Netflix, the internet media giant, sued its former vice president of IT Operations, Mike Kail, in California Superior Court, claiming that he “streamed” kickbacks from vendors and funneled them into his personal consulting company. According to the complaint, Kail—who is currently the CIO of Yahoo—exercised broad latitude in both vendor selection and payment. Netflix alleges that he took in kickbacks about 12-15% of the $3.7 million that Netflix paid in monthly fees to two IT service providers, VistaraIT Inc. and NetEnrich Inc. According to the Wall Street Journal, one line in particular from the complaint piqued experts’ interest: “Kail was a trusted, senior-level employee, with authority to enter into appropriate contracts and approve appropriate invoices.” According to Christopher McClean, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., this suggests Netflix allowed Kail too much freedom. McClean opined that when individuals are empowered to both choose a vendor and then approve payment, corporate malfeasance can follow. This is particularly important in the field of information technology, where tech companies vie for business in an ever-competitive market by lavishing incentives on CIOs. Companies that do not incorporate an audit function into vendor selection and payment should consider revisiting their policies going forward.
We recently discussed the hefty $185 million judgment against AutoZone in favor of a former store manager who alleged discrimination and retaliatory discharge following her pregnancy. While this case arose in California, it appears the auto parts retailer is zoned for another similarly-themed legal showdown, this time across the country in West Virginia. In the recent complaint, the plaintiff, Cindy DeLong, claimed that she was placed on a 30-day performance improvement plan for hiring too many women in the stores she managed. She was ultimately fired before the 30 days expired. As you may recall, in the California case, plaintiff Rosario Juarez claimed AutoZone enforced a “glass ceiling” for its female employees, denying them opportunities for promotion. It seems Ms. DeLong managed to chip away at the ceiling as a district manager. But, according to Courthouse News, she now alleges that her practice of hiring women rendered her “not a good fit for the company.”
On Monday, AutoZone found itself on the wrong end of a $185 million verdict in favor of a former store manager, Rosario Juarez. Yes, you read that right. $185 million. This stunning verdict appears to have been the result of Juarez’s allegations of discrimination and retaliatory discharge, combined with an insider turned witness who provided extremely damaging testimony against the auto parts retailer.
In her complaint, Juarez alleged that AutoZone had a “glass ceiling” for women employees, which it kept in place through a hidden promotion process where open positions were not posted. According to Juarez, she succeeded in cracking the glass ceiling, securing a store manager position, but when she became pregnant, she was treated differently by her district manager. After giving birth, she complained about the unfair treatment and was soon demoted by the manager, who told her that she could not be a mother and handle her job. Later, she was terminated as the result of a loss prevention inquiry, in which she refused to participate in a “Q&A” statement about a theft at the store. Juarez alleged that the loss prevention department’s request for a statement was a pretext to fire her.
We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing allegations of pregnancy discrimination like these (see, for example, here, here and here). The short of it is that a company can’t treat pregnant women, or women who have given birth, differently than it treats other employees. But we’ve never covered a verdict for pregnancy discrimination that looked more like a Powerball win than a litigation result.
Recently, in a government investigation by the civil division of a United States Attorney’s Office, an employee of a private company was deposed pursuant to a Civil Investigative Demand (CID). The employee, on the advice of counsel, refused to answer questions on certain topics and invoked the Fifth Amendment right against compulsory self-incrimination (she “took the Fifth” in common shorthand). Several days later, she was fired by her employer for taking the Fifth. (The employer claimed that it wanted to show cooperation with the government’s investigation and taking the Fifth is viewed as being non-cooperative.) When I recounted this story to my non-lawyer fiancée, he was outraged and wondered how could her employer do such a thing? Wasn’t this retaliation? Didn’t she have a clear wrongful termination claim against her employer? Good questions. While most, if not all, states (and the federal government) have enacted provisions to protect employees who blow the whistle on illegal activity from retaliatory discharge, is there any protection from discharge for an employee of a private company who chooses to keep mum to protect herself?
