Subscribe

RSSAdd blog to your RSS feed

Follow Us

Twitter LinkedIn

Contributing Editors

Disclaimer
© 2017 Zuckerman Spaeder LLP

Showing 7 posts from September 2014.

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 Thoma to enter a second agreement, which by its terms stated that it superseded any prior agreements.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 ›

Foreign Whistleblower Cashes in on Report to SEC

SECOn September 22, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced its largest award to date under its whistleblower program: $30 million.  The SEC said that the whistleblower, who lives in a foreign country, came to it with valuable information about a “difficult to detect” fraud. 

In the order determining the award (which is heavily redacted to protect the identity of the whistleblower), the SEC commented that the claimant’s “delay in reporting the violations” was “unreasonable.”  In arguing for a higher bounty, the claimant contended that he or she was “uncertain whether the Commission would in fact take action.”  This argument, however, didn’t support a “lengthy reporting delay while investors continued to suffer losses.” Read More ›

The Inbox - The Dude Abides

Coen BrothersEvery once in a while published legal opinions and pop culture intersect in such a cheeky, unexpected way as to cause minor ripples in the otherwise relatively calm waters of legal writing and reporting.  In what some have described as the footnote of the year according to Business Insider, a Texas Supreme Court Justice gave a wink and nod to a Coen Brothers’ favorite, The Big Lebowski, in a recent opinion.  The events in the underlying case might not have been as convoluted as The Big Lebowski’s plot, but it is worth noting.  The appellant, Robert Kinney, was a legal recruiter for BCG Attorney Search until 2004 when he left to create his own firm.  Some years later, Andrew Barnes, President of BCG, claimed that Kinney engaged in a kickback scheme while an employee of BCG.  Kinney then sued Barnes, accusing him of defamation and asking for permanent injunctive relief.  The trial court granted (and the appeals court affirmed) summary judgment, agreeing with Barnes that a permanent injunction would constitute impermissible prior restraint of free speech.   Now in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court and Justice Debra Lehrmann, the high court ultimately agreed with the finding.  As Justice Lehrmann dove into First Amendment law and jurisprudence in the opinion, she noted: Read More ›

Goldman Sachs Programmer Asks Third Circuit to Take Another Look at Advancement Case

Last week, we covered the Third Circuit’s decision that Goldman Sachs bylaws didn’t clearly establish a vice president’s right to advancement of his legal fees for his criminal travails.  The vice president, software programmer Sergey Aleynikov, isn’t giving up easily, however.

Law360 reports that Aleynikov has filed a petition for panel rehearing or rehearing en banc.  In the federal appellate courts, this is a step that parties can take when they disagree with the decision of the three-judge panel that heard their case.  In a panel rehearing, the panel can revisit and vacate its original decision; in a rehearing en banc, the entire Third Circuit could consider the issue.

Aleynikov contends in his petition that the panel misapplied a doctrine of contractual interpretation called contra proferentem.  In plain English, contra proferentem means that a court will read the written words of a contract against the party that drafted it.  The panel in Aleynikov’s case disagreed as to whether under Delaware law (which governs his dispute), the doctrine can be used to determine whether a person has any rights under a contract.  The two-judge majority said that it can’t, and therefore refused to use the doctrine when it decided whether Aleynikov – as a Goldman vice-president – fell within the definition of an “officer” entitled to advancement under the company’s bylaws.  In dissent, Judge Fuentes asserted that “Delaware has never suggested that there is an exception to its contra proferentem rule where the ambiguity concerns whether a plaintiff is a party to or beneficiary of a contract.”

In his petition, Aleynikov asks the whole Third Circuit to decide who is right: Judge Fuentes or the majority.  He also cites additional Delaware cases that he says support his position, including one “unreported case” that was brought to his counsel’s attention “unbidden by a member of the Delaware bar who read an article commenting on the panel’s decision in The New York Times on Sunday, September 7, 2014.”  Sometimes, to establish a right to advancement rights, it takes a village.

The Inbox - September 12, 2014

The court of public opinion giveth, and taketh away. You may recall that we reported on the reinstatement of Arthur T. Demoulis as Market Basket’s CEO, following weeks of customer and employee advocacy for the chief. Public opinion, in the case of Desmond Hague, cut the other way in unrelenting fashion. Mr. Hague, president and chief executive of Centerplate, a catering company servicing sports and entertainment venues, was captured on video kicking and abusing an otherwise docile Doberman Pinscher puppy. The Washington Post reports that when the footage made its way to the SPCA of British Columbia, it quickly went viral and users of social media demanded his resignation. Initially, Centerplate dismissed the incident as a personal matter. As media attention increased, Centerplate announced that Mr. Hague would undergo counseling and community service. The masses remained unimpressed, and as the pressure mounted, Mr. Hague was ultimately removed from his position. Given the power of social media, it appears that the court of public opinion has rendered its verdict.

The National Law Review, citing the recent lawsuit filed by TrialGraphix Inc. against its competitor FTI Consulting, Inc. in the New York Supreme Court, offered helpful tips to employers on both sides of the battle over poached employees. In this case, four high-ranking employees conspicuously left TrialGraphix for FTI Consulting. As in similar suits filed by Booz Allen and Arthur J Gallagher Co. (which we discussed here), claims of corporate poaching usually involve claims of trade secret theft and interference with client business relationships. The article highlights the importance of clearly-worded, reasonably-framed restrictive covenant agreements, safeguarding data upon the employee’s departure, and requiring employees to formally acknowledge the return of all company proprietary information and devices. Similarly, employers seeking to hire these employees should review any non-compete agreements to ensure compliance while also requiring the employee to refrain from using the previous employer’s confidential information or trade secrets. Non-disparagement agreements can also go a long way to prevent ill will between the old and the new employers. Read More ›

An Officer or a Vice President: Goldman Sachs Programmer Must Prove Advancement Case to Jury After Appellate Ruling

Computer programmer with code in backgroundThe case of Sergey Aleynikov, a former vice president at Goldman Sachs, has drawn a lot of media attention, including these prior posts here at Suits by Suits. Aleynikov was arrested and jailed for allegedly taking programming code from Goldman Sachs that he had helped create at the firm. His story even inspired parts of Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys. A federal jury convicted him of economic espionage and theft, but the Second Circuit reversed his conviction, holding that his conduct did not violate federal law. Now, Aleynikov is under indictment by a state grand jury in New York.

Unsurprisingly, Aleynikov wants someone else to pay his legal bills – Goldman Sachs. And it is no surprise that Goldman, which accused him of stealing and had him arrested, doesn’t want to bear the cost of his defense. In 2012, Aleynikov sued Goldman in New Jersey federal court for indemnification and advancement of his legal fees, along with his “fees on fees” for the lawsuit to enforce his claimed right to fees. As we discussed in this post, indemnification means reimbursing fees after they are incurred, and advancement means paying the fees in advance. Advancement is particularly important for those employees who cannot float an expensive legal defense on their own dime. Read More ›