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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Acts, it included protections for employees who blow the whistle on wrongdoing by their employers. However, those whistleblower protections don’t apply to every report of wrongdoing. Rather, they come into play only when an employee reports particular types of misconduct.
For example, in a recent decision (Erhart v. BofI Holding, Inc.), a federal court in California dismissed claims by an internal auditor (Erhart) against his employer (BofI Holding), ruling that Erhart didn’t plausibly allege that he had been engaged in the "protected activity" necessary to qualify for the whistleblower protections of those statutes.
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).
When a company learns that its employees may have done something unlawful, it should try to get the facts and figure out whether wrongdoing actually occurred. One way to do this is to conduct an internal investigation, in which attorneys or other investigators collect documents and interview employees to gather information about what happened.
But what happens when employees refuse to cooperate? Can they be fired and denied severance benefits that would otherwise have been due?
It is the norm for high-achieving employees to strive for and tout their successes. Recently, however, one person’s novel reaction to failure—his own termination—may show a future employer as much about his character as any of his considerable accomplishments.
Sree Sreenivasan was plucked from Columbia’s School of Journalism a few years ago to become the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s chief digital officer. According to Quartz, Mr. Sreenivasan brought the famed museum into the digital age through inventive social outreach efforts and a revamped, mobile-friendly website.
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.
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.
In our last post, we discussed the case of Wiest v. Tyco, in which the Third Circuit held that an employer’s investigation of unrelated wrongdoing by an employee insulated it against the employee’s Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower retaliation claim. Now, we tackle another piece of the Wiest decision: the court’s holding that Wiest’s protected activity did not contribute to the adverse action against him.
To establish a Sarbanes-Oxley claim, an employee must show that there was a causal connection between his or her whistleblowing and an adverse employment action. If the employee can’t show that link, then he or she can’t prevail. In the Wiest case, the court assumed that Wiest did in fact engage in protected whistleblowing activity. But it held that Wiest didn’t have evidence to show that the whistleblowing caused the employer to take action against him.
An employee who has blown the whistle on wrongdoing is not immune from discipline or termination simply because she has engaged in protected activity.
The Third Circuit’s recent decision in Wiest v. Tyco Electronics provides a good example of how an employer can terminate an employee without legal repercussions, even when it is undisputed that the employee was protected against whistleblower retaliation.
When the 2015 college football season started, Steve Sarkisian was a rising star in the coaching firmament. He had led the University of Washington Huskies and his current team, the University of Southern California Trojans, to winning records and bowl games.
In late August, however, reports surfaced that Sarkisian had behaved inappropriately at a booster event, the Salute to Troy. And by mid-October, USC had terminated Sarkisian “for cause,” with athletic director Pat Haden explaining that Sarkisian’s use of alcohol had impaired his performance of his job.
This week, Sarkisian struck back, filing a 14-count complaint against USC in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Big Brother is watching you, or at least tracking your movements through your smartphone. According to the Washington Post, employers have steadily increased their use of GPS-enabled technology to track the movements and location of “field employees” like salespeople and delivery drivers. In fact, a 2012 study by the Aberdeen Group cited an increase of over 30% in the tracking of employees over the previous 5 years. Legitimate reasons exist to track field employees, such as making sure that drivers take the best routes and sales calls are conducted efficiently. But it’s more tricky to justify the tracking of employees who are off the clock. For example, Myrna Arias, a former sales executive with Intermex, was allegedly fired for disabling a tracking app called Xora StreetSmart when she was off duty. Now Ms. Arias has sued the company, alleging wrongful termination and invasion of privacy. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, cautions employers against collecting off-the-clock data, because it opens the door to discriminatory practices. Mr. Stanley wondered, "What happens if an employer doesn't like the choices a worker makes in their personal lives and retaliates professionally?"
We discussed emerging trends in the c-suite recently, and found that companies are increasingly tying executive compensation to performance. For those that do not, we can imagine a corporate shareholder version of peasants storming the castle with pitchforks in hand, thanks to say-on-pay voting. In the case of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s 2014 compensation, the shareholders’ rebellion led to a relatively low approval rate for Dimon’s and other executives’ compensation. According to USA Today, 61.4% of shareholders approved the payouts, which starkly contrasts with an average 90% approval rating for companies that seek shareholder input on salary and bonus plans. Advisory firm ISS encouraged shareholders to rebuke the plan when they learned of Dimon’s $7.4 million cash bonus. ISS advised that “[t]he reintroduction of a large discretionary cash bonus in the CEO’s pay mix, without a compelling rationale, has substantially weakened the performance-basis of his pay.” If corporate leadership can provide a strong rationale for a big bonus, it’s more likely that the shareholders will drop their pitchforks and fall in line.
LSU is used to battling with its Southeastern Conference (SEC) foes on the gridiron. Now, it’s fighting in court with a former assistant who jumped ship to conference rival Texas A&M.
John Chavis, LSU’s ballyhooed former defensive coordinator, left LSU for A&M at the beginning of this year, sparking headlines about “winning big” at his new home in College Station. But storm clouds were brewing – LSU’s athletic director, Joe Alleva, said that he expected Chavis to comply with a $400,000 contractual buyout.
On February 27, Chavis sued LSU in Texas state court, seeking to avoid the buyout. He named A&M as a defendant as well, but only as an “indispensable party,” reported Jerry Hinnen of cbssports.com. The Associated Press reported that A&M agreed to pay the buyout for Chavis if he was found to owe it.
LSU, seeking a home field against Chavis, quickly filed a separate case against him in Baton Rouge, claiming that it is entitled to receive the buyout money.
Chavis’s contract reportedly said that if Chavis left in the first 11 months of his contract, before January 31, 2015, he would have to pay the buyout. The sequence of events appears to be that Chavis gave a required 30-day notice on January 5 that he was resigning and terminating his contract. Chavis says that he left LSU by February 4 – after the January 31 end to the buyout period – and didn’t join the Aggie payroll until February 13.
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.