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Showing 53 posts in Civil Litigation.

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 ›

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 ›

Judge Approves $20 Million in Executive Bonuses From Bankrupt Company, Finding That Incentives Weren't "Lay-ups"

A bankruptcy can be hazardous to the health of an executive’s bonus check.  Sometimes, however, an executive can survive an attack on a bonus in a bankruptcy, and come out clean on the other side.  For example, we covered here how one executive succeeded in keeping most of his incentive payments based on the timing of those payments. 

Now, we have another lesson in how executives can keep their bonus checks despite a bankruptcy, from Judge Christopher S. Sontchi of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.  The company at issue in the case was Energy Future Holdings Corp. (EFH), a holding company with a portfolio of Texas electricity retailers.  EFH filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April of this year. Read More ›

Government Investigations: The Treacherous Path to Obtaining (and Keeping!) Defense Costs Paid Under D&O Policies

Bridge in disrepairFor my first foray into blog-writing, allow me to tell a cautionary tale intersecting two of my favorite topics: defending companies and individuals in government investigations and Directors and Officers (D&O) Liability Coverage. As a contract junkie who enjoys reading, interpreting, and arguing contract language, parsing through various interrelated D&O policy provisions to glean favorable language for my white collar clients offers hours of amusement (lest ye be worried about me, I do have other hobbies).  D&O policies can be effectively used to defray defense costs incurred due to a government investigation.  The trick is keeping the money. 

The recent suit between Protection Strategies, Inc. (PSI) and Starr Indemnity & Liability Co. in the Eastern District of Virginia, case 1:13-cv-00763-LO-IDD, illustrates how difficult keeping the money can be. PSI is an Arlington, Va.-based defense contractor. In January 2012, PSI received a subpoena from the NASA Office of the Inspector General and a search warrant issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.  On February 1, 2012, the NASA OIG executed the search warrant at PSI’s headquarters.  In addition to the company itself, several of PSI’s current and former officers were informed that they were also targets of the NASA OIG investigation. PSI retained Dickstein Shapiro to represent it and hired separate counsel to represent the individual targets and other company employees. 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.

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 ›

Five Takeaways from the Second Circuit’s Dodd-Frank Decision in Liu v. Siemens

Photo of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges
Taiwan and Manhattan’s Foley Square are separated by 7,874 miles, and Taiwanese citizen Meng-Lin Liu couldn’t bridge the distance in federal court.  Liu sought to recover in Manhattan under the Dodd-Frank Act’s anti-retaliation provision (15 U.S.C. § 78u‐6(h)(1)).  However, on August 14, the Second Circuit, which sits in Foley Square, affirmed the dismissal of his whistleblower retaliation claim.  Liu v. Siemens AG, No. 13-4385-cv (2d Cir. Aug. 14, 2014).

As we previously described here, Liu’s case was relatively simple.  He alleged that he repeatedly told his superiors at Siemens in Asia, and the public, that Siemens was violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).  As a result, he claimed, Siemens demoted him, stripped him of his responsibilities, and eventually fired him with three months left on his contract. Read More ›

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 ›