Articles Posted in Business Litigation

A woman living in Staten Island must pay her flooring contractor $1,000. What did she do wrong; a negative review on While the first amendment (freedom of speech) generally lets you critique your home improvement contractors (and anyone for that matter) and comment upon their quality of work and professionalism, the Judge in this case stated that the home owner went too far when she called her contractor a “con artist” and that he “robs” his customers and it is a “scam”.

Under Pennsylvania tort law, libel is defined as “a maliciously written or printed publication which tends to blacken a person’s reputation or expose him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injure him in his business or profession.” Specifically, in an action for libel a plaintiff in Pennsylvania has the burden of proving each of the following:

  1. The defamatory character of the communication;
  2. Its publication (communicated to a third person) by the defendant;
  3.  Its application to the plaintiff;
  4. The understanding by the recipient of its defamatory meaning;
  5. The understanding by the recipient of the communication as intended to be applied to the plaintiff;
  6. Special harm resulting to the plaintiff from its publication; and
  7. Abuse of a conditionally privileged communication.

I don’t want to get into the intricacies regarding each above element and corresponding defenses and privileges (for example, truth is an absolute defense to any defamation claim or that defamatory statements are allowed in company employee reports). However, I think it is important to recognize that the Judge in this contractor case merely applied the tried and true law of defamation of character in written form and found that the customer defamed her contractor. The mere fact that her “opinion” was posted online did not relieve her of any responsibility for not violating the laws of libel.

In his ruling, the Judge said that her post was “opinion and protected speech,” but several of her comments crossed the line from opinion to libel. “Terms such as ‘scam,’ ‘con artist’ and ‘robs’ imply actions approaching criminal wrongdoing rather than someone who failed to live up to the terms of an agreement,” the Judge said.. While I am sure this case will be appealed, the take away here is be sure not to cross the line when you post anything online. Your opinion is protected free speech but if you go too far, you may be held responsible for your actions. From a business owner perspective, have someone regularly review Yelp and FaceBook and other online forums to see if anyone is posting reviews that might damage your reputation. However, remember that if a review is negative does not mean it is defamation if it is couched as an opinion instead of as a fact.

If you have any questions regarding this topic or any other issue affecting your business, please feel free to contact Doug Leavitt at Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt.

This entry is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice

On September 18, 2015 the New Jersey Appellate Court issued a decision that should make all employers review their employee handbooks if it contains a mandatory arbitration provision. In the beginning of almost every employee handbook there is a disclaimer provision that says something along the lines that the employment relationship is at-will and that the “provisions of this handbook is not intended to create a contract between the Company and the employee with regard to the matter set forth in the handbook”.

In this case, the New Jersey Appellate Court refused to enforce the mandatory arbitration provision in the employee handbook and stated in part, “the plain language in the handbook the defendant drafted shows, with unmistakable clarity, that Employer did not intend the handbook to create a binding agreement”. The Court went on to state “The employee handbook cannot be a binding agreement with respect to the arbitration provision, and an unenforceable document merely containing “management guidelines” for the rest of its provisions.” Click here to read a copy of this opinion.

In addition to the wording of the handbook being one of the main reasons the Court refused to enforce the arbitration provision, the Court also set forth other “problems” with the handbook that should serve as a guide to HR and in-house legal departments so their handbooks don’t suffer the same fate.

The arbitration waiver must spell out the rights that are being waived. Courts look closely when the constitutional right to bring an employment matter in court is being waived by an employee. Does the waiver spell out the rights being waived? Does the employee understand that he or she is giving up the right to have the case heard by a jury or whether this covers discrimination and other types of claims?

Additionally, there is the matter of the procedure set up by the employer being sufficient to show that the employee unmistakably agreed to arbitrate. Email consent is not enough – where the employee just clicks or agrees that he or she has received a copy of the handbook. Get the employee’s signature to show the employee agreed to the mandatory arbitration provision – assuming you have cured the other issues set forth above.

