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© 2015 Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

Non-Solicitation Clauses: They’re Up to You, New York

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.  Read More ›

Part 2 – How to Motivate Executives to Perform at Their Highest Level Through a Bankruptcy

In our last post, we discussed differences between “pay to stay” arrangements, which face stricter scrutiny in bankruptcy cases, and “Produce Value for Pay” plans, which provide incentives for executives based on strong corporate performance.  As promised, we now examine two cases that illustrate acceptable ways for companies to motivate their executives to perform through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The first is the case of Chassix Holdings, Inc., which manufactures parts for approximately two-thirds of automobiles made in North America.  After a sequence of unfortunate financial and operational setbacks during 2014, Chassix found itself a petitioner under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code last month.  Included among the operational setbacks was the fact that approximately 1,100 employees voluntarily left Chassix during 2014.  Since it was critical to have a work force with the proper experience, skill, and know-how to manufacture the auto parts, Chassix found itself exploring ways to enhance its compensation options prior to the petition date in order to retain more of its employees.  Unfortunately, it didn’t finish these plans prior to the petition date.

Chassix took a couple of important steps in designing its KERP and seeking authority from the bankruptcy court to implement it.  First, and foremost, it limited its KERP to a pool of employees who were not company “insiders.”  Therefore, the bankruptcy court applied the more liberal standard of business judgment when it evaluated the plan, even though Chassix had not established and regularly implemented the plan before its bankruptcy petition.  Under this standard, and considering the pre-petition employee turnover and the support of the various creditor constituencies, the bankruptcy court approved the KERP.  Read More ›

How to Motivate Executives to Perform at Their Highest Level Through A Bankruptcy

At the outset, the answer to the question posed in this article seems simple: employers should just pay their employees as much as is reasonably possible.  However, when a corporation finds itself in Chapter 11 reorganization, the Bankruptcy Code restricts the use of some traditional motivational methods.  Simultaneously, competitors might make tempting job offers to quality employees, inducing them to leave the business.  This combination of factors can distract employees from the main task of getting the debtor through the reorganization process. 

To provide sufficient compensation and persuade employees to remain with the business, a debtor can attempt to adopt a key employee retention plan (KERP for short), also known as a “pay to stay” arrangement.  This is in contrast to a “Produce Value for Pay” plan that provides incentives for strong corporate performance. Read More ›

Sixth Circuit Upholds Financial Planner’s Sarbanes-Oxley Win

Section 1514A of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act shields a whistleblower from retaliation if he reports “conduct [that he] reasonably believes” violates certain laws, including Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.  Last month, the Sixth Circuit held that the question of a whistleblower’s “reasonable belief” is a “simple factual question requiring no subset of findings that the employee had a justifiable belief as to each of the legally-defined elements of the suspected fraud.”  Rhinehimer v. U.S. Bancorp Investments, Inc., No. 13-6641 (6th Cir. May 28, 2015).  Based on this principle, the court affirmed a $250,000 verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Michael Rhinehimer.

According to the Court’s opinion, Rhinehimer was a financial planner for U.S. Bancorp who helped his elderly customer, Norbert Purcell, set up a trust and a brokerage account.  In November 2009, Rhinehimer went on disability leave, and asked a colleague not to conduct any transactions with Purcell.  The colleague didn’t follow the instructions, and instead put Purcell into investments that Rhinehimer believed were unsuitable.  (Unsuitability fraud under the securities laws occurs when a broker knows or reasonably believes certain securities to be unsuitable to a client’s needs, but recommends them anyway.)    Rhinehimer complained about the trades, but his superiors warned him that he should “stay out of the matter” and stop criticizing the colleague.  After Rhinehimer hired a lawyer, he was placed on a performance improvement plan and fired after he failed to meet it. Read More ›

