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- With Yates Memo, the DOJ aims to prosecute more corporate executives. But will there be unintended consequences?
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Showing 58 posts in Wrongful Termination.
The Justice Department issued a memo to United States attorneys nationwide that might have Wall Street executives shifting nervously in their seats. The memo signifies a new focus as it instructs both civil and criminal prosecutors to pursue individuals, not just their companies, when conducting white collar investigations. According to The New York Times, the memo is a “tacit acknowledgement” that very few executives who played a role in the housing crisis, the financial meltdown, and other corporate scandals have been punished by the Justice Department in recent years. Typically when a company is suspected of wrongdoing, the company settles with the government after supplying the authorities with the results of its own internal investigation. This paradigm has led to corporations paying record penalties, while individuals usually escape criminal prosecution. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates authored the memo and articulated the Justice Department’s new resolve. “Corporations can only commit crimes through flesh-and-blood people. It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable.” To achieve this end, U.S. attorneys are directed to focus on individuals from the beginning, and will refuse “cooperation credit” to the company if they refuse to provide names and evidence against culpable employees. And don’t think about naming a fall guy to take the blame. Ms. Yates said the Justice Department wants big names in senior positions. “We’re not going to be accepting a company’s cooperation when they just offer up the vice president in charge of going to jail.” We’ll have more on the Yates Memo and its potential implications in weeks to come. Read More ›
Normally, in litigation between executives and employees, the executive will bring suit after he or she is fired, alleging wrongdoing by the former employer. This makes sense: the employer, after all, is the one who took the adverse action against the exec. And it’s the one that caused the damage, assuming that the executive can prove his or her claims.
The case of Stephen Stradtman, former CEO of Otto Industries North America, Inc., was not a normal case. For one thing, Stradtman wasn’t fired – he quit. And Stradtman didn’t sue Otto – he sued two other companies (Republic Services, Inc. and Republic Services of Virginia, LLC) and one of their employees. Read More ›
Section 1514A of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act shields a whistleblower from retaliation if he reports “conduct [that he] reasonably believes” violates certain laws, including Securities and Exchange Commission regulations. Last month, the Sixth Circuit held that the question of a whistleblower’s “reasonable belief” is a “simple factual question requiring no subset of findings that the employee had a justifiable belief as to each of the legally-defined elements of the suspected fraud.” Rhinehimer v. U.S. Bancorp Investments, Inc., No. 13-6641 (6th Cir. May 28, 2015). Based on this principle, the court affirmed a $250,000 verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Michael Rhinehimer.
According to the Court’s opinion, Rhinehimer was a financial planner for U.S. Bancorp who helped his elderly customer, Norbert Purcell, set up a trust and a brokerage account. In November 2009, Rhinehimer went on disability leave, and asked a colleague not to conduct any transactions with Purcell. The colleague didn’t follow the instructions, and instead put Purcell into investments that Rhinehimer believed were unsuitable. (Unsuitability fraud under the securities laws occurs when a broker knows or reasonably believes certain securities to be unsuitable to a client’s needs, but recommends them anyway.) Rhinehimer complained about the trades, but his superiors warned him that he should “stay out of the matter” and stop criticizing the colleague. After Rhinehimer hired a lawyer, he was placed on a performance improvement plan and fired after he failed to meet it. Read More ›
Doug Parker, the Chairman and CEO of American Airlines, has just joined a small cadre of executives who earn no salaries. Before anyone starts a GoFundMe page for Mr. Parker, consider that his 2015 compensation consists of 207,672 restricted stock units, the value of which will depend upon the airline’s performance. According to the Wall Street Journal, the stock units could amount to compensation in the range of $10.7 million if calculated using the current stock price of $51.40. By comparison, Mr. Parker earned $12.3 million in 2014, 40% of which was cash in the form of a $700,000 base salary and annual cash incentives. Mark Reilly, head of Verisight, Inc., a firm of executive compensation consultants, told the Journal that this type of compensation structure is more often found in companies facing financial hardship, and the lack of salary is offset by more generous stock awards. In the case of an executive in an established, mature industry, the message seems to be that Mr. Parker believes in the stock and that he is willing to tie his compensation to its performance. Given US Airways’ performance since its merger with American in 2013, this wouldn’t seem like an incredible risk on his part. The combined company “has soared to record profit and its stock has climbed 42% in the past year.” Read More ›
After firing its head patent attorney, Steven Trzaska, L’Oreal is now under fire from Trzaska in New Jersey federal court. On April 16, 2015, Trzaska sued L’Oreal, claiming that his firing violated New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).
