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© 2014 Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

You’re In the Zone… Of A Massive Punitive Damages Verdict for a Pregnant Manager

On Monday, AutoZone found itself on the wrong end of a $185 million verdict in favor of a former store manager, Rosario Juarez.  Yes, you read that right.  $185 million.  This stunning verdict appears to have been the result of Juarez’s allegations of discrimination and retaliatory discharge, combined with an insider turned witness who provided extremely damaging testimony against the auto parts retailer.

In her complaint, Juarez alleged that AutoZone had a “glass ceiling” for women employees, which it kept in place through a hidden promotion process where open positions were not posted.  According to Juarez, she succeeded in cracking the glass ceiling, securing a store manager position, but when she became pregnant, she was treated differently by her district manager.  After giving birth, she complained about the unfair treatment and was soon demoted by the manager, who told her that she could not be a mother and handle her job.  Later, she was terminated as the result of a loss prevention inquiry, in which she refused to participate in a “Q&A” statement about a theft at the store.  Juarez alleged that the loss prevention department’s request for a statement was a pretext to fire her. 

We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing allegations of pregnancy discrimination like these (see, for example, here, here and here).  The short of it is that a company can’t treat pregnant women, or women who have  given birth, differently than it treats other employees.  But we’ve never covered a verdict for pregnancy discrimination that looked more like a Powerball win than a litigation result. Read More ›

The Inbox - Love Me Tinder

If you find yourself in the digital dating scene (or the market for highly-valued start-ups for that matter), you are probably familiar with Tinder, the dating app that allows users to identify potential dates with an easy swipe of a finger on a smartphone.  Last July, Whitney Wolfe, Tinder’s former VP of marketing, sued the company, alleging that she was sexually harassed by Tinder’s fellow co-founders, CMO Justin Mateen and CEO Sean Rad. The suit primarily focused on the ugly breakup between Mateen and Wolfe, and Mateen ultimately resigned in September, after Wolfe’s suit revealed his “private messages to [her] containing inappropriate content.”  Now, the aftershocks of Wolfe’s suit have spread to impact Rad’s employment as well.  As discussed in this lengthy Forbes piece, the company’s majority owner, IAC (InterActivCorp), decided to oust Rad as CEO early this month, in part due to his involvement in the Wolfe-Mateen brouhaha.   IAC says it still wants Rad to stay involved and focus on Tinder’s business, so for now, it’s not undoing the “match” between Rad and the company he founded.

Consumers of taxi and black car services have witnessed a sea change in options over the past few years. Thanks to internet-based car-summoning applications, customers are empowered with a range of efficient, cost-conscious alternatives to standing on the corner, arms waving, eyeing every yellow vehicle that approaches.  Now, Lyft, one of the leading entrants into this new market, is squabbling in court with an employee who left it to join the other market leader, Uber.  According to Courthouse News Service, Lyft recently sued its former COO, Travis VanderZanden, alleging that he breached his employment contract when he left the company to become Uber’s new VP of international growth.  Lyft says that VanderZanden stole 98,000 pages of confidential financial projections and forecasts, business strategies, marketing plans, and international growth documents. It also accuses VanderZanden of soliciting Lyft’s employees to join Uber, including Lyft’s former VP of operations. Meanwhile, just this week, Uber is rumored to be in talks with investors to raise significant capital toward international expansion. It seems obvious that Uber is focusing on growing its international market share, and perhaps time will tell if Lyft can prove a misappropriation of its own confidential international strategy. Read More ›

Fired for Taking the Fifth: Part 1 – The Private Sector Employee

Recently, in a government investigation by the civil division of a United States Attorney’s Office, an employee of a private company was deposed pursuant to a Civil Investigative Demand (CID).  The employee, on the advice of counsel, refused to answer questions on certain topics and invoked the Fifth Amendment right against compulsory self-incrimination (she “took the Fifth” in common shorthand).  Several days later, she was fired by her employer for taking the Fifth.  (The employer claimed that it wanted to show cooperation with the government’s investigation and taking the Fifth is viewed as being non-cooperative.)  When I recounted this story to my non-lawyer fiancée, he was outraged and wondered how could her employer do such a thing? Wasn’t this retaliation? Didn’t she have a clear wrongful termination claim against her employer? Good questions. While most, if not all, states (and the federal government) have enacted provisions to protect employees who blow the whistle on illegal activity from retaliatory discharge, is there any protection from discharge for an  employee of a private company who chooses to keep mum to protect herself?

The short answer is no.

