When an employer changes its contract with an employee, the change should be communicated clearly—and preferably, in writing. Otherwise, the employer may be at risk of finding that the old terms still control.
For example, last week in Balding v. Sunbelt Steel Texas, Inc., No. 16-4095 (10th Cir. Mar. 13, 2018), a federal court of appeals ruled that an employer had to go to trial over a salesman’s claim for unpaid commissions.
A party seeking to enforce a contract has to show mutual assent, also referred to as “a meeting of the minds.” In other words, both parties actually have to agree on the same thing. If the parties don’t agree, then a contract does not exist.
In a recent case, T3 Motion, Inc. (a Segway competitor) used a lack of mutual assent to avoid arbitration of its claims against its former CEO, William Tsumpes. This posture was somewhat unusual - typically, employers try to enforce arbitration agreements, and employees try to avoid them so that they can present their claims publicly in court, before a jury of their peers.
In 2011, a group of executives left Horizon Health Corporation for a competitor, Acadia, but they didn’t leave everything behind. Horizon’s president took a “massive, massive amount” of Horizon documents with him on an external hard drive. And despite provisions in their contracts prohibiting them from soliciting Horizon’s employees, the executives recruited a key member of Horizon’s sales team, John Piechocki, who copied lists of sales leads and added them to his new company’s “master contact list.”
When employees and employers are approaching the end of an employment relationship, they should consider their existing rights and how their conduct may impact those rights. A recent decision from the Minnesota Court of Appeals demonstrates how one hasty email can change everything.
Beginning on January 1, 2010, LifeSpan of Minnesota, Inc. employed the plaintiff in the case, Mark Sharockman, as its chief financial officer and executive vice president. Mr. Sharockman’s three-year employment agreement with LifeSpan provided, among other things, that he would receive annual pay increases that were at least equal to the average pay increases granted to the other two executive officers.
When an executive has an employment agreement and his company doesn’t pay, the company might offer a number of excuses based on contract law. One of these contractual defenses is called “impossibility of performance.” Under this defense, when a party enters into a contract and circumstances later change such that the party can’t perform it, the party can be excused from performing.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hampton Roads Bankshares, Inc. v. Harvard provides a timely example of how this defense actually works in practice. In the Hampton Roads case, the organization established a relationship with government regulators that affected its ability to pay severance. The court held that this change made it impossible for the company to perform an employment agreement, excusing performance.
When the 2015 college football season started, Steve Sarkisian was a rising star in the coaching firmament. He had led the University of Washington Huskies and his current team, the University of Southern California Trojans, to winning records and bowl games.
In late August, however, reports surfaced that Sarkisian had behaved inappropriately at a booster event, the Salute to Troy. And by mid-October, USC had terminated Sarkisian “for cause,” with athletic director Pat Haden explaining that Sarkisian’s use of alcohol had impaired his performance of his job.
This week, Sarkisian struck back, filing a 14-count complaint against USC in Los Angeles Superior Court.
It’s an obvious best practice to put the terms of an employment agreement in writing. Equally obvious is the notion that the writing should be complete, whether in a single document or with reference to other items, such as employee manuals or company-wide incentive plans.
However, it’s not always obvious which documents make up an employment agreement.
Consider the recent decision issued by the United States District Court for the District of California in the case of Lenk v. Monolithic Power Systems, Inc.
A contract between an executive and an employer does not always have to be in writing.
Sometimes, employees can enforce oral promises. Agreements can also be implied based on the parties’ conduct, even when no one made a promise, either in writing or orally.
But contracts that aren’t in writing can be much harder to enforce, as the Third Circuit’s recent decision in Steudtner v. Duane Reade, Inc. shows.
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.
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.
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.
Last May, we covered a decision by a Michigan federal court that torpedoed Debourah Mattatall’s claims against her former employee, Transdermal Corporation. Now, thanks to a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Mattatall’s claims have been brought back to life.
To briefly recap the facts, Mattatall used to own a company called DPM Therapeutics Corporation. She sold it to Transdermal and entered into a Stock Purchase Agreement and Employment Agreement with that company. According to Mattatall, Transdermal didn’t comply with its obligations, and she sued it in federal court. But the court quickly granted summary judgment, finding that Mattatall gave up her claims in a settlement agreement that resolved other litigation against her.
In that litigation, DPM’s minority shareholders challenged the sale to Transdermal, and Transdermal countersued those shareholders. The parties to the litigation, including Mattatall, resolved the dispute and entered into a settlement agreement and a general release. The release stated that “Transdermal, DPM, [another controlling owner], and Mattatall and each [minority shareholder] … release[d], waive[d] and forever discharge[d] each other” from any claims arising before the agreement was signed. In Mattatall’s subsequent lawsuit against her employer, Transdermal, the district court ruled that this language released all claims that any party to the agreement had against any other party – even though Transdermal and Mattatall were on the same side in the shareholder litigation, and Transdermal reassured Mattatall that she wasn’t releasing her unrelated claims against it before she signed. Because her claims against Transdermal fell within the “unambiguous” and “broadly worded” terms of the release, this evidence was irrelevant, and Mattatall was out of court.
