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Showing 64 posts in Civil Litigation.

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 ›

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 ›

Tune Up Your D&O Insurance Policy To Make Sure It Provides The Protection Corporate ‎Officers And Directors Need

A D&O liability policy protects key individuals in a corporate structure.  These individuals are likely targets for shareholder frustration if an entity is underperforming or suffering from other troubles.  In addition, they may be exposed to personal scrutiny from regulators if the corporation is investigated for any wrongdoing.  As previously discussed in this space, an insurance policy can provide more reliable protection for the indemnification rights of the officers and directors in times of financial distress because corporations plagued by regulatory or other legal problems frequently suffer financial setbacks.  However, when a bankruptcy results from the financial troubles, not all insurance policies offer the same protection for the payment of fees and expenses for its directors and officers. 

Under section 541 of the Bankruptcy Code, a debtor’s liability insurance policy is the property of a bankruptcy estate and is subject to the jurisdiction of the Bankruptcy Court, including the automatic stay.  There is considerable disagreement among the courts over whether the proceeds of the policy are also property of the estate.  The actual determination of whether the proceeds are property of the estate is made on a case by case basis and is controlled by the express language and scope of the policy. 

When the D&O policy only provides direct coverage to the debtor, there is little doubt that the proceeds are part of the debtor’s estate and are to be administered by the Bankruptcy Court for the benefit of all creditors.  Similarly, when the policies only provide direct coverage to the individuals for their indemnification claims courts generally hold that the bankruptcy estate has no interest in the proceeds.  However, when the policy provides direct coverage to both the debtor and the directors and officers, the proceeds will be property of the estate if depletion of the proceeds would have an adverse effect on the estate.  Depletion of the proceeds will be construed to have an adverse effect on the estate if the policy proceeds actually protect the estate’s other assets from diminution.  Read More ›

Yet Another Reason Why D&O Insurance Is Critical

Corporate directors and officers may think indemnification provisions are sufficient to protect them from claims asserted against them by shareholders or regulators.  However, if a director or officer chooses to rely solely on indemnification in bylaws or contracts, and ignores the availability of directors & officers (“D&O”) liability insurance, he or she could be making a significant mistake.  In particular, a D&O policy can offer these individuals more reliable protection in times of financial distress.  When corporations are plagued by regulatory or other legal problems, they may also suffer from financial setbacks, eventually leading to bankruptcy proceedings. The manner in which a bankrupt corporation has provided for the payment of fees and expenses for its directors and officers may be critical to the individuals affected. 

Under section 502(e) of the Bankruptcy Code, a claim for indemnification is subordinated to the class of claims in which the underlying claim is placed.  This means that, to the extent that the directors and officers are jointly liable with the corporation to a third party on an adverse claim, they will not receive any distribution on their resulting indemnification claim unless, and until, all of the claims of the class in which the underlying obligation is placed have been paid in full.  This provision is intended to provide for equality of distributions in favor of all similarly situated creditors: if the underlying claim receives payments from both the corporation and the director and officer defendants and then the defendants receive payment on account of any contributions they made on the claim, that claim will have received a higher rate of distribution at the expense of other creditors. Read More ›

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 ›

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 ›