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Showing 60 posts in Civil Litigation.

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 ›

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 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 ›