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.
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.
When we first examined Wade Miquelon’s suit against his former employer, Walgreen, we didn’t have access to his complaint. Now we do. The complaint sheds more light on Miquelon’s allegations, helping to explain why they are causing a spiral of problems for the drug company.
As you may recall from our last article on the case, Miquelon alleges that Walgreen defamed him (in layman’s terms, lied) when it told the Wall Street Journal and investors that he had botched the earnings forecast for the 2014 fiscal year, and that his finance unit was “weak” with “lax controls.” According to Miquelon’s complaint, Walgreen executives made these negative statements for an entirely different reason: they had an “unchecked desire” to push Walgreen’s merger with Alliance Boots to completion. Miquelon alleges that an activist investor had threatened him for being “too conservative,” and that rather than standing up for him, the company’s CEO and its largest shareholder decided to disparage him in order to “deflect investor disappointment” and push through the merger.
Miquelon’s complaint is also somewhat of a public relations document, because it praises his work and goes into his interactions with the CEO and shareholder in great detail. It even says that Miquelon was next in line to be CEO (although the complaint also says he turned down that chance, instead deciding to move on). As to the allegedly botched earnings forecast, the complaint says that Miquelon recognized the problem well in advance of the call in which the company announced it was withdrawing its earnings goal. It also says that he was pressured at the same time by the company’s CEO to raise his estimate of earnings per share that would result from the Alliance Boots merger. The most explosive allegation on this front is that the CEO told him that he had “no choice” but to approve a $6.00 earnings per share estimate, rather than a lower one that would hurt the merger.
The news hasn’t been great for Walgreen Co. over the past couple of months. According to the Wall Street Journal, in early July, chief financial officer Wade Miquelon slashed his forecast for pharmacy unit earnings to $7.4 billion from $8.5 billion. Miquelon left the company in early August. Shortly thereafter, the Journal ran an article stating that Miquelon’s “billion-dollar forecasting error” had cost Miquelon his job and alarmed Walgreen’s big investors.
Now, Walgreen is fighting a battle on another front – against Miquelon. Last week, Miquelon sued Walgreen in state court in Illinois, alleging that the company, its CEO, and its largest shareholder had defamed him. According to Miquelon, the company’s big investors were told that Walgreen’s finance department was “weak” and had “lax controls.”
The four things that a defamation plaintiff must typically prove to prevail are: (1) the defendant made a false statement about him; (2) the statement was published, i.e., made, to one or more other persons; (3) the defendant was at least negligent in making the statement; and (4) the publication damaged the plaintiff. Thus, if Walgreen and the other defendants can show that any harmful statements they made about Miquelon were true, they stand a good chance of defeating his claims. On the other hand, as we covered in this article, if Miquelon can prove that the defendants engaged in a “premeditated scheme” to do him harm by falsely criticizing his performance, he might be able to recover a substantial verdict.
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 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.
"We cannot comment on pending litigation." You have no doubt seen that or a similar quote countless times from litigants in press coverage about ongoing lawsuits. But Sheldon Adelson did not trot out that refrain after he and the casino operator Las Vegas Sands (of which he is Chairman and CEO) were sued in Nevada state court by Steven Jacobs for breach of contract and wrongful termination. Jacobs had been President of Las Vegas Sands’ casinos in Macau but was fired in 2010. After Las Vegas Sands and Adelson moved to dismiss Jacobs’s lawsuit and a hearing was held on their motion, Adelson sent an e-mail to a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the hearing with this statement:
While I have largely stayed silent on the matter to this point, the recycling of [Jacobs’s] allegations must be addressed. We have a substantial list of reasons why Steve Jacobs was fired for cause and interestingly he has not refuted a single one of them. Instead, he has attempted to explain his termination by using outright lies and fabrications which seem to have their origins in delusion.
Jacobs promptly amended his complaint to add a new claim against Adelson for defamation.
As the regulatory and business environments in which our clients operate grow increasingly complex, we identify and offer perspectives on significant legal developments affecting businesses, organizations, and individuals. Each post aims to address timely issues and trends by evaluating impactful decisions, sharing observations of key enforcement changes, or distilling best practices drawn from experience. InsightZS also features personal interest pieces about the impact of our legal work in our communities and about associate life at Zuckerman Spaeder.
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