Recently in Business Litigation Category

July 1, 2014

LAWYERS CAN DELETE CIRCULAR 230 WARNINGS ON EMAILS

For those of us that actually read the bottom of their lawyer's email you probably noticed the arcane "IRS Circular 230 Disclosure" that stated the advice contained in this email is not intended and cannot be used for tax avoidance purposes etc... You then probably thought to yourself, but I was just confirming lunch, what the heck does this have to do with tax advice anyway? Perhaps a little perspective is in order.

Circular 230 was the IRS's compilation of regulations regarding tax services provided by lawyers and other tax professionals with respect to the tax shelter abuses of the 1990s. Circular 230 set the minimum standard with respect to written tax advice and therefore wound up being placed on everything.

Thankfully the IRS issued new rules on June 12 (click here for PDF of rule) which included the following statement; "Treasury and the IRS expect these amendments will eliminate the use of a Circular 230 disclaimer in email and other writing." Good riddance and where are we meeting for lunch again?

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June 25, 2014

COURT CONTINUES TO MISUNDERSTAND HOW WE USE TECHNOLOGY

The Supreme Court continued its trend of significant decisions today, issuing rulings in favor of copyright holders over technological innovation (ABC v Aereo) and in favor of upholding privacy rights in the face of police searches (Riley v California). While the decisions were broad in scope, they also both created substantial unanswered questions that the Court is essentially pleading with Congress to resolve. From a political standpoint, that appears unlikely, and I predict both of these issues will be back before the Court in the not too distant future.

Looking first at the Riley case, the Court held cell phones contained private information which the police are not entitled to review merely incident to an arrest. Unlike the contents of your pockets or items in plain view, the government now cannot access your cell phone without a warrant during an arrest. This rule applies to both smartphones and so called dumb phones alike (the police viewed the incoming caller ID in one of the defendant's older style flip phones to determine where he lived), and actually signals real concern for future business cases.

While this may seem like a boon to privacy advocates, there are holes in this ban big enough to steer Google's self driving car through. First, there are exceptions for when the police believe they need to access your device in exigent circumstances. No warrant is required when the police are trying to prevent a disaster, or save someone else. Second, the Border Search exemption does not come up in this case. This exemption, still on the books but possibly overruled by today's decision, allows for a warrantless customs search anywhere within 100 miles of an international border. That includes our offices in Philadelphia, and most of the population of the US who live within 100 miles of an international coastline. Is every police search now going to have a customs element to get around the Riley decision?

The bigger concern with this decision, from a business perspective, is the growing use by the Roberts Court of anecdotal evidence not truly before the Court. The Riley decision in some ways is based upon a faulty understanding of technology and how we interact with it on a daily basis. Justice Roberts cites to the iPhone User Guide as definitive proof that "Law enforcement officers are very unlikely to come upon such a phone in an unlocked state because most phones lock at the touch of a button or, as a default, after some very short period of inactivity." While many phones have this feature, it's frequently not used. Various surveys have shown between 40% to 70% of cell phone users don't lock their phones. The Court similarly dismisses out of hand the potential for automatic wiping via geofencing as simply not a real concern. I'll grant Justice Roberts that most criminals are not IT specialists, but it's not difficult to set up a directive for your phone to be wiped if it enters the local police station. In fact, the controls to set that up are right in the apps at the heart of the Riley decision. Finally, the Court suggests merely turning the phone off or removing the battery as a way police can prevent a remote wiping signal, failing to understand that (i) many, if not most, new smartphone have integrated non-removable batteries; and (ii) a phone is not rendered completely inaccessible simply because it's turned off.

The problem here is not holding itself, which may actually be a bit of a pendulum swing against the destruction of privacy standards we've seen since 9/11. Rather, the issue I see is that the Court continues to decide cases based upon a misunderstanding of how people interact with technology. This has led to, and will continue to create, decisions which raise significant business issues. We'll have more in the next few days on the Aereo decision, which even the Court acknowledged will hang over SAS and cloud computing services for some time to come. But in the meantime, it's clear that if we are going to continue to see technological growth, Congress needs to get on the ball and deal with some of these issues before they're dumped at the courthouse steps.

