Earlier this week, we outlined the rights of indemnification and advancement, and discussed how those rights can hinge on the statutory law governing a corporation and the private agreements that companies enter into with their officials. In this post, we review a recent decision to see how these principles apply in real life.
The decision comes from Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III of the Delaware Court of Chancery. Because many companies are incorporated in Delaware, the Delaware courts handle some of the most preeminent disputes involving corporate law, and they have significant experience addressing issues of indemnification and advancement.
The Vice Chancellor’s opinion illustrates a judicial view that companies sometimes agree to broad rights at the outset of an employment relationship, but then seek to back away from those agreements once a dispute arises. He wrote:
It is far from uncommon that an entity finds it useful to offer broad advancement rights when encouraging an employee to enter a contract, and then finds it financially unpalatable, even morally repugnant, to perform that contract once it alleges wrongdoing against the employee.
Vice Chancellor Glasscock’s ruling also shows how courts will review the governing statutes and agreements in order to decide whether a company’s denial of advancement is legally justified.
This particular dispute, Fillip v. Centerstone Linen Services, LLC, 2014 WL 793123 (Del. Ch. Feb. 20, 2014), involved Karl Fillip, the former CEO of Centerstone. Fillip resigned, claiming that he had “Good Reason” for the resignation under his employment agreement and therefore was entitled to receive certain bonuses and severance pay. When Centerstone wouldn’t pay up, Fillip sued it in Georgia state court, alleging breach of contract and also seeking a declaratory judgment that restrictions in his employment agreement were invalid. Centerstone then filed counterclaims, which triggered a response from Fillip for advancement of funds to defend against those claims.
Centerstone, as you might imagine, was not happy about this turn of events. It refused his request, but also said it would withdraw certain counterclaims because it didn’t want to pursue claims “that could potentially trigger an obligation by Centerstone to pay Mr. Fillip’s attorney’s fees and costs in defending them.” Dissatisfied, Fillip sued in Delaware for advancement of his fees.
In Part 1 of this post, we looked at a heated executive employment dispute that is being tried in Dallas. The case involves a former hedge fund executive, sued by his former employer for allegedly not returning 59,000 confidential documents when he resigned and for trying to poach the firm’s clients. The Dallas Morning News has full coverage here and here.
The trial is forcing both sides to air things about the other – and themselves – that they would likely not want raised in a public forum. In Part 1, for example, we noted how Highland executives testified that a compensation program had to be stopped after the executive, Daugherty, left the firm, because (as the Dallas Morning News put it) Daugherty “engaged in conflict of interest transactions” for the compensation program. Surely Highland would rather not have raised that issue publicly. But that’s what aggressive litigation sometimes forces parties to have to do to win their case – which is the cautionary tale of the Highland v. Daugherty trial.
Many of the executive employment disputes we write about focus on one or two key issues – the enforcement of a non-compete clause in an employment agreement, for instance, or the odd ways a severance package can work.
A case being heard in Dallas, however, brings together a whole set of executive-employment-related problems in one place: alleged defamation, corporate confidential information allegedly not returned by a departing executive in breach of a written employment agreement, compensation demands and agreements that were never put in writing, and an executive’s desire to work part-time from home. Throw in alleged self-dealing and conflict of interest allegations against the executive – who ran a specialty investment team at the employer, a large hedge fund – and you have the sort of intense, angry dispute that used to be featured on a soap opera set in Dallas that captivated the nation in the 1980s.
Without, of course, the famous shower scene.
You may have been left with the impression from our post on Tuesday that Family Dollar Stores is getting a raw deal because the company has to pay former COO Mike Bloom $4.8 million after letting him go for what it saw as poor performance. As we explained, this may be counterintuitive, but it’s consistent with the severance provisions of Bloom’s employment agreement. Besides complying with its contractual obligations, however, the company is getting something in return for the severance: a release from Bloom.
Bloom’s employment agreement, which is typical of executive employment agreements, provides that, upon his termination, the Company’s obligation to pay him severance is conditioned on Bloom "deliver[ing] to the Company a fully executed release agreement . . . which shall fully and irrevocably release and discharge the Company . . . from any and all claims . . . ."
