Jerry Kowal doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about his former employer, Netflix. In a recent lawsuit filed in California Superior Court, he claims that Netflix was a “cold and hostile company,” with a “cutthroat environment.”
According to Courthouse News’s description of Kowal’s complaint, Netflix didn’t have very nice things to say about Kowal, its former content acquisition executive, either. Kowal alleges that when he told Netflix he was leaving for Amazon, Netflix lashed out by accusing him of stealing confidential information and passing it on to Amazon. As a result of these accusations and Amazon’s “strict liability policy,” he was fired.
Now, Kowal has sued Netflix, its CEO Reed Hastings, executive Ted Sarandos, and Amazon, alleging a number of torts including defamation, false light invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy, intentional interference with employment relationship, blacklisting and wrongful termination. Kowal’s suit shows that an employer’s decision to accuse a departed employee of wrongdoing carries with it a significant litigation risk, especially if the employee loses his job as a result of the accusation.
In researching and writing Monday’s blog post, I came across another unique wrinkle in the Florida statute that governs covenants not to compete, § 542.335 of the Florida Statutes. I think it's worth examining that provision in more detail as part of our ongoing efforts to educate employers and employees as to the varying state-by-state nuances in different jurisdictions that can affect the ultimate questions as to whether and how that state will enforce an employee’s covenant not to compete.
In our recurring “State-by-State Smackdown” series on the evolving law with respect to covenants not to compete, we’ve described the traditional balancing-test approach that is the law in the majority of jurisdictions as the Legitimate Business Interest or “LBI” test. In understanding this shifting landscape, we’ve typically highlighted statutes and/or judicial opinions in jurisdictions that have begun to shift away (or even depart entirely) from the classical LBI analysis.
Today, we’re doing something a little different, taking our cue from a recent New York state appellate decision: Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Johnson, 980 N.Y.S. 2d 631 (App. Div., 4th Dep’t, February 7, 2014). Read on.
Did you hear the one about the Buddhist marketing director who refused an order to add Bible verses to the daily morning e-mail he sent to all employees – and then got fired the next day, after an otherwise successful eight-year career?
This is, of course, not an opening line to a joke, but another installment in our occasional series about the intersection of religious beliefs (of all types) and employment – also of all types. Religion and employment issues – whether it’s an employee in the C-suite or someone further along the hierarchy – almost never mix well. Just this week, of course, nine of our fellow lawyers who happen to sit on the Supreme Court are hearing arguments in two cases about whether a company with a religious belief about contraception is exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirements for employer-provided health insurance.
Far away from the hallowed marble home of the Supreme Court (which, by the way, we think is in a fine building -- unlike former Justice Harlan Fiske Stone) and down in the Eastern District of Texas, a new suit raises an interesting question of prohibited religious discrimination under Title VII: namely, can a fired Buddhist employee win damages from a company that, he says, fired him after eight years because he refused to put Bible quotations in the daily e-mail his employer had him write and send to all of the company’s 500 employees?
Top ‘o the mornin’ to ya! In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we considered writing today’s inbox entirely in Irish-speak. We could have told you to sit down and wet the tea, or sip on a pint of Gat, while we spun tales of how an executive’s suit put the heart crossways in his employer. But because we didn’t want anyone feeling the fear tomorrow, we decided to stick with our tried-and-true approach of (somewhat) plain American English.
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 yesterday's post, we covered the background of Tuesday's Supreme Court decision in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, and took an in-depth look at Justice Ginsburg's majority opinion. Today, we look at what the other Justices had to say.
Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, signed on to Justice Ginsburg's opinion in principal part, but also authored his own opinion. Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas subscribe to the position that a judge, in reading and interpreting a statute, should not examine what Congress said in places other than the statutory language, such as in committee reports and floor speeches. Based on that judicial philosophy, Justice Scalia criticized Justice Ginsburg for her “occasional excursions beyond the interpretative terra firma of text and context, into the swamps of legislative history.”
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that may have sweeping implications for whistleblowers and employers. In Lawson v. FMR LLC, the Court decided that the anti-retaliation provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (18 U.S.C. § 1514A) allows an employee to bring a claim even if that employee works for a private contractor or subcontractor of a public company. The Court’s decision could lead to a wide range of Sarbanes-Oxley lawsuits by outside counsel, private accountants, cleaning services, and others.
Lawson was a split decision. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Breyer, and Justice Kagan, and by Justices Scalia and Thomas “in principal part,” wrote for the majority. Justice Scalia wrote a separate concurrence, joined by Justice Thomas. And in an unusual grouping, Justice Sotomayor authored the dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. Today, we'll tackle Justice Ginsburg's opinion; tomorrow, we'll take a look at what Justices Scalia and Sotomayor had to say.