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May 29, 2014

"VALUABLE CONSIDERATION" REQUIRED TO ENFORCE NON-COMPETE AGREEMENT DESPITE COMPLIANCE WITH PENNSYLVANIA UNIFORM WRITTEN OBLIGATIONS ACT

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently examined what impact, if any, the Pennsylvania Uniform Written Obligations ACT (PUWOA) has on an employment agreement that contained a covenant not to compete entered into after the employee started working with the employer. The short answer is - no effect at all.

First a little background is in order. In order for a covenant not to compete to be enforceable against an employee, the employee must receive something valuable (consideration) from his or her employer. If this covenant is bargained for by the employer prior to the employee starting work, then the prospect of future employment with the employer satisfies the "valuable right" or "valuable consideration" needed for a court to enforce a covenant not to compete. However, if the employee is already employed by the employer, continued employment is not sufficient additional consideration; something more must be given by the employer.

The case before the appellate court involved the situation where an employer wanted to enforce a covenant not to compete that was entered into after the employee was already employed by the employer. The employer tried to avoid the requirement of providing additional consideration by relying upon the PUWOA. This act states that an agreement will not be enforceable for lack of consideration if the words "intending to be legally bound" are in the agreement. Unfortunately for the employer, the appellate court held that the language "intending to be legally bound" did not constitute sufficient additional consideration in the context of a covenant not to compete.

So what is the important take away here? Review your employment agreements and if you have a restrictive covenant, revisit what consideration was given to your employee and when it was given. Ask yourself if the employee is mission critical and whether you really want to enforce the covenant? It does just have to be money that will support a court finding sufficient additional consideration.

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April 1, 2014

DO I NEED TO FILE AN S ELECTION IN PENNSYLVANIA - LEGAL RESEARCH ON YOUR OWN: A FOOL AND HIS MONEY ARE SOON PARTED

These are dangerous times to be starting your new business. The economy is tight, money is not readily available and your legal budget is next to nil. You've heard that you need to incorporate to protect your family assets and you keep hearing on the radio that you don't need a lawyer. In fact, you do some quick internet research and feel you can do it yourself. Having practiced for over 20 years now I am confident in stating that yes you can do this on your own but you might make a critical mistake. Doing legal research online without the appropriate background is dangerous. The first answer you get may not be the correct answer and you really are not in a position to recognize whether what you found on the web is just what you "wanted" to find or really the legally correct answer.

For example, after you incorporate you need to decide whether you want to be a C corporation or an S corporation. Usually the S election is preferable for smaller entities because it eliminates taxation at the shareholder level whereas a C corporation is taxed at both the corporate level and the shareholder level. Seems straightforward enough, right? You google S election and click on a link to the Department of Revenue website (click here) where it clearly states that any federal S election is automatically a S election unless you opt out. However, right under the Department of Revenue's link is Pennsylvania's Open for Business website link (click here) that clearly states you must file for S-corporation status within 75 days of incorporation. This is a website that was created for the purpose of assisting new business owners and has the Governor's name on the top yet its advice is 180⁰ opposite the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue.

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March 4, 2014

WHISTLEBLOWER AWARDS IN EXCESS OF $14 MILLION IN 2013

The SEC's Office of the Whistleblower (OWB) awarded individuals over $14 million in 2013 for their "significant and original contributions" to successful enforcement of the securities laws. The OWB is now in its 3rd full year and the number of tips and complaints is trending upward. OWB reports that it received 3,001 tips and complaint in 2012 and 3,238 in 2013. These numbers are certain to increase as the OWB continually expands the whistleblower laws.

