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© 2014 Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

Employee Wins Cross-Country Wage War Against CEO

The Supreme Court of Washington’s recent decision in Failla v. FixtureOne Corporation is noteworthy on two levels.

First, it involved the surprising claim by a salesperson, Kristine Failla, that the CEO of her employer (FixtureOne) was personally liable for failing to pay her sales commissions.  Typically, if an employee had a claim for unpaid commissions, you’d expect the employee to assert that claim against her company, not the chief.  But under the wage laws of the state of Washington, an employee has a cause of action against “[a]ny employer or officer, vice principal or agent of any employer ... who ... [w]ilfully and with intent to deprive the employee of any part of his or her wages, [pays] any employee a lower wage than the wage such employer is obligated to pay such employee by any statute, ordinance, or contract.”  Read More ›

The Inbox - What Would Woody Guthrie Think?

Putting an imperious spin on a Woody Guthrie classic, I imagine Jimmy John’s singing, “This land is my land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island.” The sandwich giant has garnered a meaty amount of press (and congressional scrutiny) lately over the breadth of its non-compete agreements with its employees. The language, as written, would essentially prevent employees, from management down to the hourly sandwich builder, from seeking employment with a competitor for up to two years following the employee’s departure. The non-compete, although not universally utilized by Jimmy John’s franchisees, further defines a competitor as any business that derives more than 10% of its revenue from sandwiches, wraps, hoagies, etc., and is within a 3 mile radius of a Jimmy John’s location.  According to HuffPost, Jimmy John’s has yet to enforce the clause against a minimum wage-earning sandwich maker or delivery truck driver, but The Atlantic’s CityLab map demonstrates the potential impact on the departing employee who might wish to make sandwiches elsewhere.

Comcast may have found an enemy for life in a former cable-subscribing customer. Comcast recently received a novel form of public scrutiny when Conal O’Rourke, a PWC accountant, accused it of causing his termination from PricewaterhouseCoopers. O’Rourke alleged in a complaint filed in California federal court that Comcast’s Controller, Lawrence Salva, contacted a PWC principal, alleging that O’Rourke invoked his position at the accounting firm to gain leverage in his ongoing arguments with Comcast over billing issues and equipment charges. According to Bloomberg, the Philadelphia office of PWC billed Comcast around $30 million for its accounting services, thereby giving Comcast leverage to potentially request the action from PWC. PWC, in its defense, claimed that O’Rourke was fired for violating company policy covering employee conduct. O’Rourke allegedly accused Comcast of questionable accounting practices during his (what I am sure were “spirited”) telephone exchanges with Comcast customer service representatives. Read More ›

The Supreme Court’s Recent Decision on the Taxation of Severance Payments

Today, we discuss taxes – specifically, the taxation of severance payments.  It has long been recognized that severance payments are “income” to an employee, and that employers must withhold federal income taxes from the payments.  Earlier this year, the Supreme Court made clear that severance payments also are “wages” subject to FICA taxes, and that an employer must withhold FICA taxes as well.  The case, United States v. Quality Stores, 134 S. Ct. 1395 (2014), resolved a split among two federal appellate courts that had led many employers to seek a refund of the employer share of FICA taxes paid to the IRS on severance payments.

FICA is the federal payroll tax on wages that funds Social Security and Medicare.  The tax is paid by both employers and employees.  Each pays 7.65% on the first $106,800 of the employee’s annual wages and then 1.45% on amounts exceeding that threshold.  Employees never see their share of the tax – employers are required to withhold and pay the employee’s share to the IRS. 

In the 2008 case of CSX Corporation v. United States, 518 F.3d 1328, the Federal Circuit agreed with the IRS that a form of severance called supplemental unemployment compensation benefits (or SUB payments) falls within the broad definition of “wages” subject to FICA taxes. But several years later in Quality Stores, the Sixth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion, holding that SUB payments are not wages subject to FICA taxes.  693 F.3d 605 (2012).  The court reasoned that because section 3402(o)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code states that SUB payments shall be treated “as if” they are wages for income-tax withholding, they are not in fact wages. Read More ›

A Closer Look At The Defamation Suit By Walgreen’s Former Finance Chief

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. Read More ›

Judge Approves $20 Million in Executive Bonuses From Bankrupt Company, Finding That Incentives Weren't "Lay-ups"

A bankruptcy can be hazardous to the health of an executive’s bonus check.  Sometimes, however, an executive can survive an attack on a bonus in a bankruptcy, and come out clean on the other side.  For example, we covered here how one executive succeeded in keeping most of his incentive payments based on the timing of those payments. 