But first, a little background.
Yesterday, we reviewed a recent decision by a federal court in Richmond in the case of Vanterpool v. Cuccinelli (yes that one), and when firing a government employee for speech or political affiliation may be okay under the First Amendment. The answer is that it may be okay if the employee is in a policymaking position. The court’s decision spells out why and what it means to have such a position. The case is also a helpful reminder that staking out one position in litigation may undermine another.
In her first complaint, Vanterpool apparently did not want to say that she posted the comment criticizing Cuccinelli on the Washington Post because she had denied doing so when she was confronted about the comment by one of Cuccinelli’s deputies, Charles E. James, Jr., who was also a defendant in the case. James later questioned Vanterpool’s credibility and asked her to resign or be terminated. If Vanterpool alleged in the complaint that she personally posted the comment, then that could have bolstered a defense by Cuccinelli and James that she wasn’t fired for speaking freely but for being dishonest.
Earlier this month, a federal court in Richmond dismissed the lawsuit of a lawyer named Samantha Vanterpool who worked in the Virginia Office of Attorney General when Republican Ken Cuccinelli was Virginia’s AG and was running to be governor. (Democrat Terry McAuliffe won last November in a race that made national headlines.) Vanterpool claimed that she was fired on the basis of her political affiliation in violation of the First Amendment.
Vanterpool is a Republican but apparently not a Cuccinelli fan. She was fired after she allegedly posted a comment to a May 2012 Washington Post story about Bill Bolling, who was then challenging Cuccinelli for the Republican nomination. You can still see the comment (from “bzbzsammy”), which accuses “Cuccinelli of promoting Cuccinelli” while “Bolling is helping the GOP,” and of “NEVER [being] in the AG’s office and solely us[ing] the position for self promotion.”
Our state and federal courts generally have two levels of courts: trial and appellate courts. The archetypal trial court is the knock-down, drag-out venue of TV drama, where judges issue quick rulings and juries weigh the testimony and documents to make their mysterious decisions. Appellate courts are much more monastic (and thus, much less entertaining for TV’s purposes). There, learned panels of esteemed judges review cold court records and legal tomes, reviewing the parties’ arguments and applying the law in order to reach their thoughtful and detailed decisions.
Appellate courts may not even entertain every argument that a party seeks to make. For the most part, to argue in the appellate court that the trial court made a mistake, a litigant has to “preserve” the error below – meaning that the litigant must give the trial court the opportunity to rule on the issue in the first instance. The failure to preserve error has tripped up many an appeal.
The case of Jeff Gennarelli, the former regional vice president of American Bank and Trust Company (ABT), gives us yet another example of this stumbling block.
A few days before Alex Rodriguez filed his Complaint against Major League Baseball (and, somewhat surprisingly, the Major League Baseball Players Association, his own union), we set out the basic legal framework that will govern A-Rod’s efforts to overturn the arbitration award suspending him for the entire 2014 season. Now, I’m a baseball lawyer, so obviously I had a unique interest in this particular case, but I also continue to think that the A-Rod case is instructive in the larger context that we write about here at Suits by Suits.
Specifically, A-Rod isn’t just one of the most famous – or infamous, depending on your perspective – baseball players in the world; he’s an employee having a very well-publicized dispute with his employers. The law that governs A-Rod’s attempts to vacate Fredric Horowitz’s arbitration award is the exact same law that would apply to virtually any private sector employee whose employment-related dispute is governed by arbitration; namely, the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.
So, what does A-Rod’s complaint have to teach us as employers or employees? One thing it can do is to emphasize the importance of reading a complaint backwards. Read on to discover why.
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.
No, this headline is not a pun about the closed on-ramps to the George Washington Bridge. Rather, it’s meant to acknowledge that as the New Year gets into full swing, folks are starting to ramp up their analysis of ongoing issues in disputes that involve executives and their employers. We’ve seen a number of interesting stories and summaries cross our desk:
Ah, the smells of the holiday season: fresh-cut evergreen trees, just-baked cookies and other goodies, bowls of tasty fruit punch. Take a deep whiff wherever you are. Breathe it in deep.
But be careful about sniffing those smells, though.
That is the apparent lesson from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Tonia Royal’s retaliation lawsuit against her employer, an apartment management company named CCC&R Tres Arboles. The appellate court held that the trial court incorrectly gave the apartment company summary judgment, because too many material facts about the basis for Ms. Royal’s firing were in dispute. And many of those facts relate to the behavior of other CCC&R employees, who Ms. Royal alleged sexually harassed her by sniffing her in a rather curious and uncomfortable manner.
