As readers of this blog know, corporate executives (and regular employees) are often subject to non-competes in their employment agreements, as well as other provisions designed to ensure that if they leave their job, they will not be able to work for a competitor for some period of time. By contrast, law firms are ethically prohibited from imposing such restrictive covenants on their attorneys. The justification for this exceptionalism is the premise that clients have the right to choose their counsel and any restrictions on a lawyer’s right to practice could impede that choice. (Of course, why client choice is more imperative in an attorney/client relationship than other professional relationships of trust has always been a bit vague.)
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.”
On his way through the San Francisco International Airport with the hopes of boarding his flight to China, Silicon Valley former employee Jing Zeng was not greeted by the friendly faces of a flight crew, but rather the handcuff-wielding agents of the FBI. Detained on charges of stealing trade secrets, Mr. Zeng will have to remain in the US and explain the behavior that led up to his August 20th airport arrest. The Wall Street Journal explains that Mr. Zeng, a new employee with Machine Zone, maker of Game of War: Fire Age (you may have seen the ads prominently featuring model Kate Upton sporting medieval garb), sought to change teams and work under a different boss. His request was denied and the company eventually asked Mr. Zeng to leave. Mr. Zeng then allegedly began to download highly valuable user data from a proprietary database in an attempt to leverage his possession of the information for a more lucrative severance agreement. The company contacted the FBI, and Mr. Zeng’s arrest followed. Now, Mr. Zeng finds himself in the custody of federal authorities, although his LinkedIn profile indicates that he is “ready for next venture.”
We recently discussed the SEC’s proposed rules pursuant to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act regarding the clawback of executive compensation under various circumstances related to accounting restatements. Now it seems Hertz’s former CEO, Mark Frissora, may become one of the first test cases should these rules survive the comment period. According to Footnoted, upon Frissora’s resignation last September, he received over $10 million plus other benefits. But the company recently filed a 10-K for 2014 that not only included restated results for 2012 and 2013, but also made a disclosure that could suggest a possible future effort to claw back Frissora’s severance package. The disclosure blamed Frissora for creating an environment that “in some instances may have led to inappropriate accounting decisions and the failure to disclose information critical to an effective review of transactions and accounting entries.” Perhaps another interesting twist is whether any potential clawback will have an effect on Frissora in his new role as CEO of Caesar’s Entertainment, a position he assumed two weeks ahead of Hertz’s delayed filings.
California is known for its skeptical treatment of employers’ efforts to enforce non-competes, but it may not be as friendly toward all employees as originally suspected, according to The National Law Review. In 2014, California resident Stacey Sabol-Krutz left her position with Quad Electronics, a Michigan-based employer, to take a position with a rival company, which was also based in Michigan. Sabol-Krutz had started working for Quad in Michigan, and signed her employment contract there, but moved to California in 2011. Her employment contract specifically named her new employer as a company that Sabol-Krutz wouldn’t join for 12 months after leaving Quad. After Quad found out about Sabol-Krutz’s new job, it sued her for breach of contract. She, in turn, filed suit in California, attempting to invalidate the agreement under California law. The California court, noting the absence of a choice of law provision in the agreement, found that Michigan law applied, using a “governmental interest” test. Although courts may refuse to apply a choice of law provision when construing restrictive covenants (as we illuminated here), Sabol-Krutz’s move to California to work for an out-of-state employer did not win her the protection of California law.
National employers sometimes include choice-of-law provisions in their employment agreements, selecting one particular state’s law even for employees who don’t work in that state. For example, a company based in Massachusetts might ask its California employees to sign agreements selecting Massachusetts law. Applying one state’s law to all of the employer’s relationships can make outcomes more predictable, especially when the employer knows that law well.
But not always, as the New York Court of Appeals held earlier this month in Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Johnson. In Brown & Brown, the Court of Appeals refused to apply an employment agreement’s selection of Florida law, holding that New York law should determine whether a customer non-solicitation provision in that same agreement was enforceable.
In our last post, we counted down our most popular posts of 2014, from A-Rod to Walgreen. Now it’s time to take a look at the issues in executive disputes that are likely to draw plenty of attention in 2015.
1. Dodd-Frank Bounties and Whistleblower Litigation on the Rise
In November 2014, the SEC released its annual report on its Dodd-Frank whistleblower award program. The theme of the report is that Dodd-Frank is paying off – both for the SEC and for whistleblowing employees. The SEC reported that it issued whistleblower awards to more people in its 2014 fiscal year than in all previous years combined, including a $30 million bounty to one whistleblower in a foreign country. The number of whistleblower tips received continues to increase, and we expect news of more substantial awards in 2015. Meanwhile, litigation over various Dodd-Frank issues, such as whether a whistleblower claim is subject to arbitration, whether the shield against whistleblower retaliation applies overseas, and whether a whistleblower must report to the SEC in order to bring a retaliation claim, will continue to percolate in the federal courts.