This provision of Bloom’s employment agreement illustrates a best practice for companies when they are contemplating severance provisions in employment agreements at the time of hiring, or even standalone severance agreements that are negotiated at the end of employment: don’t agree to pay severance without getting a release from the executive in return. That way, while it may be painful to write that severance check, at least the company can know that it should not have any future trouble from the executive, the break is clean and the company and executive can move on to whatever’s next. For executives’ part, to the extent that they have the bargaining leverage, they should also insist that any release be mutual – that is, that, just as the executive releases the company from any claims, the company releases the executive from any claims. That way, the executive will also be able to move on without having to look back.
Last week, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer fired COO Henrique de Castro, reportedly because she was not satisfied with his job performance. By some estimates, de Castro will receive severance exceeding $60 million after only 15 months on the job. Also last week, Family Dollar Stores let go COO Mike Bloom because the company was not happy with his performance, and apparently was not moved by Bloom’s Undercover Boss gambit. Bloom is set to receive $4.8 million in severance after slightly more than two years on the job.
What gives? How is it that these former executives are receiving large severance payments after they were asked to leave for poor performance on the job? The definition of "cause" in their severance agreements is what gives – a topic we explored recently here at Suits by Suits in connection with the dispute over former iGate CEO Phaneesh Murthy’s termination. In the iGate case, the company contends that it terminated Murthy for cause and thus owes him no severance. Murthy’s employment agreement provides that he does not get severance in the event of a "with cause" termination, and that "cause" includes violating company policy. The company contends that Murthy’s failure to report his romantic relationship with an employee to the Board was "cause" for his termination because it violated company policy.
In the Yahoo and Family Dollar Store cases, assuming that de Castro and Bloom were let got for poor performance, unless poor performance is "cause" under their employment agreements, they will reap the severance benefits provided for in their agreements for "without cause" terminations.
Sometimes, the things that seem most straightforward and widely understood are the very things people tend to forget – or misunderstand – the most. These things that “go without saying” often actually need to be said.
Take the case of Professor Andrew Ortony of Northwestern University. Professor Ortony – who, up until recently, taught computer science, psychology and education– was recently taught (or reminded) that his retirement agreement – which was written in clear language, fairly bargained-for by both sides, and entered into without any evidence of deception – would be enforced exactly as written, meaning the professor would be considered retired on the day the contract said he would.
Seems straightforward. But because he decided he didn’t want to retire on that day, Professor Ortony tried to get out of the contract, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held last week – unsurprisingly – that he couldn’t. So, the first straightforward lesson from Professor Ortony’s case is this: if you make an employment agreement with your employer (or, if you’re an employer, and you make an employment agreement with an executive), make sure the agreement is something you want – or at least something you’re willing to live up to.
We write frequently about severance pay for executives – a subject near and dear to the hearts, and wallets, of executives and the companies that hire and fire them. Today, we’re going to take this a step further – beyond the severance agreement itself – and look at an interesting case that raises the question of whether a company’s severance payments to an executive are covered losses under that company’s fiduciary liability insurance if the company becomes unable to make those payments.
It’s a neat case from a lot of perspectives, even if there aren’t too many clear answers. It’s an interesting issue for companies that enter into severance agreements and then can’t follow through with the money due to a bankruptcy. Today’s case is especially relevant for us at Suits by Suits because the policyholder is a law firm that – gasp! – went into liquidation, and the executive claiming the severance benefits is a former partner at the firm. Personally, I like it because the focus of my work is insurance coverage disputes like this – figuring out what’s covered (or not) under insurance policies.
There’s a famous aphorism in journalism: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
The same is true of arbitration awards. When a federal court confirms an arbitration award, it isn’t newsworthy, because that’s what everyone expects will happen. But when a court tosses an arbitrator’s decision, it creates headlines.