The Inbox – Orwell’s Big Brother Has An App For That

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.  Read More ›

The Insurance Benefits From Early Discovery Of Employee-Caused Losses

Earlier this month, we posted about the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio’s decision that a credit union’s insurance policy was not invalid from the start because of its employee’s misrepresentations on the application.  The decision, National Credit Union Administration Board, as Liquidating Agent of St. Paul Croatian Federal Credit Union v. CUMIS Insurance Society, Inc., also illustrates other arguments that insurers may make in denying coverage for claims under D&O policies or reserving their rights to litigate later.  In this post, we explore how the court determined whether St. Paul “discovered” the loss more than two years before it filed suit against its insured, in which case its lawsuit would have been barred by a suit limitations period.

To briefly recap the facts of the case, St. Paul Croatian Federal Credit Union (“St. Paul”) and its insurer, CUMIS, agreed that a St. Paul bank manager, Mr. Raguz, had engaged in fraud by creating fake loans and accepting bribes.  St. Paul eventually collapsed and was taken over by regulators. The liquidator appointed to administer St. Paul’s assets made a claim for its losses against CUMIS under a bond policy it had issued in favor of St. Paul.  CUMIS responded not only by claiming that the bond policy was invalid from its inception because Mr. Raguz made material misrepresentations in obtaining and renewing it, but also because the policy stated that “legal proceedings” to recover loss from CUMIS had to be “brought within two years of Discovery of Loss.”  Under the policy, “Discovery occur[ed] when [St. Paul] first become aware of facts which would cause a reasonable person to assume that a loss of a type covered under this Bond has been or will be incurred, regardless of when the act or acts causing or contributing to such loss occurred.”

To support its contention that St. Paul was aware of the loss long before it brought suit, CUMIS argued that the St. Paul board of directors were aware of two “critical facts” about the fraud, which would have led a reasonable person to assume a loss.  First, CUMIS claimed that the delinquency rate of zero for the loan portfolio was unreasonable given its size, and that the directors should have known this fact more than two years before the lawsuit.  In addition, CUMIS claimed that the directors should have known of the fraud more than two years in advance because the loan portfolio included $131.2 million of loans that were purportedly secured by deposits, even though in fact there were only $122.5 million of deposits securing the loans.     Read More ›

The Inbox – When Suits Break Bad

Federal prosecutors recently indicted David Colletti, a former VP of marketing with MillerCoors LLC, on charges relating to a scheme to embezzle $7 million from the beer brewing giant. Mr. Colletti, a thirty-year veteran of the company, allegedly broke bad by conspiring with others to defraud the company through fictitious invoices for promotional and other events that were never held. According to Law 360, MillerCoors sued its former marketing executive for $13.3 million last year in an effort to recover for the alleged fraud. Prosecutors claim that Mr. Colletti and his co-conspirators used the proceeds to purchase collectible firearms, golf and hunting trips, and—perhaps inspired by Pink Floyd—even bought an arena football team. 

Nanoventions Holdings is a Georgia company that designs and manufactures microstructure technology used to prevent the counterfeiting of such things as currency, driver’s licenses, and event tickets. In 2011, $2 million went missing, and an investigation revealed that that its CFO, Steve Daniels, allegedly forged checks and converted funds to his own use as owner of a company called BIW Enterprises. In an interesting twist, BIW is engaged in the business of growing and distributing marijuana in California. According to Courthouse News Service, the company is suing Mr. Daniels for compensatory, treble and punitive damages under Georgia RICO statutes, and related causes of action.  If the allegations are true, one might find a historical equivalent to these events in the 1920s, when the president of the Loft Candy Company stole thousands of dollars to buy Pepsi-Cola out of bankruptcy.  Loft Candy ended up owning Pepsi on the basis that it was a stolen corporate opportunity.  If Georgia shared Colorado’s stance on marijuana legalization, would the court award ownership of the pot business to Nanoventions?  Oh what a difference a century makes. Read More ›

In Reversal of Fortune, Court of Appeals Finds Ambiguity in Executive’s General Release

Last May, we covered a decision by a Michigan federal court that torpedoed Debourah Mattatall’s claims against her former employee, Transdermal Corporation.  Now, thanks to a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Mattatall’s claims have been brought back to life.