2. The Supreme Court Weighs in on Employment Issues
A couple of key Supreme Court cases will address employee rights that apply across the board, from the C-suite to the assembly line. In Young v. United Parcel Service, the Court will decide whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires an employer that accommodates non-pregnant employees with work limitations to accommodate pregnant employees who have similar limitations. And in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Court will address whether an employer can be liable under the Civil Rights Act for refusing to hire an employee based on religion only if the employer actually knew that a religious accommodation was required based on knowledge received directly from the job applicant.
Who doesn’t love the year-end countdown? We’re here to offer you one of our own – our most-read posts in 2014 about executive disputes. The posts run the gamut from A (Alex Rodriguez) to Z, or at least to W (Walgreen). They cover subjects from sanctified (Buddhists and the Bible) to sultry (pornographic materials found in an executive’s email). Later this week, we’ll bring you a look at what to expect in 2015.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin!
8. The Basics: Dodd-Frank v. Sarbanes-Oxley
This post is an oldie but a goodie. It includes a handy PDF chart that breaks down the differences in the Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower laws. Each of these laws continues to be a hot-button issue for plaintiffs and employers.
7. When Employment Relationships Break Bad
America may have bidden adieu to Walter White and his pals on Breaking Bad, but employment relationships continue to spin off in some very unpleasant ways. Such was the case with Stephen Marty Ward, who ended up in federal prison after he threatened his employer with disclosure of its trade secrets, as we covered in this post.
Netflix, the internet media giant, sued its former vice president of IT Operations, Mike Kail, in California Superior Court, claiming that he “streamed” kickbacks from vendors and funneled them into his personal consulting company. According to the complaint, Kail—who is currently the CIO of Yahoo—exercised broad latitude in both vendor selection and payment. Netflix alleges that he took in kickbacks about 12-15% of the $3.7 million that Netflix paid in monthly fees to two IT service providers, VistaraIT Inc. and NetEnrich Inc. According to the Wall Street Journal, one line in particular from the complaint piqued experts’ interest: “Kail was a trusted, senior-level employee, with authority to enter into appropriate contracts and approve appropriate invoices.” According to Christopher McClean, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., this suggests Netflix allowed Kail too much freedom. McClean opined that when individuals are empowered to both choose a vendor and then approve payment, corporate malfeasance can follow. This is particularly important in the field of information technology, where tech companies vie for business in an ever-competitive market by lavishing incentives on CIOs. Companies that do not incorporate an audit function into vendor selection and payment should consider revisiting their policies going forward.
We recently discussed the hefty $185 million judgment against AutoZone in favor of a former store manager who alleged discrimination and retaliatory discharge following her pregnancy. While this case arose in California, it appears the auto parts retailer is zoned for another similarly-themed legal showdown, this time across the country in West Virginia. In the recent complaint, the plaintiff, Cindy DeLong, claimed that she was placed on a 30-day performance improvement plan for hiring too many women in the stores she managed. She was ultimately fired before the 30 days expired. As you may recall, in the California case, plaintiff Rosario Juarez claimed AutoZone enforced a “glass ceiling” for its female employees, denying them opportunities for promotion. It seems Ms. DeLong managed to chip away at the ceiling as a district manager. But, according to Courthouse News, she now alleges that her practice of hiring women rendered her “not a good fit for the company.”
Most law students spend several weeks in a first-year contracts class studying the concept of consideration. Consideration, in essence, is what a contracting party receives in exchange for promising to do something. A promise without consideration is not an enforceable contract. If A promises to wash B’s car next Tuesday and fails to do so, B cannot sue A on Wednesday, because A’s promise lacked consideration. But if A promises to wash B’s car and B promises to give A $20, or $1, or a glass of water, the promise is enforceable and B can sue if A fails to perform. Courts generally do not examine the adequacy of consideration, only its existence.
Because consideration can be minimal, many lawyers forget about it after that first year of law school. But it remains a necessary element of most contracts, and it recently arose in a peculiar way in a Connecticut case involving a dispute over an employment contract. See Thoma v. Oxford Performance Materials, Inc., 153 Conn. App. 50 (2014).
The plaintiff in the case, Lynne Thoma, was an employee of a manufacturing company. During her employment the company obtained new financing, and the investor insisted that Ms. Thoma enter into an employment agreement. This “first agreement” gave Ms. Thoma a fixed salary plus benefits for a 24-month period with automatic 12-month renewals. The company could fire her without cause on 60 days’ notice, but it would then be obligated to pay her salary for the remainder of the term plus six months. The first agreement also included a noncompete provision for the period of Ms. Thoma’s employment plus six months thereafter.
