such clauses by statute. (You can refresh your recollection by reviewing our discussion of California law, here.)
Consequently, one of the arguments deployed by other states looking to restrict or ban noncompetes is that the business climate created in California encourages worker mobility, and that climate in turn is attractive to the technology sector (and in particular, to technology start-ups), who depend upon “poaching” away top talent that may be underpaid at a competitor. You can read these arguments in more depth here (part 1), here (part 2), and most recently here (part 3).
The common thread that runs through these arguments is that California encourages worker mobility, and that mobility, in turn, is good for Silicon Valley. The argument has some appeal.
While we’re a blog about disputes between executives and companies, we can’t overlook those significant days when those companies and executives pause for a national holiday. Through our first year, we’ve looked at how holidays – when most business stops and courts close (putting a brief halt to the disagreements we cover) – came to be, and their impact on the American workspace.
Regular readers will guess where we’re going today. Assuming you are not one of the 35 million-odd Americans traveling more than fifty miles for the traditional start to summer – and if you are, put down the device on which you’re reading this and watch the road, as someone is likely braking in front of you – read on for our look at how we got to enjoy Memorial Day.
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.