Now, we have another lesson in how executives can keep their bonus checks despite a bankruptcy, from Judge Christopher S. Sontchi of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.  The company at issue in the case was Energy Future Holdings Corp. (EFH), a holding company with a portfolio of Texas electricity retailers.  EFH filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April of this year. Read More ›

The Inbox - There Will Be Damages

Last week, a Texas state court issued a whopping judgment in favor of a former employee of FE Services LLC. The case stemmed from an employment agreement between the founder of FE Services, doing business as Foxxe Energy, and a friend he enlisted to join the company. Founder James Stewart induced his friend, Marc Jan Levesconte, to work for the company with the promise of a significant cut of any future sale. Levesconte was terminated on the eve of the company’s $52 million acquisition by Ensign Services LLC. According to Law 360, Levesconte brought a breach of contract suit two years ago. Now, the court has decided that Ensign and Stewart owe him $16 million. You may recall the famous scene from There Will Be Blood where energy magnate Daniel Plainview taunts Eli with the milkshake metaphor (“I drink your milkshake!) and revels in his dominance of the oil-rich land. If Stewart drank Levesconte's milkshake, his (presumably) former friend Levesconte is now sipping from his own end of the straw.

As the term implies, a “trade secret” normally describes information kept confidential to prevent unfair competitive advantage. Is it possible that information housed on social media could also be protected as a trade secret? A California federal court will hold a trial on this novel question in Cellular Accessories For Less, Inc. v. Trinitas, LLC, No. CV 12-06736 DDP. The National Law Review discusses the suit in which Cellular Accessories sued a former employee, David Oakes, alleging breach of contract. Oakes, upon his departure, emailed himself a list of business contacts and other supporting information, and ultimately founded his own competing business, named Trinitas. He  continued to maintain his same business contacts on his LinkedIn profile. During his employment with Cellular Accessories, however, Oakes had signed an employment agreement and a statement of confidentiality which forbade the transfer of proprietary information, including the company's customer base. The confidentiality agreement further forbade the use or disclosure of such proprietary information. The company sued him for trade secret misappropriation under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act and for breach of contract. Whether information is a trade secret under California law depends on whether the information is easily ascertained or otherwise available to the public. In this case, the court said, the parties hadn't given it enough detail to decide whether Oakes's contact list was actually available to everyone else who contacted him, and whether Oakes had control over the public availability of that list. Therefore, the court couldn't resolve the trade secrets issue on summary judgment (although it could resolve the breach of contract claim because Cellular Accessories had not established a loss). Perhaps equally interesting is the question of who owns the LinkedIn account. Can a trade secret belonging to Cellular Accessories exist in a public form essentially owned by the employee? We will keep you updated as the drama unfolds. Read More ›

Government Investigations: The Treacherous Path to Obtaining (and Keeping!) Defense Costs Paid Under D&O Policies

Bridge in disrepairFor my first foray into blog-writing, allow me to tell a cautionary tale intersecting two of my favorite topics: defending companies and individuals in government investigations and Directors and Officers (D&O) Liability Coverage. As a contract junkie who enjoys reading, interpreting, and arguing contract language, parsing through various interrelated D&O policy provisions to glean favorable language for my white collar clients offers hours of amusement (lest ye be worried about me, I do have other hobbies).  D&O policies can be effectively used to defray defense costs incurred due to a government investigation.  The trick is keeping the money. 

The recent suit between Protection Strategies, Inc. (PSI) and Starr Indemnity & Liability Co. in the Eastern District of Virginia, case 1:13-cv-00763-LO-IDD, illustrates how difficult keeping the money can be. PSI is an Arlington, Va.-based defense contractor. In January 2012, PSI received a subpoena from the NASA Office of the Inspector General and a search warrant issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.  On February 1, 2012, the NASA OIG executed the search warrant at PSI’s headquarters.  In addition to the company itself, several of PSI’s current and former officers were informed that they were also targets of the NASA OIG investigation. PSI retained Dickstein Shapiro to represent it and hired separate counsel to represent the individual targets and other company employees. Read More ›

After Torching Laptop, CEO Feels the Heat of Sanctions

Computer on fireFire consumes all – including, perhaps, one CEO’s chance of winning his lawsuit.  Because G. Wesley Blankenship burned relevant evidence, the jury in his case will now be told that it should assume the lost documents were bad for him.  