The company almost immediately decided it did not like certain terms of the first agreement and it required Ms. Thoma to enter a second agreement, which by its terms stated that it superseded any prior agreements. The second agreement did not discuss salary or severance, but it expressly stated that Ms. Thoma was an at-will employee. It also included a noncompete provision with apparently inconsistent terms: one section stated that she would not compete “during the period of her employment” and the other said that if she was terminated she would “continue to comply” with the noncompete provision.
The company fired Ms. Thoma about 16 months after the parties executed these agreements. Ms. Thoma sued, claiming that the company breached the first agreement by firing her without notice before her term ended and by failing to pay severance. The company claimed that the second agreement allowed it to fire her without notice at any time and did not require severance payments. But the trial court found, and the appellate court agreed, that the second agreement was not enforceable because it lacked consideration.
Over the past few days, we’ve been covering the non-compete dispute between American Realty Capital Properties, Inc. (ARCP) and the Carlyle Group LP and Jeffrey Holland. (Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of our series in case you need to catch up). It’s time to end the suspense and tell you how the judge, the Honorable David Campbell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, resolved the dispute.
Judge Campbell issued his ruling on the same day as the oral argument, denying ARCP’s request for a temporary restraining order against Carlyle and Holland. He decided that ARCP had not made the necessary showing of a “likelihood of success on the merits” of its claim that Holland would violate his employment agreements by marketing Carlyle’s investment products. It said that Holland’s “non-solicitation provisions appear[ed] to be unreasonably broad,” because “read literally, they would prevent Defendant Holland from soliciting any form of business from any client of Plaintiff, anywhere in the world.” Further, the applicable Maryland and Arizona law did not allow the court to “blue pencil” these provisions – i.e., to rewrite them to be legally enforceable. Similarly, the confidentiality provisions in Holland’s agreements were also too broad to enforce, because they would have forever prohibited Holland from using any information related to ARCP’s customers.
The ARCP-Carlyle-Holland saga involves a couple of additional twists. Soon after the ruling, ARCP dismissed its Arizona case without prejudice. It then filed an identical case in New York for breach of contract. Carlyle and Holland moved for attorneys’ fees in Arizona, relying on an Arizona statute that allows a successful party to recover “reasonable attorneys’ fees in any contested action arising out of contract.” The court awarded Carlyle and Holland $46,140 for five days of attorney work (of the $134,182 they sought).
Thus, Carlyle and Holland won the battle, with some additional compensation for their troubles thanks to Arizona law. However, the war over Holland’s work for Carlyle is now raging in a different forum.
Last week, we introduced you to a non-compete dispute between American Realty Capital Properties, Inc. (ARCP), on one side, and the Carlyle Group LP and Jeffrey Holland, on the other side. Now, it’s time to find out more about the parties’ arguments.
In its application for a preliminary injunction, filed on April 1 of this year, ARCP made two main arguments. First, it argued that it could legitimately enforce the provisions in Holland’s agreements that precluded him from using its confidential information and from soliciting its investors. Second, it argued that by marketing Carlyle’s investments, Holland was breaching these provisions.
In the hearing on the motion, held a week later on April 8, the court summarized the dispute as follows:
It seems to me that the key question is this: [ARCP] is concerned that Mr. Holland’s work for Carlyle … will be in direct competition with the plaintiff’s business of marketing REITs … to financial advisors because that was the business Mr. Holland oversaw while he was with Cole, the predecessor to ARCP, and that that business is highly dependent upon relationships with independent financial advisors or financial advisors with firms.
Holland, ARCP said, would be exploiting these relationships in violation of his agreements if he was allowed to market Carlyle’s products to Cole’s investors. It counsel argued that ARCP would be “irreparably harmed by that because he will be preying upon . . . my client's confidential information and on its good will.”
Holland, meanwhile, argued that Carlyle did not market REITs, that he would be marketing Carlyle’s products mostly to a different class of purchasers, and that if his agreements covered these activities, they would be too broad to be enforceable. As his counsel summarized: “It cannot be the case that because you learn how to build a retail relationship in one financial product, that you can’t do it in another if you’re not competing.”
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the court’s resolution of the dispute, as well as an interesting side-effect of its ruling.
“Nasty, brutish, and short” isn’t just Hobbes’s famous explanation of human life in the state of nature. It also hits close to the mark in describing how litigation over non-compete provisions often proceeds, as a recent case illustrates.