To briefly recap the facts, Mattatall used to own a company called DPM Therapeutics Corporation.  She sold it to Transdermal and entered into a Stock Purchase Agreement and Employment Agreement with that company.  According to Mattatall, Transdermal didn’t comply with its obligations, and she sued it in federal court.  But the court quickly granted summary judgment, finding that Mattatall gave up her claims in a settlement agreement that resolved other litigation against her.

In that litigation, DPM’s minority shareholders challenged the sale to Transdermal, and Transdermal countersued those shareholders.  The parties to the litigation, including Mattatall, resolved the dispute and entered into a settlement agreement and a general release.  The release stated that “Transdermal, DPM, [another controlling owner], and Mattatall and each [minority shareholder] … release[d], waive[d] and forever discharge[d] each other” from any claims arising before the agreement was signed.  In Mattatall’s subsequent lawsuit against her employer, Transdermal, the district court ruled that this language released all claims that any party to the agreement had against any other party – even though Transdermal and Mattatall were on the same side in the shareholder litigation, and Transdermal reassured Mattatall that she wasn’t releasing her unrelated claims against it before she signed.  Because her claims against Transdermal fell within the “unambiguous” and “broadly worded” terms of the release, this evidence was irrelevant, and Mattatall was out of court. Read More ›

Faithless Fiduciary: What Happens WhenThe Employee Responsible For The Purchase Of D&O Coverage Also Commits Fraud?

The recent decision in National Credit Union Administration Board, as Liquidating Agent of St. Paul Croatian Federal Credit Union v. CUMIS Insurance Society, Inc., from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, is yet another case illustrating how important the precise terms of a policy can be in determining the coverage.  As we’ve previously discussed on this blog (here and here), a D&O insurance policy is reliable protection for the indemnification rights of the officers and directors in times of financial distress.  Many policies also offer coverage to the entity for injuries caused by misdeeds of its employees.  The St. Paul case illustrates what can happen when the employee charged with procuring the insurance policy on behalf of the entity is also the party engaging in fraudulent conduct. 

St. Paul Croatian Federal Credit Union (“St. Paul”) was established in 1943 to serve members of St. Paul Croatian parish in Cleveland, Ohio.  For more than 53 years it operated from a single branch with about 3 employees.  In 1996, a manager retired and one of the tellers, Anthony Raguz, was promoted to fill his position.  The credit union grew tremendously over the next fifteen years, and by March 31, 2010, St. Paul had total assets of $250 Million and a loan portfolio of $240 Million.  Read More ›

The Inbox – Trends in the C-Suite

Doug Parker, the Chairman and CEO of American Airlines, has just joined a small cadre of executives who earn no salaries. Before anyone starts a GoFundMe page for Mr. Parker, consider that his 2015 compensation consists of 207,672 restricted stock units, the value of which will depend upon the airline’s performance. According to the Wall Street Journal, the stock units could amount to compensation in the range of $10.7 million if calculated using the current stock price of $51.40. By comparison, Mr. Parker earned $12.3 million in 2014, 40% of which was cash in the form of a $700,000 base salary and annual cash incentives. Mark Reilly, head of Verisight, Inc., a firm of executive compensation consultants, told the Journal that this type of compensation structure is more often found in companies facing financial hardship, and the lack of salary is offset by more generous stock awards. In the case of an executive in an established, mature industry, the message seems to be that Mr. Parker believes in the stock and that he is willing to tie his compensation to its performance.  Given US Airways’ performance since its merger with American in 2013, this wouldn’t seem like an incredible risk on his part. The combined company “has soared to record profit and its stock has climbed 42% in the past year.” Read More ›