For example, in July 2013, a new pilot program was put into place that protected federal grant workers from whistleblower retaliation. In a nutshell, the new program is designed to protect an employee from employment retaliation for reporting mismanagement of a federal grant or contract funding. An employee who claims to have been retaliated against must file a claim with the Inspector General of the agency involved. If no retaliation is found, the employee can then file a complaint in federal court. If successful, in addition to reinstatement and back pay, attorneys' fees and costs will also be awarded

Last month I discussed the new path the Securities and Exchange Commission was embarking upon in its efforts to enforce the securities laws from the outside in with the use of deferred prosecution agreements. I noted this was a philosophical change made from the highest levels of the SEC to pursue companies that violate the securities law by targeting employees of suspected target companies. The questions you need to ask yourself as an employee of a company that is involved in fraud are; do I wait until the government agency contacts me as part of its investigation, or do I contact the government agency when I have knowledge of my employer's widespread fraud? By contacting the government first, you may be entitled to a piece of the substantial awards discussed above. In addition, by taking preemptive action you can protect yourself from being brought down by fellow employees who allege you were part of the fraud.

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January 21, 2014

SEC ENTERS INTO FIRST DEFERRED PROSECUTION AGREEMENT WITH INDIVIDUAL

Late last year the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had entered into its first deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with an individual who worked in an administrative capacity at a large hedge fund. The DPA allowed the SEC to successfully go after hedge fund manager Berton Hochfield who reportedly stole more than 1.5 million from his hedge fund and overstated the fund's performance to investors.

A deferred prosecution agreement is a voluntary agreement between an individual and a government agency, in this case the SEC, where the agency will agree to lesser charge in exchange for the individual's cooperation in connection with the investigation. In the Hochfield case, Scott Herckis voluntarily came to the SEC with concerns over certain accounting irregularities involving Hochfield's hedge fund, Heppelwhite Fund, LP. Herckis produced a substantial number of documents and described in detail to the SEC how Hochfield perpetrated his fraud. Based upon the information Herckis provided, the SEC was able to take emergency action and freeze the fund's assets within weeks of Herckis reaching out to the SEC. While Herckis did not get off "scot free" for his participation in the fraud scheme, he did receive a substantially reduced penalty. For example, instead of being unable to be a hedge fund administer for the remainder of his life, Herckis was only prohibited from being a fund administrator for 5 years. Herckis also had to disgorge the fees (approximately $50,000) he received in connection with the fraud.

This DPA is significant because it seems to support new SEC Chair Mary Jo White's earlier statement that the SEC is going to strongly pursue individuals on the periphery to build its case against greedy insiders and their business entities. By adopting this outside in approach and offering DPAs to periphery individuals, the SEC is placing a significant carrot in front of those who were part of an overall fraud scheme but perhaps feel trapped and want out but do not know how to safely do so.

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December 16, 2013

Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt, P.C. Announces Investigation of NQ Mobile, Inc.

For Immediate Release

Contact: Douglas M. Leavitt
Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt, P.C.
215-545-4830
leavitt@DS-L.com

Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt, P.C.
Announces Investigation of NQ Mobile, Inc.

PHILADELPHIA, PA, December 16, 2013- Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt, P.C., a Philadelphia based litigation law firm, (www.DS-L.com) is investigating securities fraud claims against NQ Mobile, Inc.. (NYSE: NQ). This inquiry centers on allegations that statements issued by NQ Mobile regarding its business operations and the company's financial condition were deceptive and false.

NQ Mobile purports to provide security solutions for the mobile phone market. On October 24, 2013, a report issued by Muddy Waters states that NQ Mobile had engaged in fraudulent practices by, among other things, vastly overstating its market share in China by asserting it had a 55% share of the market when in fact it only had a 1.5% market share and that at least 72% of NQ Mobile's alleged Chinese security revenue is fictitious. Upon the release of this news, in less than 36 hours, shares of NQ Mobile dropped approximately 56%, representing over $500 million in losses to investors

Individuals who purchased NQ Mobile shares between May 5, 2013 and October 24, 2013 who would like to learn more about this investigation, have an interest in joining a class-action lawsuit, or have any questions concerning this announcement and their rights, should on or before December 23, 2013, contact Douglas M. Leavitt, Esquire: (215) 545-4830 or visit: www.DS-L.com. You may also email Mr. Leavitt at leavitt@DS-L.com.

