Tracy Chapman famously sang about needing “one reason to stay here.” But when severance is involved, employees may look for one reason to leave—one “Good Reason.”
While Ms. Chapman didn’t sing about them, many employment contracts include a “Good Reason” clause, which allows the employee to resign and still receive severance if certain conditions are met.
For example, many Good Reason clauses provide that an employee can receive severance upon resignation, so long as the employee has suffered from a reduction in salary or benefits, diminution of duties or responsibilities, or due to a forced relocation. In some cases, these Good Reason clauses only apply when an employee resigns following a change in control of the employer (for example, a merger or acquisition).
The board of directors controls a corporation, but individual directors don’t always agree on the future direction of the company. Sometimes, boards can split into factions. A company’s CEO may align himself with one side and oppose the other.
In rarer circumstances, these disagreements can develop into corporate gridlock. This happens when the warring factions on a board are equally divided.
What can a court do to fix this situation?
A fundamental principle of contract law is that a written contract is an agreement in writing that serves as proof of the parties’ obligations. What happens, however, when the parties forget some of the niceties of formalizing a written contract?
For one answer, consider the recent decision in the case of Shank v. Fiserv, Inc., in which the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressed Fiserv’s motion to dismiss and compel arbitration at the outset of the case.
Imagine sitting on the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company. You might think it’s a life of corporate jets, cushy board meetings, and prestige. (Although, the press will tell us, it’s not really that way anymore, thanks to Enron.) But even if corporate service would truly be the good life, what would happen to you if an aggrieved shareholder sued you for allegedly breaching your fiduciary duties to the company? Would you have to deplete your bank account to pay expensive lawyers for years of costly litigation?
The answer is found in the rights of indemnification and advancement (which we have previously discussed here, here, and here in connection with a trade secret case against a Goldman Sachs employee). Indemnification and advancement are two overlapping, yet different, rights that corporate directors, officers, and employees may have when it comes to the payment of their legal fees in lawsuits brought against them because of their corporate service.
Indemnification is the reimbursement of fees after those fees have been incurred. This right, as the Delaware Supreme Court has written, “allows corporate officials to defend themselves in legal proceedings secure in the knowledge that, if vindicated, the corporation will bear the expense of litigation.” The words “if vindicated” cannot be emphasized enough – they show that in order to establish a right to indemnification, the officer may have to prevail in the proceeding.
Advancement, meanwhile, is exactly what it sounds like: payment of fees by the company in advance of the final resolution of the proceeding. Advancement is an important companion to the right of indemnification, because it provides officials with immediate relief from the financial burden of investigations and legal proceedings. No vindication required – although the official may have to pay back what she receives if the final decision doesn’t go her way.
To determine an individual’s right to indemnification or advancement, courts will first look to the statutes governing the business, which may either require or permit those rights. Because many companies are incorporated in Delaware, we’ll take a look at what Delaware law has to say on this subject.
The Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower laws are hot topics right now. A split of authority is developing in the federal courts over how an employee can qualify as a whistleblower and bring a retaliation claim under Dodd-Frank. And the Supreme Court will hear argument next Tuesday in a case, Lawson v. FMR LLC, that will require it to decide whether private employers can be subject to Sarbanes-Oxley retaliation claims by their employees.
As we at Suits by Suits continue to watch these issues, we thought it would be helpful to step back for a broader view of these important whistleblower laws. In the table linked here, we have summarized the important facets of each law. This table will serve as a reference point for new developments, placing them in the broader context of these whistleblower protections.
In a decision last week, Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas addressed the question of whether an employer had successfully alleged a claim under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”), such that the employer could properly bring its numerous claims against former employees and their companies in federal court. He ruled that the employer had properly pleaded the CFAA claim, and that as a result, the court had subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Beta Technology, Inc. v. Meyers, Civ. No. H-13-1282, 2013 WL 5602930 (S.D. Tex. Oct. 10, 2013).
Before we get into the substance of the decision, some background is in order. Subject matter jurisdiction is an important issue for federal judges. If there’s no basis for subject matter jurisdiction, a case doesn’t belong in federal court. First-year civil procedure students learn this rule from the venerable decision in Capron v. Van Noorden, in which the Supreme Court allowed a plaintiff to obtain reversal of a final judgment because he hadn’t properly alleged that the court below had subject matter jurisdiction over his claim.