On October 28, the Fourth Circuit made news by vacating an arbitration award issued to a former employee of an accounting firm. Kiran M. Dewan, C.P.A., P.A. v. Walia, No. 12-2175 (4th Cir. 2013). The former employee (Walia) was a native of Canada on a work visa who joined the Dewan firm as an accountant. When he was terminated, he signed a release in which he gave up any tort or contract claims he had against the company in exchange for a payment of $7,000. Three months later, the firm filed an arbitration against Walia, alleging that he had violated noncompete and nonsolicitation provisions in his employment agreement. Walia filed counterclaims alleging that the firm underpaid him in violation of visa regulations, breached his employment agreement, and fraudulently sought to withdraw its sponsorship of his visa. The arbitrator found that Walia’s release was legally enforceable, but also found that Dewan (the president of the firm) brought baseless claims and purposely sought to injure Walia’s immigration interests. As a result, the arbitrator awarded Walia over $450,000.
In the build-up to its decision, the Fourth Circuit recognized the dog-bites-man principles of confirming arbitration awards. It wrote that under the Federal Arbitration Act, “the scope of judicial review for an arbitrator’s decision is among the narrowest known at law because to allow full scrutiny of such awards would frustrate the purpose of having arbitration at all—the quick resolution of disputes and the avoidance of the expense and delay associated with litigation.” The Federal Arbitration Act and the common law only allow an arbitration award to be vacated when
In other words, to vacate an arbitration award, a party must show that the winning party bought the award; the arbitrators were crooked or obviously biased; the arbitrators botched the arbitration to such a degree that a final and definite award wasn’t even made; or the arbitrators didn’t follow the contract at issue and/or disregarded binding law.
Usually, a plaintiff feels pretty good when he gets the opposing party to sign a settlement agreement promising to pay him money. It’s nice to wrap up a hotly disputed case and move forward with the assurance that you’ll get what is promised under the settlement.
But then there’s the unusual case of Joe Martinez. Martinez was the president of Rocky Mountain Bank before the bank fired him in 2010. His contract entitled him to one year’s base pay ($200k) if he was terminated without cause. However, he didn’t get the money after he was fired, because three months earlier, the Federal Reserve had notified the bank that it was in a “troubled condition” as defined by federal regulations. If a bank’s in a “troubled condition,” under rules established by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, it can’t make a so-called “golden parachute” severance payment.
Martinez quickly sued for the money due under his employment contract, and eventually negotiated a settlement with Rocky Mountain Bank for $100,000. The bank told Martinez that it needed to get approval for the payment from the Federal Reserve. Shortly thereafter, the Federal Reserve told the bank that it couldn’t pay. As a result, Martinez had to ask the district court to enforce the settlement, which it refused to do.
Last week, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision on three grounds. Martinez v. Rocky Mountain Bank, No. 11-8076 (10th Cir. Oct. 4, 2013).
The ongoing court drama between Marsh Supermarkets and Don Marsh, its former CEO, has taken another twist. As we previously covered here, in February of this year, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana found that Marsh, the son of the company's founder, defrauded the supermarket chain and breached his employment agreement by misusing company assets to pay for personal expenses. It awarded Marsh Supermarkets $2,200,000 in damages.
Now, however, that damages award has effectively been zeroed out by the district court judge, who has found that Don Marsh is entitled to $2.1 million plus attorneys’ fees from the company based on a separate provision in his employment contract. Order, Marsh Supermarkets, Inc. v. Marsh, No. 09-cv-00458 (S.D. Ind. Jul. 29, 2013). The court accepted Marsh’s argument that the provision entitled him to payment come “hell or high water” – or fraud.
This week, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence – the document that set out the principles on which the United States claimed its independence from Great Britain. Since then, while we’ve crafted a “special relationship” with our former colonial master, we’ve gone our own way in some particulars – such as getting rid of extra vowels in some of our words and changing some spellings, and driving on the right.
One way in which our two nations are similar, however, is that severance pay that is perceived as excessive can stir public controversy.
American Airlines’ CEO, Tom Horton, moved one step closer to receiving the $20 million severance payment he’s negotiated with the bankrupt airline. On Tuesday, the bankruptcy judge hearing American’s case allowed the payment to stay in the airline’s disclosure statement (approval of the statement is a predicate step to ultimately “reorganizing” and exiting bankruptcy). The approval comes over strenuous objections by the U. S. Trustee, who argued that Horton’s payment violated bankruptcy law. The judge’s decision isn’t final, and the issue can be revisited down the road, but the fact that it stayed in the disclosure statement (and will be presented to the airlines’ creditors for approval) is one more hurdle cleared for Horton.
