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© 2014 Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

Two Federal Agencies Battle In Federal Court Over Whistleblower Treatment

Talk about your inter-family disputes: one federal agency – the Department of Labor – has filed suit against the United States Postal Service, an independent federal agency (but one of the few explicitly authorized by the Constitution).  The reason for the federal lawsuit, filed in Missouri: the Postal Service’s alleged poor treatment, firing, and alleged harassment of an employee who claims he blew the whistle on safety hazards in a mail facility. 

Here’s the background, delivered despite any contrary weather: Thomas Purviance worked for the Postal Service for 35 years, most recently as a maintenance supervisor at a mail distribution center near St. Louis.  He had no record of disciplinary or performance issues.  In late December 2009, Purviance complained to his supervisors about what he perceived to be carbon monoxide and fuel oil leaks from some of the equipment at the center, as well as a pile of oil-soaked rags which he thought was a safety hazard.  Getting no response, Purviance eventually called the local fire marshal and made a 911 call to report the carbon monoxide leak.   Read More ›

The Inbox: July 18, 2014

We’re in the midst of summer and the news outlets are replete with anti-compete and whistleblower developments.  But before we get to those, let’s turn our attention to China:

If the dog days of summer here in the U.S. aren’t sweltering enough, imagine what they must feel like in the bustling, smog-laden cities of China. The Wall Street Journal reports that Coca- Cola Co. offers “environmental hardship pay” to some employees as a condition for relocating to some of China’s cities. Ed Hannibal of the HR consulting firm, Mercer LLC, indicates that it is not uncommon for multinational companies to offer the extra pay to incentivize workers to relocate to polluted cities. It helps to offset severe living conditions and ensure the company’s continued presence on the ground. 

These days it seems employers face an uphill battle to see non-compete agreements prevail in court.  Recently, a Louisiana state court carefully examined the terms of a non-compete in Gulf Industries, Inc. v. Boylan (La. App. 1 Cir. June 6, 2014).  The National Law Review reports that the employer in this case inserted a two year non-compete provision into a one-year employment contract. According to the Court, even though Boylan’s employment extended two years past the date specified in the employment contract, the non-compete provision kicked in when the one year employment term was satisfied. The employer sought to extend the non-compete, arguing that it did not take effect until Boylan resigned. The Court disagreed and held that the non-compete had run during Boylan’s continued employment with the company. Little did he realize at the time, but Boylan was quite the multi-tasker. Read More ›

By Terminating Its CEO, American Apparel Unexpectedly Unravels Lending Agreement

Firing a key executive can have repercussions beyond a severance dispute or a wrongful termination or discrimination claim by the executive.  American Apparel’s recent termination of its CEO, Dov Charney, provides the latest example of the wide-ranging consequences that can arise when a C-level employee is let go.  In American Apparel’s case, the consequences have included the threat of default on a $15 million loan and a resulting shareholder lawsuit.

How did this happen?  According to the New York Post, when Lion Capital LLC lent American Apparel the $15 million, the two entered into a lending agreement that said American Apparel would be in default if it fired Charney.  After American Apparel’s board told Charney it was going to fire him in 30 days, Lion Capital accelerated its demand for payment on the loan, threatening the company with bankruptcy.  American Apparel argued in an SEC filing that it wasn’t in default because Charney was still technically CEO.  However, it continued to work behind the scenes to remedy the situation.  Now, the company now appears to have struck a deal with a hedge fund to save it from Chapter 11. Read More ›

The Inbox - Independence Day Edition

Happy 4th of July! While many Americans enjoy a festive day of parades, barbecues and fireworks, let’s see if this week’s highlights spark your interest:

  • The American Apparel/Dov Charney feud seems set to implode as the parties fire missiles and missives at one another. According to Fortune, Mr. Charney requested a special shareholder meeting in an attempt to increase the number of sympathetic directors on the board while also reporting in a regulatory filing that he is working with investment firm Standard General to amass a controlling interest. Meanwhile, American Apparel responded by adopting a poison pill which would cap a shareholder or group of shareholders interest at 15 percent.
  • Bloomberg reported that the former employees of Goldman Sachs, who have alleged gender bias in their suit against it, ignited a class certification request on Tuesday. In support of their motion, the plaintiffs argued that female vice presidents and associates were systematically paid and promoted less than their male counterparts in the investment banking, management and securities divisions since September 10, 2002.   
Read More ›

What’s Worse Than Losing A Non-Compete Dispute? Paying $200K ‎For The Fun Of Losing

Jar of Money Emptying OutNo 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. Read More ›

The Inbox – World Cup Edition

On Thursday, even though the United States lost to Germany, they moved on from the Group of Death to take on Belgium in the World Cup round of 16. In honor of US Soccer’s achievement, we are glad to present this footy-themed edition of the Inbox.