This case has broad reaching implications and not just in New Jersey. The provisions that caused this failure are common boilerplate protective provisions that are found in most employer handbooks (even if it was drafted by counsel) and therefore makes this cautionary tale relevant to every employer. I also believe this provision will may apply to covenants not to compete and non-solicitation agreements to the extent they too are set forth in employee handbooks and not in separate employment agreements signed by the employee. Be careful however, because merely placing such an agreement in front of your already employed employees to rectify the handbook issue will not work. While the reasons why are beyond the scope of this post, please click here to review an earlier post that addresses these issues.

If you have any questions regarding this employment issue or any other matter affecting your business, please feel free to contact Doug Leavitt at Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt.

This entry is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

I was driving into work this morning and I heard on the radio a caller complaining that the secret service cancelled her wedding just 8 days short of the big day because of the Pope. So I started thinking, what happened to all the deposit money? Did she lose it all-the money-not her mind. What about the caterer or the photographer? Did she owe more than just the deposit money? And then I thought-is this the ultimate Act of God defense?

In contract law, when party fails to perform according to the terms of the agreement it is viewed as a breach of contract. However, sometimes there are justifiable reasons that will allow or excuse a party from performing according to the terms of their agreement. For example, when Hurricane Sandy destroyed most of the hotels along the Jersey Shore, these hotels were excused from liability based upon their failure to provide accommodations or being able to host wedding receptions. In essence, an act of God may be interpreted as a defense for failure to perform based upon impossibility or impracticality. So I ponder, is the Pope being in Philly the ultimate Act of God defense.

If you have any questions regarding your legal obligations under a contract you are a party to or any other issue affecting your business, please feel free to contact Doug Leavitt at Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt.

This entry is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

EMV stands for EuroPay, Mastercard and Visa and starting next week, it will be important for business owners to consider how they employ this payment method. On October 1, 2015 the liability for credit card fraud will shift to the business entity that employs the least effective security technology. In other words, in disputes between the merchant (store front owner) and the credit card issuer (for example a Citizens Bank Visa), the party that uses non-compliant EMV technology will assume the liability for credit card fraud if the other party uses EMV technology. If both parties do not use EMV technology then the liability issues remains unchanged.

So what is EMV technology and how does it work? Have you ever noticed on your new credit card that there is shiny silver square? This is a computer chip and it produces a code that EMV compliant credit card terminals must receive in order to authorize the trasaction. You will no longer “swipe” your card but rather insert it into the terminal. The code will be constantly changing making fraud much harder to occur. In addition, some issuers will also require a PIN to confirm the transaction as well. If either your credit card or the merchant’s terminal is not EMV compliant, the card, for now, will work as before by the swipe method. The only thing that has changed is the potential shift of liability. This is not new technology. Europe has been using this technology for years. For more information on EMV technology, click here.

While it makes sense for brick and mortar stores to switch to EMV compliant terminals it is less clear for on-line retailers. Right now major credit card companies are using two different systems for EMV online technology. MasterCard uses its “Chip Authentication Program” or CAP and Visa offers its “Dynamic Passcode Authentication” or DPA.  It is very similar to the choice between VHS and Betamax all over again. Which technology will prevail is anyone’s guess at this point. In the meantime, it’s best to understand what’s out there and make an informed decision for your business’ individual needs.

If you have any questions regarding this or any other aspect affecting your business, please feel free to contact Doug Leavitt at Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt.

This entry is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

Every business owner, large or small, should take time to read the Department of Justice’s Best Practices for Victim Response and Reporting of Cyber Incidents. In today’s cyber world, it seems we cannot go a day without reading about another cyber security incident and its ramifications. For example, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals just last week certified a class action based upon mere allegations of future harm as a result from the Neiman Marcus data breach. In addition, the DOJ recently disclosed its successful involvement in the largest coordinated enforcement of on line organized cyber crime. This international investigation targeted a group known as Darkode where online cyber hackers shared and sold secrets to hack into other organizations’ computers. Against this backdrop, reviewing the DOJ’s suggestions regarding preventing cyber intrusion would be well worth your time as would be a quick review of my earlier blog post on an employer’s responsibility if you are hacked under the Pennsylvania Breach of Personal Information Act.