The plaintiff in the case was American Realty Capital Properties, Inc. (ARCP), a publicly-traded REIT (a real estate investment trust). Allied on the other side were the Carlyle Group LP and Jeffrey Holland. Holland used to work for Cole Real Estate Investments, a company that ARCP bought in February of 2014. According to ARCP’s court filings, it paid Holland handsomely when it acquired Cole, giving him $7.1 million in connection with the change. Holland then told ARCP that he wanted to take some time off. ARCP was comfortable with that, given that Holland had previously signed both an employment agreement and a consulting agreement in which he agreed not to solicit Cole’s or ARCP’s investors for 12 months.
Within a couple of months, Holland joined Carlyle, one of the world’s largest investment firms, to raise funds for its products. To put it mildly, ARCP was not pleased with this development. At the beginning of April, it sued both Holland and Carlyle and filed an application for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order (TRO).
A recent decision from an appeals court in Pennsylvania is a warning to companies that the non-compete agreement they think they have with their top executive could be unintentionally wiped out with a few words in a later agreement. In law-speak, the words are called an “integration clause” or a “merger clause.” Through them, the parties agree that their agreement is their “entire” agreement and that it wipes out any earlier agreements.
In the Pennsylvania case, Randy Baker was the President and CEO of Diskriter when Diskriter was acquired by Joansville Holdings, Inc. The terms of the acquisition were memorialized in a stock purchase agreement (“SPA”), which had non-compete and non-solicitation clauses that apparently bound Baker.
No one likes to be wrong, and being proven wrong stinks. And that’s especially true for folks in my profession – we’re not known for being gracious losers.
But even worse than just being proven wrong is having to pay the other side what they spent to prove you wrong. This is a relatively rare thing in the United States: the “American Rule” means that each side pays its own attorney’s fees, unless a contract or statute shifts the winner’s fees to the losing party’s side of the ledger.
But those fees – over $200,000 of them – were shifted to the loser in Stuart Irby Co. v. Tipton, et al., an Arkansas case involving a non-compete clause that the plaintiff said prevented three of its former salesmen from going to work for another business in the electrical supply industry. As we’ve noted, Arkansas can be a tough place for businesses trying to enforce non-competes: for example, its courts won’t rewrite them for the parties if they’re overly broad or otherwise unenforceable.
Non-competes are a frequent topic here on Suits by Suits. We have discussed how the laws of the 50 states vary - and boy do they. Some states (like California) flat out prohibit non-competes, while some states (like Delaware) not only permit non-competes but enforce broad restrictions on employment. Meanwhile, in boardrooms and statehouses (like Massachusetts's), a debate is raging about whether non-competes are in the public's interest - especially in today's world, where our work force is highly mobile and the states are in an arms race to attract start-up tech companies (and all those jobs). For those of us interested in the debate, three recent items in The New York Times should not be missed: an article reporting on the proliferation of non-competes in unexpected fields (such as summer camp counseling); a discussion among lawyers, professors and lobbyists about the merits or lack thereof of non-competes; and an opinion by New York Times Editorial Board that non-competes hurt workers - especially low-wage and unskilled workers lacking the bargaining power to resist entering into non-competes.
As long-standing readers of Suits by Suits know, California is at the forefront of the “state-by-state smackdown” regarding covenants not to compete, having prohibited essentially all such clauses by statute. (You can refresh your recollection by reviewing our discussion of California law, here.)
Consequently, one of the arguments deployed by other states looking to restrict or ban noncompetes is that the business climate created in California encourages worker mobility, and that climate in turn is attractive to the technology sector (and in particular, to technology start-ups), who depend upon “poaching” away top talent that may be underpaid at a competitor. You can read these arguments in more depth here (part 1), here (part 2), and most recently here (part 3).
The common thread that runs through these arguments is that California encourages worker mobility, and that mobility, in turn, is good for Silicon Valley. The argument has some appeal.
We’ve written about this issue before, but it bears repeating: as a general matter, the more narrowly tailored and economically justifiable a non-compete agreement is, the more likely it is to be enforced (assuming state law allows it at all). The same standard applies to the closely related “non-contact” clause that keeps former employees from luring their old colleagues away to new positions.
An Arizona appellate court’s decision earlier this month reinforces this principle. That court held – in Quicken Loan v. Beale – that a “non-contact” clause that kept former Quicken loan managers from contacting current loan managers for two years wasn’t narrowly tailored to protect Quicken’s financial interests, and was an unreasonable restriction on the former employees’ speech rights. And, on a purely financial note, the court affirmed that Quicken had to pay its former employees’ attorney’s fees – as well as the fees the former employees’ new company, loanDepot, incurred when it jumped into Quicken’s suit.
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.