The short answer is no.
In our Bill of Rights, No. 5, it is written that “[n]o person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Although the text limits the right to stay silent in a criminal case, it is generally accepted that a witness may assert the right in any context in which the witness fears his/her statements may later be used against him/her. Thus, as an American I have the right to refuse to answer questions or offer information which I fear could incriminate me. [A full discussion of the scope of Fifth Amendment protection is beyond the scope of this post. To learn more about the Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, I refer the reader to The Privilege of Silence, authored by my fellow Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys Steven M. Salky and Paul B. Hynes and available here.]
In honor of Halloween, we are looking over our shoulder at some of the most frightening news that we have brought to you this year on Suits by Suits:
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.
Let me explain what that means: “vouching” is, for us members of the bar, both a technical term and a no-no. When it’s done at the trial of an executive employment dispute, it can unfairly prejudice the jury – and, ultimately, the “vouched-for” side can have its victory overturned by an appellate court. We’ll see how this happened in the case of one Mindy Gilster.
But first, more on “vouching.” In law, it means essentially what non-lawyers think it means: to give a personal assurance of the credibility or truth of something. All of us use this in our daily lives: “I know you’ll love that restaurant;” “trust me, you’re making the right decision;” and so on. Lawyers, though, can’t “vouch” for their clients or for a witnesses’ credibility. Not only is it considered a bad practice, but the Rules of Professional Conduct in most states forbid us from “assert[ing] personal knowledge of facts in issue…or stat[ing] a personal opinion as to the justness of a cause, the credibility of a witness, [or] the culpability of a civil litigant…” Put another way, lawyers need to build arguments from the facts that are actually entered into evidence, and not on what they personally think the facts should be. Vouching comes up most often in criminal cases – but, as in the case of our subject today, it can surface in civil litigation over employment disputes.
Jerry Kowal doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about his former employer, Netflix. In a recent lawsuit filed in California Superior Court, he claims that Netflix was a “cold and hostile company,” with a “cutthroat environment.”
According to Courthouse News’s description of Kowal’s complaint, Netflix didn’t have very nice things to say about Kowal, its former content acquisition executive, either. Kowal alleges that when he told Netflix he was leaving for Amazon, Netflix lashed out by accusing him of stealing confidential information and passing it on to Amazon. As a result of these accusations and Amazon’s “strict liability policy,” he was fired.
Now, Kowal has sued Netflix, its CEO Reed Hastings, executive Ted Sarandos, and Amazon, alleging a number of torts including defamation, false light invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy, intentional interference with employment relationship, blacklisting and wrongful termination. Kowal’s suit shows that an employer’s decision to accuse a departed employee of wrongdoing carries with it a significant litigation risk, especially if the employee loses his job as a result of the accusation.
We see – and report on – plenty of whistleblower complaints here at Suits-by-Suits. We’re mostly interested in how those complaints play out legally, and what they can teach us about ways to avoid, or manage, whistleblower disputes and what leads to them. But outside of the law, some complaints include alleged facts that just tell a compelling story in and of themselves.
How about these allegations in Glenn Meeks’ wrongful termination complaint against Chicago State University: Financial mismanagement, a romantic relationship between top university executives, high-level posts filled with unqualified personnel, intrigue on the university’s board of trustees after Meeks complained of these things, and – a bonus, from a storytelling perspective – a suspicion of improper interference by the Governor of Illinois in the whole thing.
And another bonus: Meeks filed his complaint in Illinois state court just two weeks after another whistleblower at the same university was awarded $2.5 million.
Regular readers of Suits by Suits know that employees – including executive-level employees with lucrative employment contracts and low-level employees who are at-will and have no contract – may claim wrongful termination against their former employers if the employees were fired in violation of “public policy.” Recently, the former Executive Vice President of Louisiana College, Timothy Johnson – who had an employment contract with the College – filed a lawsuit alleging that the College retaliated against him after he raised concerns that the College’s President misdirected the contributions of a large donor to a project in Tanzania. A link to Johnson’s complaint is in this recent report about the lawsuit. A photo taken in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is above.
