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© 2015 Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

In Argument in Abercrombie & Fitch Case, Court Offers Solutions for Headscarf Issue

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard argument in the religious discrimination case of EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., which made our list as one of our five issues to watch for 2015.  The case arises under Title VII, the federal law that makes it illegal for an employer “to discriminate against any individual with respect to h[er] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . . religion.”  The EEOC alleges that Abercrombie, purveyor of “authentic American clothing,” discriminated against Samantha Elauf on religious grounds.  The company refused to hire Elauf because she wore a headscarf, or hijab, to her job interview, and the company’s “Look Policy” prohibited employees from wearing “caps.” 

In earlier depositions in the case, Elauf’s interviewer at Abercrombie testified that she “assumed that [Elauf] was Muslim,” and “figured that was the religious reason why she wore her head scarf.”  The interviewer said that she went to her district manager to discuss the headscarf issue, and told him that “[Elauf] wears the head scarf for religious reasons, I believe.”  The interviewer testified that the district manager then told her not to hire Elauf because of the headscarf and said, “[S]omeone can come in and paint themselves green and say they were doing it for religious reasons, and we can’t hire them.”  As a result, the interviewer lowered Elauf’s “appearance” score on her evaluation, and Elauf didn’t get the job.

Despite this testimony, the Tenth Circuit still entered summary judgment for Abercrombie, holding that the EEOC’s discrimination claim could not proceed to trial because Elauf “never informed Abercrombie prior to its hiring decision that she wore her headscarf or ‘hijab’  for religious reasons and that she needed an accommodation for that practice, due to a conflict between the practice and Abercrombie’s clothing policy.” 

The fact that the Tenth Circuit granted summary judgment, even though the interviewer admitted that she assumed that Elauf wore the scarf for religious reasons, helps explain the concerns, and potential solutions, that the Justices raised in yesterday’s argument.  Read More ›

SOX Clawback Provision Takes Another Bite

Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requires the CEO and CFO of an issuer that has restated its financial statements to reimburse the company for any incentive or equity-based compensation, and for the profits on any stock sales of the company’s stock, during the 12-month period following the first issuance of the offending financial statements.   Although this provision has been used sparingly by the SEC, the recent settlement of SEC investigatory charges by Saba Software, in which executives who were not charged with any wrongdoing agreed to repay bonuses and stock profits, is a cautionary tale for CEOs and CFOs of publicly traded companies.  

Saba Software became the subject of an SEC investigation and enforcement action arising out of an alleged scheme to overstate revenues by overbooking and pre-booking time statements of international consultants in order to meet pre-arranged time estimates.  As part of the settlement of the SEC charges in the fall of 2014, Saba was required to restate its financial records for the years 2009 through part of 2012.  In a contemporaneous settlement, Saba’s CEO agreed to reimburse the company for over $2.5 million in incentive and equity compensation and profits from stock sales earned following the issuance of the financial statements the company restated.  http://www.sec.gov/News/PressRelease/Detail/PressRelease/1370543035992#.VOtSdC6LXfc. Read More ›

Former Venture Capital Partner Gets Her Day (Actually, Month) in Court

Silicon Valley is buzzing about the trial in Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers LLP, which got underway on Tuesday.  According to USA Today, a UC-Berkeley professor says that you “can’t be within a stone’s throw of the Valley without hearing” about the case.

The cast of characters (described here by the San Francisco Business Times) includes a number of heavy hitters, including Pao herself.  Pao, a graduate of Princeton, Harvard Law, and Harvard Business School, is now the CEO of Reddit.  Kleiner Perkins is a well-known venture capital firm in Menlo Park, a city that has been described as the “center of the venture capital universe.”

Pao’s allegations are explosive.  She contends that she had a brief affair with a married junior partner who continued to harass her after she broke off their relationship.  Her claims about the firm go deeper than just this harassment; she contends that the firm had an overarching culture of discrimination against women, culminating in her dismissal in October 2012.  Read More ›

Hello, Federal: Can Out-of-State Employers Contract Around Maryland’s Wage Payment Law?

An earlier generation of Baltimore lawyers used to say that the outcome of a case should not depend on which side of Calvert Street it was filed. This made sense when the federal court was on the east side of Calvert and the state court on the west. The statement was a colloquial expression of the Erie doctrine, which requires federal courts to apply state law when federal jurisdiction depends on diversity of the parties’ citizenship.

