Companies want to attract talented leadership, and protections for officers and directors against lawsuits can be part of the total package.
This is one reason why many businesses incorporate in Delaware—Delaware law provides significant assistance to officers and directors who are named in legal proceedings connected to their corporate role. Delaware courts don’t hesitate to uphold this protection when circumstances warrant. And in Horne v. OptimisCorp, the Delaware courts again vindicated an officer’s broad rights to indemnification under Delaware law.
When Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, it bolstered protections for whistleblowers who report certain kinds of misconduct, such as violations of securities law. At the time, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act already provided many of these whistleblowers with a cause of action for retaliation. But the new Dodd-Frank cause of action included a longer statute of limitations, a more generous damages remedy, and a right to proceed straight to federal court rather than first bringing the claim to the Department of Labor (as Sarbanes-Oxley requires).
Sarbanes-Oxley provides protection for individuals who blow the whistle internally. But courts have struggled with whether Dodd-Frank provides that same protection, or if Dodd-Frank protects only individuals who report misconduct to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) directly.
Ghosts, ghouls, and ghastly liability; the last is certainly enough to spook any employer. For this Halloween, we take a trip down Elm Street to revisit the most startling nightmares we’ve ever covered.
It Came From the General Counsel’s Office. In March of this year, we told the story of an in-house attorney who won a $14.5 million verdict against his employer after he raised concerns about FCPA violations at the company. The company’s case faltered when the trial revealed that a negative review of the attorney had been backdated.
Under federal law, employers must pay employees time-and-a-half if they work over 40 hours in a workweek, unless the employees are exempt from the overtime law. Employers don’t usually think of an employee who takes home $900,000 in a year as a non-exempt employee who needs to receive overtime pay. But the case of Pierce v. Wyndham Vacation Resorts Inc. shows that these employers may need to think again, especially when those employees are mainly paid on commission.
In Pierce, a class of commissioned sales representatives sued Wyndham—a resort chain—claiming that they were not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) overtime provisions. Wyndham moved for summary judgment on some of the claims, arguing that certain sales reps earned more than $100,000 per year. Most made well over that amount, with some taking home upward of $700,000 or even $900,000 in a given year. Wyndham also argued that these reps performed “executive duties.”
When a company believes that an employee has breached a non-compete agreement by going to work for a competitor, one remedy it can seek is a preliminary injunction. A preliminary injunction is meant to preserve the status quo in a case pending a trial on the merits. In the context of non-compete litigation, this means that an employer can file a lawsuit and quickly obtain an order barring its competitor from hiring the employee.
Getting such an injunction isn’t so easy, however, as shown by an Illinois federal court’s recent decision in Cortz, Inc. v. Doheny Enterprises, Inc.
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.”
Federal employment law protects against a number of different types of discrimination, including treating employees differently because of age, gender, or race.
More and more often, employees bring discrimination claims based on harassment, rather than (or in addition to) claims based on employer decisions that appear to be discriminatory.
However, an employee can only bring a harassment claim under federal law if the employer has engaged in "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult" that was "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." See Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17 (1993).
An employee without an employment contract is typically deemed to be an at-will employee. In an at-will employment relationship, the employer has the right to terminate the employee for any reason permitted by law, with or without cause.
Moreover, when employers write their employee handbooks, they frequently adopt strong language describing this at-will employment structure and warning employees of this termination right. But sometimes even this handbook language isn’t enough to protect an employer from a claim that an employee is exempt from termination without good cause.
That’s exactly what happened to Barnes & Noble in Oakes v. Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, LLC, a recent decision from the California Court of Appeal.
Federal law—specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on a number of protected characteristics, including sex, race, national origin, and religion.
One major open question, however, is whether Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. For example, if a job candidate is openly gay, can the employee refuse to hire that person because of his sexual orientation without violating federal law?
The Supreme Court has never spoken on the issue.
In our last post, we detailed how Sanford Wadler, the former general counsel of Bio-Rad Laboratories, won a $14.5 million verdict against Bio-Rad.
Before Wadler could get to a jury, however, he had to surmount a significant hurdle: Bio-Rad asked the judge to exclude any testimony based on information Wadler learned in his role as in-house counsel. Bio-Rad relied on an attorney’s ethical duty to protect client confidences unless the client is threatening criminal activity that could lead to death or serious bodily harm.