In his complaint (available at Law360), Trzaska alleges that L’Oreal had a quota for its New Jersey office of 40 filed patent applications in 2014. But, Trzaska contends, an outside consultant had previously found that many of L’Oreal’s patent applications were purely cosmetic, saying that “the vast majority of its inventions were of low or poor quality.” Trzaska alleges that his superiors pressured him to file applications to meet the quota. However, he told them that “neither he nor the patent attorneys who reported to him were willing to file patent applications that the attorneys believed were not patentable.” Soon after, L’Oreal terminated him, saying that it was hiring a new “head of patents of the Americas.” Trzaska claims that this explanation was pretext and that the company in fact fired him because he refused to file applications that were not patentable.
How do Trzaska’s claims line up with CEPA? Read More ›
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 ›
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 ›
Netflix, the internet media giant, sued its former vice president of IT Operations, Mike Kail, in California Superior Court, claiming that he “streamed” kickbacks from vendors and funneled them into his personal consulting company. According to the complaint, Kail—who is currently the CIO of Yahoo—exercised broad latitude in both vendor selection and payment. Netflix alleges that he took in kickbacks about 12-15% of the $3.7 million that Netflix paid in monthly fees to two IT service providers, VistaraIT Inc. and NetEnrich Inc. According to the Wall Street Journal, one line in particular from the complaint piqued experts’ interest: “Kail was a trusted, senior-level employee, with authority to enter into appropriate contracts and approve appropriate invoices.” According to Christopher McClean, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., this suggests Netflix allowed Kail too much freedom. McClean opined that when individuals are empowered to both choose a vendor and then approve payment, corporate malfeasance can follow. This is particularly important in the field of information technology, where tech companies vie for business in an ever-competitive market by lavishing incentives on CIOs. Companies that do not incorporate an audit function into vendor selection and payment should consider revisiting their policies going forward.
We recently discussed the hefty $185 million judgment against AutoZone in favor of a former store manager who alleged discrimination and retaliatory discharge following her pregnancy. While this case arose in California, it appears the auto parts retailer is zoned for another similarly-themed legal showdown, this time across the country in West Virginia. In the recent complaint, the plaintiff, Cindy DeLong, claimed that she was placed on a 30-day performance improvement plan for hiring too many women in the stores she managed. She was ultimately fired before the 30 days expired. As you may recall, in the California case, plaintiff Rosario Juarez claimed AutoZone enforced a “glass ceiling” for its female employees, denying them opportunities for promotion. It seems Ms. DeLong managed to chip away at the ceiling as a district manager. But, according to Courthouse News, she now alleges that her practice of hiring women rendered her “not a good fit for the company.” Read More ›
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 ›
Recently, in a government investigation by the civil division of a United States Attorney’s Office, an employee of a private company was deposed pursuant to a Civil Investigative Demand (CID). The employee, on the advice of counsel, refused to answer questions on certain topics and invoked the Fifth Amendment right against compulsory self-incrimination (she “took the Fifth” in common shorthand). Several days later, she was fired by her employer for taking the Fifth. (The employer claimed that it wanted to show cooperation with the government’s investigation and taking the Fifth is viewed as being non-cooperative.) When I recounted this story to my non-lawyer fiancée, he was outraged and wondered how could her employer do such a thing? Wasn’t this retaliation? Didn’t she have a clear wrongful termination claim against her employer? Good questions. While most, if not all, states (and the federal government) have enacted provisions to protect employees who blow the whistle on illegal activity from retaliatory discharge, is there any protection from discharge for an employee of a private company who chooses to keep mum to protect herself?
The short answer is no.
In our Bill of Rights, No. 5, it is written that “[n]o person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Although the text limits the right to stay silent in a criminal case, it is generally accepted that a witness may assert the right in any context in which the witness fears his/her statements may later be used against him/her. Thus, as an American I have the right to refuse to answer questions or offer information which I fear could incriminate me. [A full discussion of the scope of Fifth Amendment protection is beyond the scope of this post. To learn more about the Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, I refer the reader to The Privilege of Silence, authored by my fellow Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys Steven M. Salky and Paul B. Hynes and available here.] Read More ›