Key elements of the DOJ’s suggested response plan prior to intrusion include:

  • Having a well-established actionable plan;
  • Identify your company’s most valuable information; and
  • Have appropriate technology in place to shut down intrusion.

Key elements of the DOJ’s suggested response plan immediately after intrusion include:

  • Make initial assessment;
  • Take steps to minimize continuing damage;
  • Record all information;
  • Notify people within Organization, law enforcement and other victims; and
  • DO NOT use the compromised system to communicate.

At Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt, P.C. we urge our clients to meet with their technology professionals and develop a plan that deals with both keeping cyber criminals at bay and what to do in the unfortunate event you are hacked. We then work with our clients to make sure that their cyber defense plans are properly worked into employee handbooks and other materials as appropriate. Remember, you do not want to disclose all of your cyber security efforts to your employees and inadvertently provide a roadmap to defeat the measures you have taken. On the other hand, proper training will go a long way in effectively protecting your company’s’ assets. Feel free to contact Doug Leavitt at Danziger Shapiro and Leavitt to discuss this or any other aspect of your business organization.

This entry is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

It is not uncommon for a company to have a board meeting and have its attorney present to render legal advice. What happens though when in litigation the other side requests production of the minutes for this meeting? Can you successfully claim the attorney client privilege? What if an attorney was present but only in his capacity as a board member? These issues were raised again in a recent opinion authored by our appellate court.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court was faced with a hospital appealing the order of the trial court to produce minutes of a board meeting where there was a discussion of the malpractice claim that was the subject of the lawsuit. The hospital claimed that its lawyer was present to render legal advice. However, in its response to the production requests, the hospital failed to provide information sufficient to establish if the attorneys were there merely as board members or as legal advisors. Based on this, the trial court ordered production of the minutes. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and gave the hospital another chance to properly invoke privilege for each document it claimed was privileged. The Court specifically stated that it was necessary to identify the attorney by name so that a determination could be made relative to whether the attorney was there as a board member or attorney. If an attorney is there only in the capacity as a board member then the privilege does not apply.

The take away from this case is that when attorneys are present at board meetings it is critical that the minutes document the capacity in which the lawyers are present. Minutes should specifically identify attorneys who are present for the purpose of rendering legal advice. The minutes should also identify when information is being conveyed to obtain legal advice. In this way, even if the entirety of the minutes cannot be claimed as privileged, then a portion of the minutes can still be redacted.

The attorneys at Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt are well versed with how to properly document board meetings and understand that minutes drafted today might be the subject of discovery in tomorrow’s litigation. Please feel free to contact Doug Leavitt to discuss this or any other issue concerning corporate governance or pending litigation that might be troubling you.


This entry is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

The Securities and Exchange Commission reported its first enforcement action earlier this month against a company that inserted restrictive language in an employee confidentiality agreement to impede the whistleblower reporting process. In this action, the SEC charged that engineering firm KBR, Inc. violated whistleblower protection rule 21F-17 under the Dodd-Frank Act. (Click here for Order).

The SEC uncovered certain employees who were subject to the internal investigation process were required to sign confidentiality agreements. Among other things, the agreements included language that required the employee to first discuss what they were going to say to the SEC with in-house counsel and that violation of the confidentiality agreement could result in termination of employment.