The Erie doctrine requires federal judges to figure out how state judges would rule in certain matters. You might imagine a federal judge strolling across Calvert Street to ask for some advice. But that’s not how state and federal judges speak to one another (and not just because the federal court long ago moved to a dismal building on Lombard Street).

Instead, federal judges read the published judicial decisions from the state whose law applies. Under Erie, federal judges are required to follow the holding of decisions from the state’s highest court. They are not required to follow “dicta” – statements in a judicial opinion that are not necessary to the outcome. In many cases, the state’s highest court has not ruled on the particular legal question at issue. In that event, the federal court must predict how the state court would rule based on other sources of state law. One of those sources is “considered dicta” (or well-reasoned dicta) from the decisions of the state’s highest court. Read More ›

Fourth Circuit Upholds Jury’s Sarbanes-Oxley Award of Emotional Distress Damages to Fired CFO

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s whistleblower protection provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, allows a wrongfully terminated whistleblower to recover “all relief necessary to make [her] whole.”  18 U.S.C. § 1514A(c)(1).  The statute then goes on to say that compensatory damages include reinstatement, back pay, and “special damages,” including expert fees and reasonable attorneys fees.  In an opinion issued this week, the Fourth Circuit held that Sarbanes-Oxley damages don’t just include these enumerated damages.  Rather, an employee can obtain other compensation for harm, including emotional distress damages.  Jones v. SouthPeak Interactive Corp. of Delaware, Nos. 13-2399, 14-1765 (4th Cir. Jan. 26, 2015).

The plaintiff in the case, Andrea Gail Jones, was the former chief financial officer of SouthPeak, a video game manufacturer.  According to the opinion, in 2009, SouthPeak wanted to buy copies of a video game for distribution, but didn’t have the cash to buy the games up front.  Instead, SouthPeak’s chairman, Terry Phillips, personally fronted Nintendo over $300,000.  When SouthPeak didn’t record this debt, Jones raised a stink, eventually telling the company’s outside counsel that the company was committing fraud.  The same day, the company’s board fired her.  Read More ›

Supreme Court Holds That TSA Whistleblower’s Disclosure Wasn’t “Prohibited by Law”

Last November, we covered the Supreme Court oral argument in the case of Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean.  As a refresher, MacLean was an air marshal who was fired by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after he blew the whistle to MSNBC on the agency’s plan to cancel marshal missions to Las Vegas.  After the argument, Prof. Steve Vladeck of American University predicted that the TSA would lose the case.

He was right.  On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion, in which it held in favor of MacLean.  The TSA argued that it could fire MacLean because his disclosures were “specifically prohibited by law” in two ways: first, it had adopted regulations on sensitive security information, which applied to the information MacLean disclosed; second, a provision of the U.S. Code had authorized TSA to adopt those regulations.  Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, rejected both arguments. 

As to the regulations, he wrote, Congress could have said that whistleblowers were not protected if their disclosures were “specifically prohibited by law, rule, or regulation,” but did not.  Thus, its choice to only use the word “law” appeared to be deliberate.  Further, interpreting the word “law” broadly “could defeat the purpose of the whistleblower statute,” because an agency could insulate itself from liability by promulgating a regulation that prohibited whistleblowing.  And as to the argument that Congress-passed “law” prohibited the disclosure, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the statute in question did not prohibit MacLean’s disclosures.  Instead, it was the agency’s exercise of discretion, not the statute, that determined what disclosures were prohibited.  Read More ›

Individual Liability of Officers and Directors for a Corporate Data Breach

The hacking of Sony’s private data has been one of the biggest stories in the country over the past couple of months.  It won’t surprise anyone to learn that lawsuits have been filed over the breach.  Indeed, the plaintiffs in several class action lawsuits are seeking to consolidate their cases  into one massive Sony Data Breach Litigation case.

So far, the plaintiffs in those cases haven’t alleged claims against individual Sony officers or directors.  This begs a couple of questions: is that something that plaintiffs do?  And what kinds of allegations can they bring?

The answer is that a number of plaintiffs have brought claims against officers and directors who worked at companies that suffered data breaches.  Typically, they allege that the defendants did not properly manage the company’s cyber risks.