The two main categories for federal jurisdiction in non-criminal cases are diversity jurisdiction and federal question jurisdiction. Diversity jurisdiction, as defined in 28 U.S.C. § 1332, permits the federal courts to hear disputes between citizens of different states – i.e., “diverse” citizens – so long as more than $75,000 is at stake. Federal question jurisdiction, which is defined in 28 U.S.C. § 1331, allows the federal courts to address “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” And under 28 U.S.C. § 1367, once the court has jurisdiction to hear one claim, it can hear any other claims that form “part of the same case or controversy,” even when those claims drag additional parties into the mix.
Last week, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed a trial court’s ruling that a non-compete agreement was unenforceable on its face as a matter of law. The VSC held that the trial court should not have decided the enforceability of the agreement on a demurrer (more about what that means below) because, in Virginia, whether a non-compete is enforceable (or valid) turns on whether it is “reasonable under the particular circumstances of the case” – that is, whether it is “narrowly drawn to protect the employer’s legitimate business interest, is not unduly burdensome on the employee’s ability to earn a living, and is not against public policy.” According to the VSC, this means that the particular circumstances of the case matter, and that the enforceability of a non-compete should not be decided “in a factual vacuum.”
A recent decision by a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, illustrates an important point about the trade secrets laws that is often missed: you can be liable even if you merely took your former company’s trade secrets (such as by downloading them onto your thumb drive) but did not use them or disclose them to anyone else. That’s what a company executive in the Alexandria case allegedly did, and the court allowed her former employer’s claim that she violated the Virginia Uniform Trade Secrets Act (the VUTSA) (which parallels many states’ trade secrets laws) to go forward.
If you've ever wondered how Labor Day came to be -- how it got its name, why Americans celebrate it (and what exactly we are supposed to celebrate, between the car sales, barbecues and end-of-summer beach getaways), we've got the answers for you right here, in a look at Labor Day we posted last summer. Enjoy it -- and then go enjoy the day! Our regular posts about disputes between executives and employers will resume once we get past this beach traffic.
On Tuesday, we examined the dismissal by a Georgia federal court of Lisa T. Jackson’s race-based discrimination claim against Paula Deen and others, and noted that, under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate against an employee for associating with employees of another race. But we don’t want you to be left with the impression that the association has to be between co-workers. Courts also have recognized “interracial association” Title VII claims for associations occurring outside of the workplace. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is one such court.
Last week, a federal court in Georgia dismissed Lisa T. Jackson’s race-based discrimination claim against Paula Deen, her brother Earl “Bubba” Heirs, and their restaurant businesses. Earlier events in the Jackson v. Deen case – including Deen’s deposition testimony and what it may mean for alter ego liability – caught our attention at Suits by Suits. This recent ruling interests us as a reminder that it is not always the case that a white employee who works in an environment that is hostile to blacks has no claim for damages against her employer for race-based discrimination.
Earlier this week, a New York state court declined to second-guess an arbitrator’s decision that BDO, USA does not have to indemnify or pay the legal bills of its former CEO, Denis M. Field, in his criminal case.
As we have noted here before, the first battle in a legal dispute between a company and its former executive is often over whether the dispute will be decided by a judge (and, ultimately, a jury) or a private arbitrator. Field v. BDO underscores why the stakes for that battle are so high: if you don’t like the arbitrator’s decision, you almost certainly will be stuck with it. That’s because the standard that courts apply in reviewing arbitrators’ decisions – even decisions about what the law requires – is a very forgiving standard. By contrast, the standard that appellate courts apply in reviewing trial judges’ decisions is less forgiving, which means that losers in the courts have a better shot at reversing decisions they don’t like than losers in arbitration.
Yesterday, we observed that Paula Deen’s deposition testimony in the case filed by Lisa Jackson may be used to prove that one or more companies owned by Deen must pay for Jackson’s damages resulting from assault and battery by Deen’s brother, Earl “Bubba” Heirs, assuming that Jackson proves assault and battery. We said that, if Heirs worked for the companies, and the companies knew of Heirs’ misconduct and either expressly adopted it or implicitly approved of it, then the companies could be found vicariously liable based on a theory of ratification. But what if Heirs only worked for one of the companies? If Heirs is found liable, could the other companies also be found liable? They could, based on a theory of alter ego, and Deen’s testimony may be helpful in supporting the theory.