As a result of this agreement, the SEC imposed a relatively modest fine of only $130,000. The Director of Enforcement for the SEC stated that, “By requiring its employees and former employees to sign confidentiality agreements imposing pre-notification requirements before contacting the SEC, KBR potentially discouraged employees from reporting securities violations to us. SEC rules prohibit employers from taking measures through confidentiality, employment, severance, or other type of agreements that may silence potential whistleblowers before they can reach out to the SEC. We will vigorously enforce this provision.”
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Foreign corporations may not transact business in Pennsylvania without first obtaining a Certificate of Authority from the Secretary of the Commonwealth. All that is required is a simple application, docketing statement and a small fee. The specific requirements are clearly set forth on the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website. What happens if you decide to ignore this requirement and are “not authorized” to transact business in Pennsylvania?

Aside from fines and penalties that can be assessed by the Commonwealth, you would not have the capacity to bring a lawsuit if the need were to arise. This means that even if you are owed a substantial sum of money for equipment that you delivered and the defendant is using without any complaints; you would not be able to collect. If your business is not authorized to do business within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania you simply do not have the capacity to bring your lawsuit. Think of this as a foreign corporation’s ticket to gain entrance to the Pennsylvania Court System.

All is not lost however if you find yourself in litigation and you do not have a Certificate of Authority. In fact, the Pennsylvania Appellate Court just this past January spoke on this issue. All that is required is that the Certificate of Authority be entered into evidence prior to a court entering its verdict. If this is accomplished, the lawsuit will be valid and the judgment entered will be enforceable. If however this is not accomplished prior to verdict, the lawsuit will be dismissed, you’ve potentially lost money regarding the subject of the suit, and left your company vulnerable to fines and penalties from the Commonwealth.
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On January 14, 2015, in a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme determined that the ABC test is the proper test an employer must use to determine if its workers are independent contractors or employees. Of all the various tests used by New Jersey and other states, the ABC test sets the bar the highest for an employer to successfully uphold it independent contractor status designation for its employees.

The New Jersey Supreme Court began its analysis by recognizing that the New Jersey wage and hour laws are remedial statutes and are meant to be interpreted broadly to benefit workers. Thus, the Court held that the ABC test presumes that an individual is an employee unless the company can show that the individual meets the following three elements:

(A) such individual has been and will continue to be free from control or direction over the performance of such service, both under his contract of service and in fact; and
(B) such service is either outside the usual course of the business for which such service is performed, or that such service is performed outside of all the places of business of the enterprise for which such service is performed; and

(C) such individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.

If the company does not meet one element of the three part test, the individual will be deemed to be an employee and therefore entitled to all of the rights and benefits afforded to employees. It is important to recognize that this is not a new test but rather the same test that New Jersey already uses in connection with its unemployment compensation cases. In addition, the ABC test is the controlling test used by many other states in connection with their independent contractor/employee analyses in the wage and hour context.
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On November 13, 2014 the New Jersey Supreme Court added New Jersey to the growing number of states that have established complex business litigation programs. Effective January 1, 2015, designated judges in each county will provide individualized case management to complex commercial and construction cases that meet the required criteria. The Supreme Court of New Jersey will designate the specific judge who will participate in the program and these judges will receive extensive specialized training in areas that are specific to business litigation.

Attorneys will self-designate their case for this program on the civil case information statement or they may move for inclusion or removal from this program depending on what opposing counsel may or may have not selected. Case will have a minimum $200,000 threshold but in certain circumstances a case may be included in the program due to the complex nature of issues even if the amount in controversy is less than $200,000.

The result of the program will be a win for all parties involved. Consistency will be developed as fewer judges will be ruling on complex commercial disputes. This will help the attorneys provide better cost benefit advice to their client based upon what they can expect at trial.

Judges will benefit as well as they will gain more experience in handling complex business disputes and gain experience and insight into what works and does not work from the point of view from the bench. For example, the judges will see what impact their discovery ruling has at the trial stage and whether they would have liked more information on a particular topic. Now the judges will see what impact their discovery ruling has at trial. In the past, a discovery judge might limit an area of inquiry, but at trial you are faced with a different judge looking down at you with a perplexed look wondering why you did not develop this through further discovery.
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