We’ve written about this payment here, here, and here. And, no, we don’t write about it so much because we’re jealous of the substantial payment Horton may receive; it’s what this case says about severance and golden parachutes generally. Although the lifetime of free travel he and his wife would also receive under his severance agreement is, frankly, kind of cool.
You might think that a company in bankruptcy wouldn’t be able to give its CEO a multi-million-dollar severance payment.
But just because a company is in bankruptcy doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have any money – it just means it doesn’t have enough to pay all of its debts, or to function as a continuing concern. The company may, in fact, have the means to make a rather generous severance payment – like the $20 million American Airlines is proposing to pay its CEO, Tom Horton, as the airline comes out of Chapter 11 and into a merger with US Airways.
This proposed payment, though, has aroused more objection than a lost bag or a missed connection. Indeed, we’ve written about this dispute before at Suits-by-Suits, but like a three-mile-long runway it just keeps going on and on in bankruptcy court. In advance of a hearing on the payment scheduled for tomorrow, it’s time to take a look at where this case has been and what it can teach executives and companies about the turbulence that can happen when bankruptcy law meets severance agreements. In short, executives should know that unlike their seat cushions, their severance agreements may or may not keep them afloat in the event their employer has a crash landing.
Late last week, Rutgers announced that it reached a $475,000 settlement with former men’s basketball coach Mike Rice and that no cause for Rice’s termination would be provided. Recently-publicized videotapes show Rice at practices hitting, kicking and throwing basketballs at his players and taunting them with obscenities and anti-gay slurs (not to be confused with this shocking video of Middle Delaware State women’s basketball coach Sheila Kelly throwing toasters at her players). The announcement came more than two weeks after Rutgers President Robert Barchi told reporters that Rice was fired, but not for cause. And that announcement came several months after Rice was suspended from work for three days, following an internal investigation by outside counsel, resulting in this report.
This week, Heinz sounded a lot like American did last week (as we noted) in justifying the size of a golden parachute for its CEO upon the completion of a merger. Heinz’s spokesperson claimed that payments to its CEO William Johnson totaling $56 million "reflect Mr. Johnson’s success in creating billions of dollars in shareholder value," including "the 19% premium" that Heinz shareholders are to receive for their shares when Heinz is acquired by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital. For those of us who consider $56 million to be a whole lot of money – no matter what they guy did for ketchup sales – the spokesperson might also have said that only about $17 million of that amount (okay, still a whole lot of money) is really a golden parachute.
On Friday, we reported on American Airline CEO Tom Horton’s golden parachute in the merger agreement between American and US Airways. American is asking the court overseeing its bankruptcy to approve the merger agreement, which includes a letter agreement between American and Horton. The letter agreement provides that Horton’s employment with American will be terminated at the time of the merger, and – so long as he agrees to release American and US Airways from any claims – he will be paid severance totaling nearly $20 million in cash and stock.
Why would any company agree to such a thing? According to American, its agreement with Horton is “in recognition of [his] efforts in leading [American’s] restructuring and his role in enhancing the value of [American] and overseeing the evaluation and assessment of potential strategic alternatives that culminated in the Merger.” In other words, to compensate him for helping to make possible a good merger and then getting out of the way. The new company created by the merger can only have one CEO, and it is best for the new company not to be distracted by disputes with former executives of the old company.
Document discovery in litigation is a way for parties to learn about the actual facts underlying a dispute. Sometimes, however, parties intentionally destroy documents in advance of litigation (which is called “spoliation”). Spoliation can have very serious consequences, including a court-imposed “adverse inference” instruction. When a court gives such an instruction, it tells the jury that it may assume that documents deleted in advance of discovery would have been bad for the party who deleted them.
This happened to Janet Murley, a former vice president of marketing for the Hallmark Group. As a result, she is now hundreds of thousands of dollars poorer.
For a high-level executive leaving a company under less-than-ideal conditions, it’s as common as handing in keys to security and shutting down the computer for the last time. In exchange for a severance payment, the executive is asked to sign the typical general release: “I hereby release my employer from any claims, liabilities, demands, or causes of action . . .”
Unsurprisingly, once an employee signs a general release, if he later sues, he is likely to face a quick motion to dismiss.
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.