  • The New York Post continues to report on the controversy surrounding last week’s decision to terminate American Apparel CEO Dov Charney. In this piece, one of our editors achieved his goal of being quoted in that paper, although neither he nor Charney got a clever rhyming front-page headline.
  • A New Jersey judge issued a red card to a shareholder lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, tossing the case out on summary judgment. MassDevice.com reported that the judge decided that J&J acted in good faith when it decided not to claw back $40 million that had been paid to its former CEO, William Weldon.
Read More ›

SEC’s First Anti-Retaliation Action Under Dodd-Frank Act Carries Warning for Employers

The Securities & Exchange Commission gained significant new enforcement powers in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010.  Under the Act, the SEC can award bounties to whistleblowers who provide information leading to successful enforcement actions.  It has already exercised this power, making eight whistleblower awards since starting its whistleblower program in late 2011.  The Dodd-Frank Act also allows the SEC to sue an employer who retaliates against a whistleblower, but the SEC hasn’t previously taken that step. 

Ten days ago, that changed.  The SEC announced that it had charged Paradigm Capital Management and owner Candace King Weir with engaging in prohibited trades and retaliating against a head trader who reported the trades to the SEC, and that Paradigm and Weir had settled the charges for $2.2 million.  Without its new enforcement authority under Dodd-Frank, the SEC wouldn’t have been able to bring the retaliation charge. 

According to the SEC’s press release, Paradigm “removed [the whistleblower] from his head trader position, tasked him with investigating the very conduct he reported to the SEC, changed his job function from head trader to a full-time compliance assistant, stripped him of his supervisory responsibilities, and otherwise marginalized him.” 

The formal order issued by the SEC further describes what happened to the whistleblower.  The day after the trader told Paradigm that he had reported these particular trades to the SEC, Paradigm removed him from his position.  The trader and Paradigm tried to negotiate a severance package, but when that fell through, Paradigm brought him back to investigate trades and work on compliance policies – but not to resume his head trading responsibilities.  Read More ›

…And All He Got Was a Fashionable T-Shirt: American Apparel Terminates Its CEO

Green t-shirtLast week, American Apparel announced that its board had decided to terminate Dov Charney, the company’s founder, CEO, and Chairman, “for cause.”  (We’ve discussed the meaning of terminations “for cause” in prior posts here and here.)  The board also immediately suspended Charney from his positions with the company.  Although the board didn’t initially disclose the reasons for its action, Charney is not new to controversy; in recent years, he has faced allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

The reasons for Charney’s termination have now become public, and they aren’t pretty.  In its termination letter, available here, the board accuses Charney of putting the company at significant litigation risk.  It complains that he sexually harassed employees and allowed another employee to post false information online about a former employee, which led to a substantial lawsuit.  The board also says that Charney misused corporate assets for “personal, non-business reasons,” including making severance payments to protect himself from personal liability.  According to the board, Charney’s behavior has harmed the company’s “business reputation,” scaring away potential financing sources. Read More ›

The Inbox: June 20, 2014

Whiste against a blue suit tieThis has been a noteworthy week here at Suits by Suits for developments in the law concerning whistleblowers; in addition to our in-depth articles we published this week, we also saw the following developments:

Of course, not everything that happened this week involved whistleblowers; here are a few other Suits by Suits that may be of interest:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in a case that will determine whether mortgage loan officers are “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity” and thus exempt from mandatory overtime pay requirements.
  • Finally, the Washington Post documented the fallout over years’ worth of complants about American Apparel’s CEO Dov Charney (as well as photographer Terry Richardson) for multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct.  Despite founding the company, the American Apparel board of directors ultimately suspended Charney for a 30-day cure period as required by contract before he can be terminated.  Charney’s bizarre conduct is alleged to include wandering through American Apparel offices in his underpants, masturbating in front of a (female) reporter, among other behvaiors that led one plaintiff to describe his leadership as a “reign of sexual terror.”  The Post also called out Richardson’s “aesthetic of hipster softcore pornography” (which it then documents by reproducing a half-dozen advertising shots of young-looking models).

Second Circuit To Weigh Whether Whistleblower Protections Extend Internationally

International FlagsWhile we’re talking about whistleblowers, it’s worth noting that two days ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument on appeal from the a federal district court’s opinion in Meng-Lin Liu v. Siemens AG, 978 F.Supp.2d 325 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). This case raises the significant question as to whether the anti-retaliation provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(a), apply to an employee who is terminated by a non-U.S. corporation that does business in (and is regulated by) the United States. Read More ›