Once known for her frying, Paula Deen is now known for her firing. On Sunday, the Food Network announced that it would not be renewing Deen’s contract. Public debate has followed about whether Deen’s deposition testimony last month that she used the N-word in the past justified the network’s action. That’s a business decision for the network, not a legal question. However, the lawsuit that Deen was testifying in is chock-full of legal questions of the kind that fascinate us at Suits by Suits – starting with questions of ratification, or when an employer can be held liable for the intentional wrongdoing of one employee towards another employee. Deen’s testimony is relevant to these questions.
Yesterday we looked at a California federal court decision in Martensen v. Koch, in which ex-Oxbow executive Kirby Martensen has sued billionaire William Koch, alleging kidnapping, false imprisonment, conspiracy, and other claims related to his alleged treatment at the hands of Oxbow employees at the Bear Ranch in Colorado. Specifically, we looked at what the decision means in terms of whether a court can maintain personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant; in the Martensen case, the clear take-away is that committing any portion of an alleged wrong within a state counts as having committed the wrong within that jurisdiction. So even though most of Kirby Martensen’s kidnapping and false imprisonment allegations relate to conduct that took place in Colorado, because he was allegedly placed on a private plane owned by Oxbow and flown to Oakland, California before being released, the court found that (for purposes of personal jurisdiction) Martensen’s alleged false imprisonment “that began on [Koch]’s private ranch by [Koch]’s agents [in Colorado] continued unbroken until [Martensen]’s release in Oakland, California,” and thus gave rise to personal jurisdiction over Koch in California.
Personal jurisdiction, however, is only the first step in the process of figuring out where you can and should be sued. Personal jurisdiction determines whether a court has any power over you at all, and is based on the principle – expressed in depth in yesterday’s post – that if you have never set foot in the state of Wyoming, you cannot be compelled to appear in Court in Wyoming.(*) But just because a state has personal jurisdiction over you doesn’t mean that state is the best place to handle a dispute. This is the question of venue. Read on.
As you probably know, we here at Suits by Suits have been fascinated by the strange case of Kirby Martensen, the former Oxbow Group executive who alleged that he was kidnapped and falsely imprisoned by billionaire William Koch. We teased for you last week that Koch’s motion to dismiss, to strike, and in the alternative to transfer venue of the case from California to Colorado was denied, and the case will proceed.
Now, we’ve gotten our hands on the judge’s decision and had a chance to review it in depth; particularly if you’re a civ pro geek like me, it’s worth a read. Even if you’re not, the decision helps any potential litigant -- and really, isn’t that all of us? -- understand where we can expect to sue or be sued. Read on....
April showers bring May flowers, which, as the old joke goes, usually bring these. At Suits by Suits, however, April brought a mix of interesting stories involving non-compete agreements, the mechanics of employment contracts, and all sorts of other topics:
Batman has been sued. Okay, not Batman, but the guy who played him, Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice in the movies – Michael Keaton. In this lawsuit filed earlier this month in federal court in Illinois, the company that produced the movie The Merry Gentleman (if you’ve never heard of it, that’s the company’s point) alleges that Keaton breached agreements to direct and act in the movie by failing to deliver a satisfactory first cut of the movie on schedule, by working at cross purposes to the company by promoting his own cut of the film to officials of the Sundance Film Festival, and by failing to perform other post-production directorial duties or to assist in promoting the movie. According to the company, if Keaton had performed his contractual duties, then the Christmas movie would have been released in time for the 2008 Christmas season, rather than May 2009, and, presumably, would have grossed more than the $350,000 than it did at the box office.
Assuming that the company’s allegations that Keaton breached the contracts are true and assuming that Keaton’s breach (rather than market forces or some failure by the company) caused the movie to flop, what are the company’s damages? This question is relevant not only to Keaton and The Merry Gentleman production company, but to all parties to a broken contract in which one party had promised to provide employment services to another party in exchange for compensation. In other words, the question is relevant to all contractually-based employment disputes – a frequent topic on Suits by Suits. The answer may not be what you think, especially if you think that, as damages, Keaton should just give back the compensation that the company paid him.
Earlier this week, we noted that, when shareholders go to court to challenge executive compensation as excessive, they are often unsuccessful because courts generally defer to the business judgments of corporate boards. So, what’s a shareholder who strongly disagrees with how much a company is paying management to do? The shareholder could vote with her feet by selling her shares. Or, she could propose that the company’s executive compensation practices or the board that approved them be put to a vote at the next shareholders’ meeting. Shareholder proposals like these often face stiff opposition by management, and could be left off the agenda all together if management obtains permission from the SEC to exclude them.
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.