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© 2015 Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

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 ›

L’Oreal Lawyer Claims Company Fired Him When He Wouldn’t Pursue Problematic Patents

After firing its head patent attorney, Steven Trzaska, L’Oreal is now under fire from Trzaska in New Jersey federal court.  On April 16, 2015, Trzaska sued L’Oreal, claiming that his firing violated New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).

In his complaint (available at Law360), Trzaska alleges that L’Oreal had a quota for its New Jersey office of 40 filed patent applications in 2014.  But, Trzaska contends, an outside consultant had previously found that many of L’Oreal’s patent applications were purely cosmetic, saying that “the vast majority of its inventions were of low or poor quality.”  Trzaska alleges that his superiors pressured him to file applications to meet the quota.  However, he told them that “neither he nor the patent attorneys who reported to him were willing to file patent applications that the attorneys believed were not patentable.”  Soon after, L’Oreal terminated him, saying that it was hiring a new “head of patents of the Americas.”  Trzaska claims that this explanation was pretext and that the company in fact fired him because he refused to file applications that were not patentable.

How do Trzaska’s claims line up with CEPA?  Read More ›

Seeking Coverage Under Your D&O Insurance Policy: What Is A Claim And When Was It Made?

Companies buy directors & officers (“D&O”) insurance policies with the intention of providing protection for key individuals in a corporate structure.  The recent decision BioChemics, Inc. v. AXIS Reinsurance Co., from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, illustrates the importance of the terms of the policy in determining what is covered, what is not, and when you should notify the insurer of a potential claim.

As we’ve previously discussed, an insurance policy can provide more reliable protection for the indemnification rights of the directors and officers in times of financial distress, because corporations plagued by regulatory or other legal problems frequently suffer financial setbacks.  However, when a corporation is the subject of an official investigation, determining exactly what constitutes the start of a covered “claim” may be a matter of some delicacy.  Read More ›

The Inbox – The “Pao Effect”

Ellen Pao may not have won her gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins, but she may have inspired numerous women working in Silicon Valley who identified with her cause. According to Fortune, employment lawyers are seeing a heightened awareness among women that the workplace issues they face, and that Ms. Pao articulated in her case, are perhaps more widespread than not. This “Pao Effect” has Kay Lucas, a San Francisco-based employment law attorney, fielding twice as many calls each week from potential clients with workplace gender discrimination concerns. Kelly Dermody, a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, has litigated gender discrimination cases for a decade, and told Fortune that her clients now have a heightened willingness to speak out. Lucas also said that companies are more inclined to settle instead of allowing information to become public, and as we observed with the Pao trial, highly publicized. Lucas noted that many of her clients’ complaints share similar themes involving exclusion from important meetings and denied access to the circles of influence. Yet, she said to Fortune, “these women are not particularly angry; they’re ambitious. They’re not victims; they want to be participants.”

A quick search of legal news gives this “Pao Effect” additional credibility.  According to Law 360, Heather McCloskey recently sued Paymentwall, Inc. for sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation and failure to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment and discrimination. Ms. McCloskey alleged that executive Benoit Boisset routinely harassed her, calling attention to her physical appearance in a demeaning manner. As she became more vocal in her objections, Boisset used expletives when referring to her, and ultimately terminated her employment. McCloskey also described the workplace environment as young, predominantly male and lacking any formalized set of rules or policies. Kelly Dermody cited these kinds of workplace dynamics as partially to blame for the volume of complaints arising from Silicon Valley. She opined to Fortune that many tech companies take off “really quickly without a lot of attention to human resources.” Consequently, “you have a lot of young managers who make young managers’ mistakes,” which might encompass many of the alleged missteps in the Paymentwall case. Read More ›

The Fashionable and the Furious: Dov Charney Seeks $40 Million from American Apparel

Last summer, we covered in depth the resounding repercussions from American Apparel’s decision to terminate its CEO and founder, Dov Charney.  Now, the sequel has arrived – and it promises lots of action.

Matt Townsend of Bloomberg Business reports that Charney has resumed his arbitration against his former employer, in which he is seeking $40 million from the clothing company.  Charney previously agreed to put his claims on hold while American Apparel made its final decision about whether to terminate him.  After an investigation, the board decided in December to cut Charney loose.  Read More ›

Whose Idea Is It? Make Sure Employees Clearly Transfer Ownership Of The Intellectual Property To The Organization Before Parting Ways

            In the previous blog post, we discussed the ongoing bankruptcy litigation between Crystal Cathedral Ministries and its founder Dr. Robert Schuller over the rejection of his Transition Agreement.  That contract purported to spell out the relationship between the parties as Dr. Schuller stepped aside from his post as senior pastor.  The determination of whether that agreement was intended to be an employment agreement, and subject to the strict limitations of section 502(b)(7), or a retirement benefit which is not so limited, is pending before the Supreme Court.  However, Dr. Schuller’s case also presented other interesting issues that could be instructive for other employers.

            In addition to his claim for damages based on the rejection of the Transition Agreement, Dr. Schuller sought compensation from tCrystal Cathedral (the bankruptcy debtor) in an undetermined amount, for allegedly improper use of his intellectual property.  The intellectual property, which consisted of more than 35 years of books, sermons and other writings, had been produced by Dr. Schuller while he was employed by the debtor as its senior pastor.  Dr. Schuller, individually and through a wholly owned corporation, asserted a copyright to these materials.  Under the Transition Agreement between the debtor and Dr. Schuller, the intellectual property was made available to the debtor for use pursuant to a royalty free license.  Read More ›