There’s often a fine line between being a bona fide whistleblower and being just an angry plaintiff suing for wrongful termination. The plaintiff’s allegations of whistleblowing conduct can often be very similar to the conduct that gave rise to him or her being fired – setting up something of a Rorschach blot test for the court that is trying to figure out what’s really going on.
That’s the position doctor Mark Fahlen found himself in. Doctor Fahlen was fired by his employer, a group of doctors working at a hospital in California. The doctor said he was fired, in part, because he complained – as a whistleblower – about nurses in the hospital failing to provide adequate care for his patients because they failed to follow his instructions. The group of doctors fired Fahlen after the hospital revoked his privileges (apparently a necessary part of being a member of the group) because it said Fahlen had angry fights with those same nurses – and, therefore, he was fired because he wasn’t a suitable employee. So, essentially the same factual allegations could be whistleblowing or a basis for termination.
Love is in the air as couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with chocolates, flowers and romantic dinners. But there’s no love lost between some employers and their executives, as this week’s Inbox shows:
For those of us who follow whistleblower law, Wednesday was a big day – and a good one for employers. In two separate federal appellate decisions, courts affirmed the dismissal of whistleblower actions based on very different issues. For potential whistleblowers and employers alike, the decisions demonstrate yet again the importance of the particular requirements and scope of the law that a whistleblower relies on to support his claim.
The first decision, Villanueva v. Department of Labor, No. 12-60122 (5th Cir. Feb. 12, 2014), comes to us from the Fifth Circuit. It involves William Villanueva, a Colombian national who worked for a Colombian affiliate of Core Labs, a Netherlands company whose stock is publicly traded in the U.S. Villanueva claimed that he blew the whistle on a transfer-pricing scheme by his employer to reduce its Colombian tax burden, and that his employer passed him over for a pay raise and fired him in retaliation for his whistleblowing.
Ah, the smells of the holiday season: fresh-cut evergreen trees, just-baked cookies and other goodies, bowls of tasty fruit punch. Take a deep whiff wherever you are. Breathe it in deep.
But be careful about sniffing those smells, though.
That is the apparent lesson from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Tonia Royal’s retaliation lawsuit against her employer, an apartment management company named CCC&R Tres Arboles. The appellate court held that the trial court incorrectly gave the apartment company summary judgment, because too many material facts about the basis for Ms. Royal’s firing were in dispute. And many of those facts relate to the behavior of other CCC&R employees, who Ms. Royal alleged sexually harassed her by sniffing her in a rather curious and uncomfortable manner.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Lawson v. FMR LLC. As we explained in this post, Lawson presents the question of whether Sarbanes-Oxley’s whistleblower anti-retaliation provision (Section 806 of Sarbanes-Oxley, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1514A) shields employees of privately-held contractors of public companies such as the plaintiffs, who are employees of investment advisers for Fidelity mutual funds. We editors of Suits by Suits don’t often get the chance to report live on the cases we cover, but an argument at One First Street was too tempting to pass up, even on a blustery Washington day. Here are five major takeaways that we drew from the argument (with the caveat that reading the tea leaves from an oral argument is always a difficult proposition):
1. The Court is uncomfortable with the scope of potential Sarbanes-Oxley claims that would result from the Fidelity employees’ interpretation of the statute.