This press release may be considered Attorney Advertising in some jurisdictions under the applicable law and ethical rules.


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November 19, 2013

SEC BEING INVESTIGATED (AGAIN) FOR IMPROPER TRADING

Well this doesn't happen every day - or does it? The SEC finds itself being investigated for improper financial holdings. According to a November 2013 Reuters post, federal prosecutors and the office of the inspector general of the SEC contacted employees in the SEC's New York office about trading in companies that are under SEC investigation. This is a direct violation of internal SEC rules. While the report indicates that it does not appear to be a widespread issue, it is another black eye for the SEC that is still marred by the 2009 allegations regarding insider trading by SEC employees. Stay tuned to see how this plays out.

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October 22, 2013

SEC NOW REQUIRES ADMISSION OF WRONGDOING IN SETTLEMENTS OF "EGREGIOUS" CASES

In the past the Securities and Exchange Commission had allowed defendants to settle civil and administrative claims brought by the SEC without requiring defendants to admit or deny liability. However, there has been a change of policy with the recent appointment of the new SEC Chair Mary Jo White. Now, in "egregious" cases, the SEC will push extremely hard for, and in fact almost require, an admission of wrongdoing.

This new policy creates a tactical dilemma for defense counsel on several fronts. Defense counsel needs to be cognizant that shareholders will be able to use the admission of wrongdoing as the main exhibit in any civil lawsuit brought against their client. As a result, timing is a consideration. Settle to early before the statute of limitations runs on the civil side and the results can be disastrous.

However, the real conundrum for defense counsel is predicting how the Department of Justice will react in its parallel criminal investigation when its target has just admitted wrongdoing in writing. Making matters worse is the fact that it is the "egregious" cases that the DOJ is interested in. Will DOJ prosecutors be satisfied with the admission of wrongdoing in the SEC case or use it as low hanging fruit in its criminal prosecution?

In addition, can you even enter into a settlement with the SEC where you admit wrongdoing and not commit perjury? Defendants will occasionally give testimony to the SEC early in the process minimizing their role. Does the admission of wrongdoing in the settlement directly contradict the earlier statements? Do you need to take the 5th amendment earlier on in the SEC investigation to prevent this from happening?

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October 8, 2013

"INSTRUMENT UNDER SEAL" - THESE THREE WORDS REALLY DO MATTER

Ever wonder what an "instrument under seal" is? When the word [SEAL] is placed next to the signature block at the end of the written guaranty or loan agreement, does it have any impact? The answer is a big YES.

Earlier this summer, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court confirmed what we have always told our clients when they have asked us this question. When a written contract states that it is an "instrument under seal" and has the word "SEAL" next to or part of the signature block, the statute of limitations to enforce the terms of the written contract in question has been increased from the standard 4 year limitation period to 20 years!

So what is the important take away here? Review your loan agreements and other agreements (a guaranty for example) to make sure this language is standard on all agreements going forward. Not only does this give you a longer time period to decide if you want to bring legal action for nonperformance, but it also makes your negotiable instruments more marketable should you decide to sell them to third parties.

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August 13, 2013

PUBLIC BENEFIT CORPORATIONS ARE NOW AN OPTION IN DELAWARE

Delaware recently joined the fast growing Benefit Corporation "club". Effective August 1, 2013, Delaware became the 20th state to adopt its own version of the Benefit Corporation. The provisions governing this new business entity can be found under new Subchapter XV of the Delaware General Corporation Law. Earlier this year you may recall (click here) I discussed how Pennsylvania became the 12th state to adopt its version of the Benefit Corporation.