Blankenship left his job as CEO of Security Controls, Inc. in early 2012.  He soon decided to put even more distance between himself and his employer by having a bonfire.  Into the flames went Blankenship’s laptop and his SCI paper files. 

This turned out to be a bad choice when Blankenship sued SCI and its directors in mid-2012, alleging that they weren’t giving him proper value for his shares in the company.  Blankenship’s lawyers eventually informed SCI of the fire, and SCI moved for sanctions, arguing that Blankenship had knowingly “spoliated” – i.e., destroyed – relevant evidence.  As we’ve previously discussed in this post, spoliation can have serious consequences for litigants.  Among these consequences are jury instructions that allow jurors to assume that the destroyed documents were detrimental to the party’s case. Read More ›

Show Some Consideration

Man washing carMost law students spend several weeks in a first-year contracts class studying the concept of consideration. Consideration, in essence, is what a contracting party receives in exchange for promising to do something. A promise without consideration is not an enforceable contract. If A promises to wash B’s car next Tuesday and fails to do so, B cannot sue A on Wednesday, because A’s promise lacked consideration. But if A promises to wash B’s car and B promises to give A $20, or $1, or a glass of water, the promise is enforceable and B can sue if A fails to perform. Courts generally do not examine the adequacy of consideration, only its existence.

Because consideration can be minimal, many lawyers forget about it after that first year of law school. But it remains a necessary element of most contracts, and it recently arose in a peculiar way in a Connecticut case involving a dispute over an employment contract. See Thoma v. Oxford Performance Materials, Inc., 153 Conn. App. 50 (2014).

The plaintiff in the case, Lynne Thoma, was an employee of a manufacturing company. During her employment the company obtained new financing, and the investor insisted that Ms. Thoma enter into an employment agreement. This “first agreement” gave Ms. Thoma a fixed salary plus benefits for a 24-month period with automatic 12-month renewals. The company could fire her without cause on 60 days’ notice, but it would then be obligated to pay her salary for the remainder of the term plus six months. The first agreement also included a noncompete provision for the period of Ms. Thoma’s employment plus six months thereafter.

The company almost immediately decided it did not like certain terms of the first agreement and it required Ms. Thoma to enter a second agreement, which by its terms stated that it superseded any prior agreements. The second agreement did not discuss salary or severance, but it expressly stated that Ms. Thoma was an at-will employee. It also included a noncompete provision with apparently inconsistent terms: one section stated that she would not compete “during the period of her employment” and the other said that if she was terminated she would “continue to comply” with the noncompete provision.

The company fired Ms. Thoma about 16 months after the parties executed these agreements. Ms. Thoma sued, claiming that the company breached the first agreement by firing her without notice before her term ended and by failing to pay severance. The company claimed that the second agreement allowed it to fire her without notice at any time and did not require severance payments. But the trial court found, and the appellate court agreed, that the second agreement was not enforceable because it lacked consideration. Read More ›

The Inbox - Liars, Titans and Terror Babies, Oh My!

Pregnant WomanIf executives lie and fudge credentials on their resumes, they may find their pantsuits on fire when falsehoods are discovered. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that David Tovar, a top Wal-Mart spokesperson, was terminated recently when a bogus credential was discovered through the company’s promotion-vetting process. According to the Journal, liars and resume-fakers should beware of embellishing their credentials given the increased digitization of transcripts and diplomas. A company named Parchment, for example, houses these credentials in a secure database, allowing employers and employees to substantiate resume claims. Additionally, Pearson PLC has developed a digital platform whereby recipients of licenses and certifications can post “badges” to their profiles on websites like LinkedIn. It’s all in an effort to keep everyone honest, especially those who need a little nudging in that direction.  

The University of Detroit Mercy’s Titans athletic department has seen its share of controversy stemming from a lawsuit filed by former assistant basketball coach, Carlos Briggs. According to The Varsity News, Briggs claimed he was terminated for blowing the whistle on an affair between the athletic director and another assistant coach. A federal judge dismissed the case, asserting that no recognized cause of action arose from his colleagues’ extramarital relationship. Briggs is appealing with the hopes that an oral argument on the merits will give weight to his claims. Read More ›