May 2011 Archives

May 23, 2011

Protections for Employees Reporting Illegal Activity

Just this spring, what is usually seen as a pro-business Supreme Court issued a ruling clearly on the side of workers. The case, Kasten v Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., addressed the question of protection for workers who file complaints against their employers. Smart business owners, with the right policies, will be able to turn this case to their advantage in keeping government investigators out.

The general rule has historically been that workers who report the illegal activities or illegal working conditions of their employers are protected from retaliation. This makes sense, we want those with inside knowledge of their employers fraud or illegal activities to feel they can come forward without risking their livelihood. But if the employee reported the problem internally, to an owner or supervisor instead of the government, there was always a question of whether protection applied. In other words, by trying to get the company to fix the problem in house, quietly and without a governmental investigation, did the employee lose the protections of the anti-retaliatory laws? The Court said no, employees who try to solve problems in house are still protected by the law (in this case, it was the Fair Labor Standards Act), even though the government was not involved. To qualify for protection against retaliation, the complaint can even be as simple as a verbal statement to a supervisor, it doesn't have to be in writing.

Since it's not unusual for less then stellar employees to have complained to a supervisor about working conditions or practices, this certainly creates an additional burden for the employer to comply with prior to terminating these under performing workers. It's not hard to image a scenario in which a company's failure to plan appropriately creates retaliation liability even when there was no provable case of an underlying violation. Of course, it also presents a huge opportunity for a proactive company to encourage internal self-reporting. As an owner, it's always preferable to learn about potential problems directly from your employees, rather then after they've reported your business to the governmental authorities.

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May 13, 2011

Confidential Settlement Agreements and the Public's Right of Access

Confidentiality terms in settlement agreements are fairly commonplace, but most people do not know that until recently the courts would often ignore them. Historically, the public's "right of access" to judicial records outweighed a party's desire to keep their settlement confidential. This makes sense when the issues involve public interests or safety concerns. But when the settlement involves trade secrets or other proprietary information, businesses have long argued the public's right of access should be more limited. In many cases, especially with regard to hi-tech and growth companies, the desire for confidentiality is the prime motivation for settling the case.

In a recent 3rd Circuit ruling, LEAP Systems Inc. v. MoneyTrax, the court shifted away from previous decisions to allow business's a better chance at maintaining the confidentiality of settlement agreements. In the LEAP case, the settlement was based on assurances from the court that the agreement would remain confidential. The district court's assurances of confidentiality were clearly a pervasive factor for the 3rd Circuit, and not something every trial judge is going to agree to put on the record. But counsel certainly should ask for a statement on the record that confidentiality is a key term of the settlement. Also, in most cases the business will want to justify the reasons for the confidentiality on the record, since the importance of trade secrets may not be as apparent to courts reviewing the matter in the future as it is to the trial judge overseeing the settlement discussions. These were both factors considered by the 3rd Circuit in finding in favor of LEAP on the confidentiality issue.

One way around this privacy risk has always been to keep the terms of your settlement agreements away from the courthouse. But in many cases, especially in certain federal courts or business law courts like Philadelphia's Commerce Program, judges may be highly involved in facilitating the settlement process. When that happens, the settlement agreements or even the oral transcripts of the proceeding may be considered judicial records subject to public access. Even if the parties reach a settlement on their own, the court often becomes involved with motions to enforce down the line. The LEAP case begins an outline of how to maintain the confidentiality of these records.

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May 10, 2011

Pennsylvania Property Owners Not Always Liable for Contractor's Injuries

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a recent decision stated that residential and commercial property owners who hire contractors are not responsible for personal injuries happening during construction on their property. Previously, plaintiffs had argued for a "retained control" exception where property owners could be held responsible for injuries to workers if the owner was present at the job site and exercised control over the construction project. The theory was if the owner was present at the job site, then the owner bore a responsibility to recognize any unsafe condition and do something about it. This recent decision by the court ends this avenue of attack created by the plaintiff's bar, which had put owners in the uncomfortable position of weighing liability burdens against the need to supervise their own projects. Now the law is clear that property owners are not liable for the injuries to the contractors and their subs so long as the owners did not control the "means and methods" of how the work was performed. In other words, did the owner actually tell the injured party how to ply his trade?
The impact of this decision is clear. With a little proper drafting, both residential and commercial property owners can greatly reduce their risks from personal injury claims of workers injured on their property. Commercial property owners should seek legal advice to have their contracts reviewed to insure they have language in place that require a safe and organized work site. From the contractor and subcontractor perspective, the gun has clearly been leveled in your direction and care needs to be taken to make sure you have the proper insurance in place in light of your increased singular exposure; as well as to make sure your contracts have the appropriate contractual protections as well. Contractor's agreements also now need to be especially careful not to take on unnecessary liability in those situations where the owner is dictating the work or acting as their own GC.

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