The Delaware Benefit Corporation is almost identical to the Pennsylvania Benefit Corporation. Both acts are designed to allow "social" entrepreneurs to focus not only on the bottom line but to also consider other non economic societal factors (community, environment, employees etc...). Both acts have provisions governing allowed purposes, accountability and transparency requirements (although Delaware has an every 2 year reporting requirement as opposed to Pennsylvania's every year).

One interesting difference between the two states relates to derivative litigation (click here for link to derivative information on Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt website). While Pennsylvania is silent with respect to minimum share ownership requirements for shareholders to bring derivative actions, Delaware decided to establish minimum share ownership requirements. Most likely, this is a reflection of Delaware recognizing the practical consequences that will follow by allowing officers and directors to consider subjective societal concerns when making business decisions. Namely; not everyone shares the same political, religious and social concerns. By placing a minimum share ownership requirement in order to bring a derivative action, Delaware is just trying to reduce the strain on an already overburdened court system.

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July 2, 2013

FEDERAL JUDGE BANS EXPERT TESTIMONY IN INSURANCE CASE - JURY CAN RELY UPON THEIR GENERAL KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE

For the second time in the last year a judge has precluded expert testimony regarding bath faith claims asserted against insurance companies. The most recent case out of the Western District of Pennsylvania involved a motor vehicle accident where the insurance company offered $13,000 on a policy with a $300,000 limit. In response to the paltry offer where plaintiff had sustained substantial injuries, plaintiff sued Geico alleging it had breached its contract with plaintiff and was handling the claim in bad faith.

To support his claim, the plaintiff attempted to introduce an insurance claims expert to provide the jury with information about the concept of bad faith. There have been cases in the past where insurance experts testified with explanations about standards and practices within the insurance industry. In this case however, the judge determined that the concept of bad faith and how it relates to the insurance industry was not too difficult or complex for the average juror to understand. Accordingly, the judge prevented the plaintiff from presenting his expert to the jury.

This is the most recent in a series of decisions in Pennsylvania since 1997 to establish that while bad faith is a legal concept, the general population doesn't require scientific or technical knowledge to understand it. In other words, the judge decided that the members of the jury were smart enough to understand the concept and any additional information presented to the jury in court would simply impede on the jury's fact finding function.

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June 7, 2013

New Proposals to Fight Patent Trolls

New proposals coming from the White House this week should give small business owners hope for relief from costly patent troll litigation. This type of lawsuit has been an increasingly expensive threat to small businesses, most of which never imaged they'll be involved in patent litigation. The common perception is patent disputes are for manufacturers to worry about, and the number of small business manufacturers is dwarfed by those in construction, services, retail and health care. Unfortunately, patent trolls, politely called non-practicing entities (NPEs), have turned that perception on its head.

The way NPEs work is frustratingly simple. They acquire patents, often in large packages at a time, and then look for existing products which could be deemed to infringe on the patent. But instead of going after the business which is making the product, NPEs frequently go after the end users. Think of this in terms of the Samsung v Apple litigation that's been in the headlines so often lately - imagine if Samsung had not sued Apple but rather demanded licensing fees directly from every iPhone user in the country. This is the tactic the NPEs take.

The NPEs know their patents are often worthless. If they were forced to defend them against an actual manufacturer, with financial resources behind them, they'd face the real risk of having the patent invalidated. So by pursuing the end user, often a business who bought a particular software program or copier, they're pursuing those least able to defend themselves. The NPE sends out mass mailings demanding penalties and licensing fees, and waits to see who responds. In most cases, the targeted business never even learn who's behind the NPE, they only deal with the law firms who make a living fronting for these entities. That may soon change.

The proposals from the White House include seven legislative recommendations and five executive actions. While the legislative recommendations would certainly be most helpful, the chances of Congress passing anything requested by the Administration seem slim. The executive actions appear to be more likely, and should ultimately help small businesses who are targeted by these trolls.