Companies prize their formulas for best-selling products like nothing else. Visitors to the World of Coca-Cola can visit the vault holding the soda syrup recipe. And KFC’s fried chicken seasoning method has been described as one of its most valuable assets.
NuScience Corporation makes the skin product CELLFOOD, which it describes as an “oxygen and nutrient supplement” using “proprietary water-splitting technology.” And as recounted by the California Court of Appeal in a recent opinion, NuScience has fought hard to keep the CELLFOOD formula secret. The California court’s decision addressed an unusual spinoff of NuScience’s trade secret battle: a malicious prosecution complaint filed by a former employee, David McKinney, who alleged that NuScience wrongfully brought a prior racketeering and misappropriation case against him. See McKinney v. NuScience Corp., No. B240831 c/w B244074 (Cal. Ct. App. 2013).
According to the court, most of NuScience’s trade secret troubles involved the Henkel family – father John and sons Michael and Robert – who found a copy of the CELLFOOD formula after it had been purchased by NuScience. After discovering the formula, the Henkels then repeatedly sought to sell it to other buyers, get money from NuScience to hand it over, or sell a competing product. NuScience won federal court injunctions against the Henkels, but Michael and Robert didn’t stop their efforts. And after NuScience fired McKinney, its vice president of sales and marketing, the Henkels got him involved in their efforts to discredit NuScience and use the formula. NuScience then filed its racketeering lawsuit against McKinney and Robert Henkel, alleging that the two engaged in a conspiracy to disparage CELLFOOD and violate the federal judgment against Robert. NuScience eventually dismissed that case without prejudice, asserting that it did so because Robert was threatening to disclose the CELLFOOD formula.
McKinney then filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit based on NuScience’s decision to voluntarily give up the case. However, NuScience quickly moved to strike his lawsuit based on California’s anti-SLAPP statute (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16).
Weather gurus are predicting snow, sleet, and rain for our area over the weekend. Although my kids are hoping for the white fluffy stuff, this amateur prognosticator is predicting a downpour. In keeping with this theme, the week’s biggest employment news is Robinson Cano’s $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners (who are well accustomed to rainy skies). But our sights here at Suits by Suits are on matters a little less lucrative:
LASIK eye surgery requires a precise surgeon. If the surgery is unsuccessful, it can result in under- or over-correction, dry eyes, or infection.
LasikPlus of Texas, a Houston eye clinic, recently found out that it should have exercised similar precision when drafting its noncompete agreements. Instead, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals ruled last week that because LasikPlus failed to include required language in its noncompete agreement, one of its doctors can open a competing clinic two miles from its front door. See LasikPlus of Texas, P.C. v. Mattioli, No. 14-12-01155-CV (Tex. Ct. App. Nov. 21, 2013). We suspect there was not a dry eye in the house after that decision.
The covenant at issue in the case was part of LasikPlus’s employment agreement with Dr. Frederico Mattioli. Under the covenant, Dr. Mattioli, for the eighteen months following termination of his employment, could not open a competing clinic within 20 miles or solicit LasikPlus’s clients. Dr. Mattioli could only terminate the agreement with 120 days’ notice, or 30 days’ notice if LasikPlus was already in breach.
In October 2012, Dr. Mattioli told LasikPlus that he would be leaving within the month to start his own practice less than two miles away. LasikPlus sued Dr. Mattioli, seeking an injunction to bar him from opening the practice. The employment agreement expressly entitled LasikPlus to an injunction in these circumstances. Further, if the covenant was deemed unreasonable in scope of time or location, other language allowed the court to reform the covenant and enforce it to the degree it would be reasonable.
Yet Dr. Mattioli still succeeded in defeating LasikPlus’s request for an injunction, because the clinic left out a critical piece of the covenant.
Here's a tip that applies when you're negotiating any contract, although in this case we learn it from a negotiation over a severance contract: it's a rather bad idea to make a material change - like, perhaps, increasing the severance payment from 14 weeks of pay to 104 weeks - and then have the other side sign it, without telling them you inserted that change in their draft.
That tip comes from the Sixth Circuit's decision last week in St. Louis Produce Market v. Hughes. Two other helpful tips come from this case. One, for executives seeking to claim under a severance agreement, is to return any of the company's property if it's a condition precedent to obtaining your severance benefit. The other, for those people and their lawyers, is to not willfully disobey the court's discovery orders if you're litigating over the severance agreement.
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.