A number of Justices pressed Eric Schnapper, who argued for the Fidelity employees, and Nicole Saharsky, arguing for the United States in support of the employees, as to how the Court could limit the reach of the statute if it holds that Sarbanes-Oxley allows employees of private companies to bring whistleblower retaliation claims. Justice Breyer posed a hypothetical involving an employee of a privately-held gardening company who reports on mail fraud by his employer, is fired, and then brings a whistleblower anti-retaliation claim, arguing that he is covered by Sarbanes-Oxley because his company has gardening contracts with public companies. Schnapper argued that the statute as written would cover the gardener, but the Justices were less convinced that Congress intended this kind of reach for Sarbanes-Oxley. Justice Breyer even commented that the fear of expanding the statute to cover “any fraud by any gardener, any cook, anybody that had one employee in the entire United States” was the “strongest argument” against the Fidelity employees’ position.
The federal government is closed, but the Suits by Suits news continues to roll in:
A Baltimore police officer claimed she was fired because she got married. The police department agreed. The problem was that the officer married Carlito Cabana, an incarcerated murderer and the “supreme commander” of a prison gang called Dead Man, Inc. The question presented was whether the police department’s action violated the officer’s “constitutional right to marry and to engage in intimate association.” The Maryland courts didn’t think much of that claim, see Cross v. Baltimore City Police Dep’t, and it does seem as though the police department had a point.
But what about Mr. Cabana? Surely Cabana’s “employer,” nominally a private corporation, could not have been pleased with his choice of spouse, either. (Let’s ignore Dead Man’s failure to register to do business in Maryland.) Could the Dead Man board have fired Cabana for marrying a cop? Could a legitimate private employer (like the Coca-Cola Co.) have fired an executive for marrying an employee of its mortal adversary (like PepsiCo)?
As we’ve covered here and here, the Supreme Court will decide this term whether a whistleblower can pursue a Sarbanes-Oxley claim for retaliation by a privately-owned employer. Jackie Lawson and Jonathan Zang, former employees of Fidelity investment advisory companies, say yes. The First Circuit said no.
Lawson and Zang have now filed their opening brief in their attempt to persuade the Supreme Court to disagree with the First Circuit and reinstate their claim. And they have even included a non-gratuitous George Clooney reference. (Hat tip to scotusblog.com for making this and numerous other Supreme Court resources available.)
Lawson and Zang’s argument involves the interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, the provision of Sarbanes-Oxley that allows whistleblower claims. They argue that the plain language of Section 1514A applies to protect not only employees of publicly-traded companies and mutual funds, but also employees of contractors of those companies, such as the Fidelity investment advisers at issue in their case. The statute bars contractors from retaliating against an “employee”: Lawson and Zang contend that this should be read to refer to those contractors’ “own employees,” in addition to the employees of public companies with whom the contractors work. Br. at 15. They argue that it wouldn’t make any sense to only prohibit retaliation by contractors against others’ employees, since it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for a contractor to terminate someone else’s employee. Br. at 22.
In federal courts across the country, employers have sought to limit the Dodd-Frank Act’s definition of “whistleblower.” Just last week, this challenge seemed futile. Both the SEC (in its regulations) and a number of federal district courts had rejected employers’ reading of the statute, under which the “whistleblower” term – and the accompanying right of action for retaliation – would be limited to those employees who reported misconduct to the SEC.
Last Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit flipped the script, holding that “the plain language of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower-protection provision creates a private cause of action only for individuals who provide information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the SEC.” Asadi v. GE Energy (USA), L.L.C., No. 12-20522 (5th Cir. Jul. 17, 2013), slip op. at 5.
Here in the Baltimore-Washington area, we’re trapped under a dome - a heat dome. Like the inside of my car on these 100-degree days, disputes involving executives are also heating up, as the latest in Suits by Suits news shows:
As we’ve previously covered here and here on Suits by Suits, a battle is raging in the federal courts over whether the new whistleblower protections in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 apply only to individuals who report misconduct to the SEC. But the fight, to this point, is as one-sided as Pickett’s Charge.
In a May 2013 decision, Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York joined four other judges who have accepted employees’ expansive reading of the Act. Murray v. UBS Securities, LLC, No. 12-cv-5914 (May 21, 2013).
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.