In the short term, suggested changes requiring the true owner of a patent to identify themselves should help targeted businesses and provide a claim history for their counsel to track. This will certainly help. Also, the Administration has proposed an education and outreach program so targeted businesses can learn more about their rights.

The biggest improvement, however, is likely to be in the long term as new efforts are implemented to improve training for PTO examiners. The goal is to restrict the acceptance of overly broad claims in issued patents. Applicants will be forced to improve the explanation of their claimed invention, and the patent will be limited to a specific method of accomplishing a task, instead of all method for accomplishing the task.

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June 4, 2013

INITIAL OFFER LETTER OF EMPLOYMENT ALMOST INVALIDATES RESTRICTIVE COVENANT

On May 29, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided an interesting case regarding how an initial offer letter to a prospective employee can potentially impact a restrictive covenant in an employee's employment agreement. Before discussing this case, we need a very brief summary regarding what courts look to when deciding whether to enforce a restrictive covenant.

In Pennsylvania, the law is clear that a restrictive covenant (non-compete or non-solicitation of clients or employees for example) is valid and enforceable against an employee under certain conditions so long as the covenant does not impose an illegal restraint of trade. There are many different components that make a restrictive covenant enforceable. However, this post will only focus on the timing requirement.

To be enforceable, a restrictive covenant has to be part of the initial employment terms at the time the offer of employment is made to the employee. The key is that there must be no employee/employer relationship at the time the covenant is being imposed. The restrictive covenant must be part of the overall prospective terms of employment. A restrictive covenant will always fail where the employer seeks to impose the covenant on an unsuspecting employee (already employed by employer) and offers no additional consideration (value) in exchange for the additional restriction.

With this as background, we can now better understand what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was grappling with. In this case, an employee resigned from his position at one company and went to work for a competitor. The former employer sought a preliminary injunction to stop its former employee from working for a competitor. What prompted this case to travel through the appellate courts was the wording of the offer letter. The courts were struggling with the issue of whether the offer letter that the employee signed was the actual employment contract and not the later agreement titled "Employment Agreement" that the employee signed on his first day of work. The "Employment Agreement" and not the offer letter contained the restrictive covenant.

If the offer letter was the actual employment agreement because it contained all the essential terms of employment, the restrictive covenant would not have been enforceable. The reason for this conclusion under the fact scenario above would have been that the employee had already accepted his position with the company when he signed the offer letter and thus received no additional consideration when he signed his "employment agreement" with the company on his first day of work.

Luckily for the former employer the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reached the conclusion that the offer letter was just part of the overall process and not the employment agreement. The offer letter clearly stated that employment was conditioned upon the signing of an employment agreement. However, be warned, you cannot simply include language in your offer letter to indicate that employment is conditioned upon the signing of an employment agreement as concurring opinions by certain of the Justices stated their problems with just such a broad holding.

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May 22, 2013

PROPOSED BILL IN NEW JERSEY IF PASSED WILL INVALIDATE COVENANTS NOT TO COMPETE IN EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS - TIME IS NOW IF YOU WANT EMPLOYEES TO SIGN RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS

Last month the New Jersey Legislature introduced Assembly Bill 3970 that if passed will invalidate any restrictive covenant in an employment contract if the affected employee was eligible to receive unemployment compensation benefits. The reasoning behind this rule is that an employee who lost his job through no fault of his own (and thus be eligible for unemployment compensation) should not be held hostage to a restrictive covenant in an employment agreement. Restrictive covenants include, for example, covenants not to compete, agreements not to solicit employees, and agreements not to disclose information.

This is quite an unusual step for the New Jersey legislature in proposing a law in an area that has typically been left to the courts to decide on a case by case basis. As it stands now, Courts inquire into whether the restriction protects a legitimate employer interest, imposes no hardship on the employee and does not injure the public. Also considered by the court is a temporal component relating to both length and geographic boundaries of the restriction.

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