Reality TV is a guilty pleasure for some - not us at Suits by Suits, mind you, as we prefer to focus our attention on the more pressing legal questions of our time. Reality TV is also a highly competitive industry and fertile ground for lawsuits between companies and star employees with lessons for all of us about employment contracts. In our last episode, MSNBC and the former host of My Big Obnoxious Fiance taught us about repudiating contracts. In this episode, CBS and three former producers of Big Brother teach us about waiving a contractual right to arbitrate an employment dispute.
The three former Big Brother producers - Corie Henson, Kenny Rosen and Michael O’Sullivan – eventually wound up working on the production of ABC’s The Glass House, which CBS has called a blatant rip-off of Big Brother, and which aired last summer. Before it aired, in May 2012, CBS sued ABC and the three former producers in federal court in Los Angeles. The former producers had signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with CBS in connection with their work on Big Brother. CBS sought to temporarily restrain ABC from airing the first episode of The Glass House, claiming that ABC and the former producers had violated CBS’s copyrights and misappropriated its trade secrets in the production of the show. CBS also claimed that the former producers violated the NDAs by disclosing confidential information and trade secrets relating to technical, behind-the-scenes aspects of filming and producing Big Brother.
On Sept. 17, 2012, a U.S. District Court denied Merrill Lynch’s petition to vacate an arbitration panel’s award of $10.2 million to two of its former advisors, Tamara Smolchek and Meri Ramazio. The award – split almost evenly between $5.2 million in compensatory damages for deferred compensation and $5 million in punitive damages – helps to illustrate the growing (and changing) role that arbitration plays in disputes between high-level executives and their employers.
For decades it has been conventional wisdom that employee arbitration clauses favor the employer by taking potentially sensitive cases away from a jury (because “everyone knows” that juries are “more sympathetic to employees”). (Or, as a more employer-friendly article puts it, arbitration can reduce the likelihood of an “irrational award” because arbitrators “tend to be more conservative than juries.”)
Additionally, arbitration clauses can favor the employer where the employee is required to share in some (or all) of the costs of the arbitration by discouraging plaintiffs who would otherwise have been able to secure plaintiffs’ counsel on a contingent fee basis for a trial by jury. (Note that courts continue to grapple with this issue, and many courts have determined that if an arbitration clause would unduly burden a plaintiff from exercising his or her legal rights, that arbitration clause is invalid and the plaintiff is free to litigate in court instead. See, e.g., Ball v. SFX Broadcasting, Inc., 165 F. Supp. 2d 320, 238-40 (N.D.N.Y. 2001) (discussing cases).
Is this still the case? Read on.
Many of the cases we talk about here on Suits by Suits are breach of contract cases brought by executives against their former employers. Sometimes, however, the employer turns the tables, bringing an action against a former executive for breaching its confidences. When that happens, the executive can find himself owing the company a lot of money, rather than the other way around.
Sexual discrimination claims continue to be big news in the world of suits by suits. We’ve previously commented at some length regarding the novel issues raised in the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by former Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao.
Today, we turn to a related and equally unique issue: a sexual orientation claim brought under the auspices of the Americans With Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1201 et seq. Although there is no federal statute that protects employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation generally, Brian Anthony Martinez, the former international managing director of television for Bloomberg Media, brought a lawsuit against his former employer in 2011, alleging that he was terminated after Bloomberg discovered that he had undergone therapy for domestic abuse from his male partner, thus (arguably) bringing his claims under the ADA.
We’ve written before about the sexual harassment suit between the Kleiner Perkins venture capital firm and its former partner, Ellen Pao. Developments at the end of last week point out another reason to follow this case, however (and the great Leonard Cohen is only part of the story).
Continuing our coverage of the sexual discrimination lawsuit between former partner Ellen Pao and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins (prior stories are here and here), on Friday, Kleiner Perkins moved the San Francisco Superior Court to compel arbitration of its dispute for a second time -- this time with a twist.
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.