For example, in February 2014, Kevin LaCroix of D&O Diary brought to our attention lawsuits that Target shareholders filed against the company’s officers and directors, arising from the massive theft of Target’s private customer information.  The shareholders alleged that the company’s executives and board knew how important the security of private customer information was, and failed to take reasonable steps to put controls in order to detect and prevent a breach.  Further, they alleged, the defendants exacerbated the damage by publicly minimizing the breach. Read More ›

2015 Brings Significant Changes to Maryland’s Campaign Finance Laws

As an executive, there is a strong likelihood that at some point in your career, you will be asked to make a campaign contribution—especially if you work in an area with a close affiliation with government. The rules are complex, and there is wide variation among federal and state rules. In addition, those differing rules are constantly in flux. For instance, the Maryland General Assembly has made several changes to Maryland campaign finance law that took effect on January 1, 2015, the start of the State’s new four-year election cycle.

First, the Maryland legislature raised the individual contribution limit from $4,000 to $6,000. (The legislature also raised the so-called “aggregate limit” on all contributions from $10,000 to $24,000. But as a result of the Supreme Court’s intervening decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, Maryland’s aggregate contribution limit was unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable even before the change took effect.)

Second, the legislature addressed a peculiar aspect of pre-2015 Maryland campaign finance law. Under Maryland law, unlike federal law, corporations may make campaign contributions. But if a corporation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of another corporation, contributions from these entities are considered to be made by a single contributor. Likewise, if multiple corporations are owned by the same stockholder, they are deemed to be a single contributor. We’ll call this the corporate attribution rule. Read More ›

Five Issues in Executive Disputes to Watch in 2015

In our last post, we counted down our most popular posts of 2014, from A-Rod to Walgreen.  Now it’s time to take a look at the issues in executive disputes that are likely to draw plenty of attention in 2015.

1.            Dodd-Frank Bounties and Whistleblower Litigation on the Rise

In November 2014, the SEC released its annual report on its Dodd-Frank whistleblower award program.  The theme of the report is that Dodd-Frank is paying off – both for the SEC and for whistleblowing employees.  The SEC reported that it issued whistleblower awards to more people in its 2014 fiscal year than in all previous years combined, including a $30 million bounty to one whistleblower in a foreign country.  The number of whistleblower tips received continues to increase, and we expect news of more substantial awards in 2015.  Meanwhile, litigation over various Dodd-Frank issues, such as whether a whistleblower claim is subject to arbitration, whether the shield against whistleblower retaliation applies overseas, and whether a whistleblower must report to the SEC in order to bring a retaliation claim, will continue to percolate in the federal courts.

2.            The Supreme Court Weighs in on Employment Issues

A couple of key Supreme Court cases will address employee rights that apply across the board, from the C-suite to the assembly line.  In Young v. United Parcel Service, the Court will decide whether, and in what circumstances, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires an employer that accommodates non-pregnant employees with work limitations to accommodate pregnant employees who have similar limitations.  And in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the Court will address whether an employer can be liable under the Civil Rights Act for refusing to hire an employee based on religion only if the employer actually knew that a religious accommodation was required based on knowledge received directly from the job applicant. Read More ›

Suits by Suits’ Greatest Hits of 2014

Who doesn’t love the year-end countdown?  We’re here to offer you one of our own – our most-read posts in 2014 about executive disputes.  The posts run the gamut from A (Alex Rodriguez) to Z, or at least to W (Walgreen).  They cover subjects from sanctified (Buddhists and the Bible) to sultry (pornographic materials found in an executive’s email).  Later this week, we’ll bring you a look at what to expect in 2015.

Without further ado, let the countdown begin!

8.            The Basics: Dodd-Frank v. Sarbanes-Oxley

This post is an oldie but a goodie.  It includes a handy PDF chart that breaks down the differences in the Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower laws.  Each of these laws continues to be a hot-button issue for plaintiffs and employers.

7.            When Employment Relationships Break Bad

America may have bidden adieu to Walter White and his pals on Breaking Bad, but employment relationships continue to spin off in some very unpleasant ways.  Such was the case with Stephen Marty Ward, who ended up in federal prison after he threatened his employer with disclosure of its trade secrets, as we covered in this post. Read More ›