In our Bill of Rights, No. 5, it is written that “[n]o person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Although the text limits the right to stay silent in a criminal case, it is generally accepted that a witness may assert the right in any context in which the witness fears his/her statements may later be used against him/her. Thus, as an American I have the right to refuse to answer questions or offer information which I fear could incriminate me. [A full discussion of the scope of Fifth Amendment protection is beyond the scope of this post.  To learn more about the Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, I refer the reader to The Privilege of Silence, authored by my fellow Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys Steven M. Salky and Paul B. Hynes and available here.] Read More ›

Can A Whistleblower Break the “Law” to Blow the Whistle?

A whistleblower generally shouldn’t break the law in order to prove his claims.  Indeed, the Whistleblowers Protection Blog says that this is a “basic rule,” and cautions that an employee who breaks the law while whistleblowing in order to get evidence will suffer from attacks on his credibility and may even be referred for criminal prosecution.  However, the parameters of this rule aren’t always so easy to follow, as the Supreme Court heard last week in the case of Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean

The MacLean case arose from a warning and text message.  In July 2003, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) warned MacLean, a former air marshal, and his colleagues about a potential plot to hijack U.S. airliners.  Soon after, however, the TSA sent the marshals an unencrypted text message, canceling all missions on overnight flights from Las Vegas.  MacLean was concerned about this reduction in security, and eventually told MSNBC about it.  The TSA then issued an order stating that the text message was sensitive security information (SSI).  When it found out that MacLean was the one who disclosed the message to MSNBC, it fired him. 

MacLean didn’t take this while reclining; he challenged his dismissal before the Merit Systems Protection Board.  But he lost.  The Board decided that TSA didn’t violate the federal Whistleblower Protection Act by firing MacLean for his disclosure, because MacLean’s disclosure violated a TSA regulation that prohibited employees from publicly disclosing SSI.        Read More ›

Complaint Provides Further Details About Former CFO’s Defamation Suit Against Walgreen

When we first examined Wade Miquelon’s suit against his former employer, Walgreen, we didn’t have access to his complaint.  Now we do.  The complaint sheds more light on Miquelon’s allegations, helping to explain why they are causing a spiral of problems for the drug company.

As you may recall from our last article on the case, Miquelon alleges that Walgreen defamed him (in layman’s terms, lied) when it told the Wall Street Journal and investors that he had botched the earnings forecast for the 2014 fiscal year, and that his finance unit was “weak” with “lax controls.”  According to Miquelon’s complaint, Walgreen executives made these negative statements for an entirely different reason: they had an “unchecked desire” to push Walgreen’s merger with Alliance Boots to completion.  Miquelon alleges that an activist investor had threatened him for being “too conservative,” and that rather than standing up for him, the company’s CEO and its largest shareholder decided to disparage him in order to “deflect investor disappointment” and push through the merger.

Miquelon’s complaint is also somewhat of a public relations document, because it praises his work and goes into his interactions with the CEO and shareholder in great detail.  It even says that Miquelon was next in line to be CEO (although the complaint also says he turned down that chance, instead deciding to move on).  As to the allegedly botched earnings forecast, the complaint says that Miquelon recognized the problem well in advance of the call in which the company announced it was withdrawing its earnings goal.  It also says that he was pressured at the same time by the company’s CEO to raise his estimate of earnings per share that would result from the Alliance Boots merger.  The most explosive allegation on this front is that the CEO told him that he had “no choice” but to approve a $6.00 earnings per share estimate, rather than a lower one that would hurt the merger. Read More ›

This Year’s Scariest Posts on Executive Disputes

In honor of Halloween, we are looking over our shoulder at some of the most frightening news that we have brought to you this year on Suits by Suits:

  • Earlier this week, we told you the tale of a CEO who was hauled into court thousands of miles away and slapped with an employee’s wage bill.  That’s the kind of stuff executive nightmares are made of.
  • Bonfires are part of what makes Halloween special.  Unless they involve torching a laptop, destroying evidence, and getting hit with an adverse inference for spoliation at trial, which is what happened to one unhappy executive.
  • The SEC announced its presence as a boogeyman for employers who punish whistleblowers, filing its first Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation action against one company and ordering a $30 million bounty for another employee.
  •  Terror babies are scary, as anyone who’s seen Rosemary, Chucky, and Damien on screen knows.  Now, we have more terror babies to add to the mix, thanks to the bizarre saga of Rep. Louis Gohmert and fired Texas art director Christian Cutler.
  • Ever been lost in a hall of mirrors?  Just think how confused this executive was, after her employer told her that she wasn’t releasing her claims for a shareholder payment and then defeated those same claims based on … her release.
  • And perhaps the scariest story of all: the company that lost a non-compete dispute and then had to pay $200,000 of its opponent’s legal fees.  That’s like finding a razor blade in your Mounds bar.

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 ›