Companies entrust their in-house attorneys with sensitive and confidential information in order to obtain legal advice on important matters. Thus, when an in-house attorney turns on his or her employer, the repercussions can be significant.
In a recent case involving just this situation, a jury awarded Sanford Wadler, the former general counsel for Bio-Rad Laboratories, an $8 million verdict for wrongful termination. The jury found that Wadler raised concerns about violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) at Bio-Rad, and that the company violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and California public policy when it terminated him after he raised those concerns.
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?
Sergey Aleynikov, a former computer programmer at Goldman, Sachs & Co., has been on a legal roller coaster for the past few years. In the span of few days, that roller coaster plummeted steeply—twice.
First, on January 20, 2017, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed a trial court decision that Aleynikov could not recover advancement and indemnification for the legal expenses he is incurring in defending himself against counterclaims brought by two Goldman Sachs entities in New Jersey federal court.
Then, on January 24, a New York appellate court reinstated a jury verdict finding Aleynikov guilty of misappropriating computer code from Goldman.
It’s been a tough few months for Baylor football and its former coach Art Briles. Baylor fired Briles in May of this year, after an outside law firm investigated the school’s response to alleged sexual assaults by football players and other students.
In early December, Briles fought back, filing a lawsuit against four of the University’s regents.
The first question that may occur to you is why this lawsuit isn’t against Baylor for wrongful termination. But as Briles’s complaint explains, he already filed that lawsuit; Baylor settled the case quickly on confidential terms.
Numerous decisions from the Delaware courts establish that a company cannot abandon its promise to advance legal fees and expenses when the covered director, officer, or employee properly invokes it.
The Delaware Supreme Court recently issued yet another decision upholding this principle, ruling in Trascent Management Consulting, LLC v. Bouri that an employer could not escape its promise to provide advancement by claiming that it was induced to provide the promise by the employee’s fraud.
When an employee brings a lawsuit involving a plan adopted by their employer, one question is whether ERISA—the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974—applies.
ERISA is a federal law that requires a number of disclosures and safeguards for employee benefit plans. ERISA governs both employee welfare benefit plans (such as insurance or sickness plans) and pension benefit plans (such as retirement plans).
But it doesn’t apply to every plan adopted by an employer, as the recent decision in Hall v. Lsref4 Lighthouse Corporate Acquisitions, LLC, 6:16-CV-06461 EAW (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 10, 2016), shows.
In lawsuits over contracts, parties sometimes assert defenses that contracts are voidable or void. A voidable contract is one as to which the party should have a choice as to whether it is enforceable or not; for example, when a 17-year-old (a legal minor) buys a car, he may have the option to choose whether to abide by the deal. By contrast, a void contract is one that is illegal because it violates the law or public policy. No one—neither hit man nor jilted spouse—can enforce a contract to commit murder.
The doctrine of void contracts arose recently in an employment case in Florida, Griffin v. ARX Holding Corporation. The plaintiff in the case was Nicholas Griffin. Griffin had a blemish on his resume: in 1998, he had pleaded guilty to extortion.
When an employee brings a lawsuit alleging that his employer retaliated or discriminated against him, courts typically assess the claim by using a burden-shifting approach. Under this approach, after the employer offers a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for its actions, the employee has to come forward with evidence showing that the reason was pretextual.
The recent decision in Stephenson v. Potterfield Group LLC serves as an example of how an employee can meet this burden.
Thanksgiving is typically a time for gratitude, gathering with family, and acts of kindness among fellow men and women. But in one recent case, a bank used Thanksgiving to force-feed a separation agreement to its outgoing president.
The bank later claimed that the ex-officer had released his rights to benefits under a “top-hat” benefits plan, even though it was not mentioned in the separation agreement. In Buster v. Compensation Committee of the Board of Directors of Mechanics Bank, the plaintiff alleged, and the court agreed, that the bank’s interpretation of the separation agreement did not fly.
Steven Buster worked as president of Mechanics Bank between 2004 and 2012. During his tenure, Mechanics Bank had two retirement plans. The first was the Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan (SERP), a so-called “top-hat plan” because it was available only to a few, select senior employees. The accrual of benefits for the SERP was frozen in 2008. In that year, the bank adopted a separate Executive Retirement Plan (ERP).
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.