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Showing 44 posts in Civil Litigation.

Virginia Tech Professor Argues That University Officials Violated His Constitutional Rights When They "Demoted" Him

Virginia Tech SignHarold “Skip” Garner is a tenured professor at Virginia Tech who makes $342,000 a year, according to this article in the Roanoke Times.  Yet he is still suing university officials, including former president Charles Steger, for $11 million.  Why?

He says that the officials violated his constitutional rights when they removed him from his position as Executive Director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI).  In his complaint, available here, he claims that he was demoted without “advance notice of his removal or demotion” and without any “opportunity whatsoever to contest the merits of the action.”  He alleges that this lack of procedural protections “deprived [him] of property and liberty without due process of law.”  This kind of claim is known as a “Section 1983” claim: i.e., a claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a federal cause of action to individuals who are deprived of constitutional rights by the actions of state officials.  In the employment context, Section 1983 claims can arise when state officials discipline employees without affording them notice and an opportunity to be heard.  See, e.g., Ridpath v. Board of Governors Marshall University, 447 F.3d 292 (4th Cir. 2006).  That’s the kind of claim Garner is alleging here. Read More ›

Two Federal Agencies Battle In Federal Court Over Whistleblower Treatment

Talk about your inter-family disputes: one federal agency – the Department of Labor – has filed suit against the United States Postal Service, an independent federal agency (but one of the few explicitly authorized by the Constitution).  The reason for the federal lawsuit, filed in Missouri: the Postal Service’s alleged poor treatment, firing, and alleged harassment of an employee who claims he blew the whistle on safety hazards in a mail facility. 

Here’s the background, delivered despite any contrary weather: Thomas Purviance worked for the Postal Service for 35 years, most recently as a maintenance supervisor at a mail distribution center near St. Louis.  He had no record of disciplinary or performance issues.  In late December 2009, Purviance complained to his supervisors about what he perceived to be carbon monoxide and fuel oil leaks from some of the equipment at the center, as well as a pile of oil-soaked rags which he thought was a safety hazard.  Getting no response, Purviance eventually called the local fire marshal and made a 911 call to report the carbon monoxide leak.   Read More ›

What’s Worse Than Losing A Non-Compete Dispute? Paying $200K ‎For The Fun Of Losing

Jar of Money Emptying OutNo one likes to be wrong, and being proven wrong stinks.  And that’s especially true for folks in my profession – we’re not known for being gracious losers. 

But even worse than just being proven wrong is having to pay the other side what they spent to prove you wrong.  This is a relatively rare thing in the United States: the “American Rule” means that each side pays its own attorney’s fees, unless a contract or statute shifts the winner’s fees to the losing party’s side of the ledger.   

But those fees – over $200,000 of them – were shifted to the loser in Stuart Irby Co. v. Tipton, et al., an Arkansas case involving a non-compete clause that the plaintiff said prevented three of its former salesmen from going to work for another business in the electrical supply industry.  As we’ve noted, Arkansas can be a tough place for businesses trying to enforce non-competes: for example, its courts won’t rewrite them for the parties if they’re overly broad or otherwise unenforceable. Read More ›

…And All He Got Was a Fashionable T-Shirt: American Apparel Terminates Its CEO

Green t-shirtLast week, American Apparel announced that its board had decided to terminate Dov Charney, the company’s founder, CEO, and Chairman, “for cause.”  (We’ve discussed the meaning of terminations “for cause” in prior posts here and here.)  The board also immediately suspended Charney from his positions with the company.  Although the board didn’t initially disclose the reasons for its action, Charney is not new to controversy; in recent years, he has faced allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

The reasons for Charney’s termination have now become public, and they aren’t pretty.  In its termination letter, available here, the board accuses Charney of putting the company at significant litigation risk.  It complains that he sexually harassed employees and allowed another employee to post false information online about a former employee, which led to a substantial lawsuit.  The board also says that Charney misused corporate assets for “personal, non-business reasons,” including making severance payments to protect himself from personal liability.  According to the board, Charney’s behavior has harmed the company’s “business reputation,” scaring away potential financing sources. Read More ›

Second Circuit To Weigh Whether Whistleblower Protections Extend Internationally

International FlagsWhile we’re talking about whistleblowers, it’s worth noting that two days ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument on appeal from the a federal district court’s opinion in Meng-Lin Liu v. Siemens AG, 978 F.Supp.2d 325 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). This case raises the significant question as to whether the anti-retaliation provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78u-6(h)(1)(a), apply to an employee who is terminated by a non-U.S. corporation that does business in (and is regulated by) the United States. Read More ›

Former President of Bankrupt Aircraft Manufacturer Can Keep Some of His Severance Cash

Bird's nest with money flying into it and falling out of itAn executive’s right to severance payments isn’t always written in stone, even if his employer agrees to provide them.  In this post, we described how one exec lost his severance pay after the Federal Reserve decided that his employer, a bank, was in a “troubled condition” at the time.

