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).
Remember 2002? That year, A Beautiful Mind won best picture, and the University of Maryland won the NCAA basketball tournament. It is also the year that Rite Aid and its former General Counsel, Franklin Brown, began litigating over Brown’s indemnification rights. They are still fighting, which brings us to Brown v. Rite Aid Corp., CA No. 11596-VCL, the latest chapter in the 14-year-long dispute.
The Delaware Chancery Court is generally a forgiving forum for an director or officer seeking to vindicate indemnification or advancement rights conferred by a Delaware company. But there are limits, and a recent decision by the Chancery Court in the Brown case concerned one such limit: a claim for indemnification must be brought within three years of final disposition of the proceeding that triggered the indemnification demand.
After a spate of horrific shootings at schools and businesses across the country, employers started conducting unannounced “active shooter” drills to train employees how to react if a murderous gunman shows up at their workplace. Unsurprisingly, some of these unannounced drills have gone awry.
In 2013, the Pine Eagle Elementary School in Halfway, Oregon, population 286, held an active shooter drill that was too much for its employees to bear. Now, Pine Eagle finds itself in the middle of a lawsuit in Oregon federal court, brought by former teacher Linda McLean.
When a former officer or director of a company must defend against legal claims, advancement of legal fees by the company can be critical to a successful defense. The Delaware Chancery Court frequently addresses issues related to advancement of fees for former officers and directors. For example—as we discussed in this post—that court recently resolved a claim by former Vice President Al Gore and a colleague for advancement of legal fees, ruling that they were entitled to advancement from the company that bought their employer (Current Media) and assumed Current Media’s indemnification and advancement obligations, even though they had never worked for the purchaser
What happens when an employer tries to change the basis for terminating an employee?
Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts considered whether an employer could change the basis for the termination from “without cause” to “with cause” and withhold severance benefits otherwise owed the former employee. In EventMonitor, Inc. v. Leness, the employee won the battle, but the cost may have consumed the spoils of war.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a plaintiff-friendly decision resolving disagreements over the question of when a constructive discharge claim accrues. The lower courts didn’t agree on when the clock should start ticking on claims by employees that they were forced to quit, creating uncertainty for plaintiffs who faced the possibility that their claims would be barred by the statute of limitations if they didn’t sue soon enough.
For both companies and individual officers and directors, it’s critically important to know the protections that are available to corporate leadership before a company runs into trouble.
The Delaware Chancery Court’s recent decision in Hyatt v. Al Jazeera America Holdings II, LLC, presents an unusual twist on the typical advancement litigation. It highlights how proper planning can ensure the intended protections are available when they are needed.
Typically, advancement cases follow a familiar pattern: a company promises officers and directors (and sometimes employees) that in the event of legal proceedings related to their duties at work, they will be protected by advancement of legal costs and indemnification.
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.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission scored a victory last week against PMT Corp., a Minnesota-based medical device and equipment manufacturer. According to the commission’s complaint filed nearly two years ago, PMT Corp. engaged in systematic discriminatory hiring practices by refusing to hire women and individuals over the age of 40 in violation of Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. According to Law 360, PMT agreed to settle the suit for $1.02 million payable to a class of applicants and a former PMT Human Resources professional who brought the company’s hiring practices to the EEOC’s attention.
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.
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.