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.
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.
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.
Helen of Troy isn’t just a famous mythological beauty. It’s also a publicly-traded maker of personal care products. And now, it and its directors are defendants in a suit by Helen of Troy’s founder, Gerald “Jerry” Rubin.
Executives who bring suit against their former employers frequently want to show that they were terminated for reasons other than performance, and Rubin is no different. In his complaint, as reported by El Paso Inc., Rubin describes the history of Helen of Troy and its staggering growth. From humble origins – a “wig shop in El Paso, Texas” – Helen of Troy grew into a “global consumer products behemoth, generating revenues in excess of approximately 1.3 billion dollars.” And then the roof caved in. Rather than “celebrating [Rubin’s] extraordinary success,” Rubin alleges, Helen of Troy’s directors turned on him in order to save their own skins, and eventually forced him out of the company.
Why did the directors need to sacrifice Rubin to save their positions? According to Rubin, the answer lies with an entity called Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”). ISS is a proxy advisory firm that conducts analysis of corporate governance issues and advises shareholders on how to vote. Because shareholders often follow ISS’s recommendations, it can have substantial influence over the affairs of publicly-traded companies. Indeed, some participants in a recent SEC roundtable suggested that ISS could have “outsized influence on shareholder voting,” or even that it has the power of a “$4 trillion voter” because institutional investors rely on it to decide how to vote.
Rubin alleges that if ISS decides a CEO is making too much money, it will demand that the compensation be cut or that the CEO be fired. If its demand isn’t followed, it will “engineer the removal of the board members through [a] negative vote recommendation.” Board members then will cave to ISS’s wishes to preserve their own positions.
Rubin claims that this is what happened in his case.
The Supreme Court of Washington’s recent decision in Failla v. FixtureOne Corporation is noteworthy on two levels.
First, it involved the surprising claim by a salesperson, Kristine Failla, that the CEO of her employer (FixtureOne) was personally liable for failing to pay her sales commissions. Typically, if an employee had a claim for unpaid commissions, you’d expect the employee to assert that claim against her company, not the chief. But under the wage laws of the state of Washington, an employee has a cause of action against “[a]ny employer or officer, vice principal or agent of any employer ... who ... [w]ilfully and with intent to deprive the employee of any part of his or her wages, [pays] any employee a lower wage than the wage such employer is obligated to pay such employee by any statute, ordinance, or contract.”
Most law students spend several weeks in a first-year contracts class studying the concept of consideration. Consideration, in essence, is what a contracting party receives in exchange for promising to do something. A promise without consideration is not an enforceable contract. If A promises to wash B’s car next Tuesday and fails to do so, B cannot sue A on Wednesday, because A’s promise lacked consideration. But if A promises to wash B’s car and B promises to give A $20, or $1, or a glass of water, the promise is enforceable and B can sue if A fails to perform. Courts generally do not examine the adequacy of consideration, only its existence.
Because consideration can be minimal, many lawyers forget about it after that first year of law school. But it remains a necessary element of most contracts, and it recently arose in a peculiar way in a Connecticut case involving a dispute over an employment contract. See Thoma v. Oxford Performance Materials, Inc., 153 Conn. App. 50 (2014).
The plaintiff in the case, Lynne Thoma, was an employee of a manufacturing company. During her employment the company obtained new financing, and the investor insisted that Ms. Thoma enter into an employment agreement. This “first agreement” gave Ms. Thoma a fixed salary plus benefits for a 24-month period with automatic 12-month renewals. The company could fire her without cause on 60 days’ notice, but it would then be obligated to pay her salary for the remainder of the term plus six months. The first agreement also included a noncompete provision for the period of Ms. Thoma’s employment plus six months thereafter.
The company almost immediately decided it did not like certain terms of the first agreement and it required Ms. Thoma to enter a second agreement, which by its terms stated that it superseded any prior agreements. The second agreement did not discuss salary or severance, but it expressly stated that Ms. Thoma was an at-will employee. It also included a noncompete provision with apparently inconsistent terms: one section stated that she would not compete “during the period of her employment” and the other said that if she was terminated she would “continue to comply” with the noncompete provision.
The company fired Ms. Thoma about 16 months after the parties executed these agreements. Ms. Thoma sued, claiming that the company breached the first agreement by firing her without notice before her term ended and by failing to pay severance. The company claimed that the second agreement allowed it to fire her without notice at any time and did not require severance payments. But the trial court found, and the appellate court agreed, that the second agreement was not enforceable because it lacked consideration.
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.