A recent decision from the U.S. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth Circuit, In re Adam Aircraft Industries, Inc., illustrates another scenario in which an executive’s golden parachute can collapse around him.  Joseph Walker was the president of Adam Aircraft, an airplane designer and manufacturer.  He was terminated in February 2007, and was allowed to resign, after which he negotiated a healthy severance package.  Over the next year, Adam Aircraft paid him $250,000 in severance, $100,002 to repurchase his stock, and $105,704 as a refund on a deposit he had made on a plane.  Read More ›

Worker Mobility in Silicon Valley: The End of the “Handshake” No-Hire

Hand refusing to shake with anotherAs long-standing readers of Suits by Suits know, California is at the forefront of the “state-by-state smackdown” regarding covenants not to compete, having prohibited essentially all such clauses by statute.  (You can refresh your recollection by reviewing our discussion of California law, here.)

Consequently, one of the arguments deployed by other states looking to restrict or ban noncompetes is that the business climate created in California encourages worker mobility, and that climate in turn is attractive to the technology sector (and in particular, to technology start-ups), who depend upon “poaching” away top talent that may be underpaid at a competitor.  You can read these arguments in more depth here (part 1), here (part 2), and most recently here (part 3).

The common thread that runs through these arguments is that California encourages worker mobility, and that mobility, in turn, is good for Silicon Valley.  The argument has some appeal. Read More ›

Buyer Beware: Hiring Competitor’s Star Executive May Not Only Get You Sued but Get You Sued in the Competitor’s Favorite Court

Court HouseWe have written before here on Suits by Suits about the risk to a company hiring an executive from a competitor of being sued by the competitor for tortiously interfering with the executive’s non-compete agreementA recent decision from a federal court in Pennsylvania sheds light on another facet of that risk:  being forced to defend the lawsuit in a faraway court favored by the competitor because the executive agreed to be sued there.  Read More ›

Release of Claims Means Exactly What It Says – Even When It Doesn’t

Image of General Release FormIf you’re confused by this headline, you’re not alone.  But you can’t be as confused as Debourah Mattatall must be after losing her lawsuit against her former employer, Transdermal Corporation.

The origin of Mattatall’s lawsuit, appropriately enough, was another lawsuit.  Mattatall used to own a company called DPM Therapeutics Corporation.  DPM’s minority shareholders sued her to prevent her from selling the company to Transdermal.  She went ahead with the sale anyway, and signed a Stock Purchase Agreement and Employment Agreement with Transdermal.  According to Mattatall, Transdermal didn’t fulfill its obligations under those deals, citing a lack of funds.

After Mattatall’s sale to Transdermal was final, Transdermal brought its own suit against the DPM minority shareholders.  All parties, including Mattatall, eventually settled the two shareholder cases.  Before agreeing to the settlement, Mattatall complained about the money that she was owed under the Stock Purchase Agreement and Employment Agreement.  Transdermal’s counsel assured her that her claims were “wholly extraneous” and she would be “free to pursue” her claims against Transdermal. 

In the written settlement, however, everyone released the claims that they “had, has or hereafter may have” against any other party.  Thus, even though Transdermal hadn’t sued Mattatall, according to the language of the release, she was giving up her claims against it.  The settlement also included a “merger clause,” under which all prior understandings were “merged” and “supersede[d].” Read More ›

In Battle of Words, Former Netflix Exec Says That Company Defamed Him

Apple iPad displaying NetflixJerry Kowal doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about his former employer, Netflix.  In a recent lawsuit filed in California Superior Court, he claims that Netflix was a “cold and hostile company,” with a “cutthroat environment.”

According to Courthouse News’s description of Kowal’s complaint, Netflix didn’t have very nice things to say about Kowal, its former content acquisition executive, either.  Kowal alleges that when he told Netflix he was leaving for Amazon, Netflix lashed out by accusing him of stealing confidential information and passing it on to Amazon.  As a result of these accusations and Amazon’s “strict liability policy,” he was fired.

Now, Kowal has sued Netflix, its CEO Reed Hastings, executive Ted Sarandos, and Amazon, alleging a number of torts including defamation, false light invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy, intentional interference with employment relationship, blacklisting and wrongful termination.  Kowal’s suit shows that an employer’s decision to accuse a departed employee of wrongdoing carries with it a significant litigation risk, especially if the employee loses his job as a result of the accusation. Read More ›