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.
Recently in Commercial Litigation Category
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
BEST PRACTICE TIP: CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS OF POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES ONLY UNDER CERTAIN LIMITED CONDITIONS
Companies today that routinely perform criminal background checks as part of their hiring process run the very real danger of running afoul of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other federal and state statutes. Generally speaking, an employer may conduct a criminal background check only with the consent of the job applicant. Upon receiving the report, the employer must provide a copy of the report to the applicant along with a written notice of rights under the FCRA. The requirements are confusing and the costs for not complying are high as Pennsylvania's very own Toll Brothers, Inc. is finding out.
In the recently filed putative class action, it is alleged that Toll Brothers did not comply with the basic FCRA requirements set forth above. If this is true, Toll Brothers will be responsible not only for the damages to a nationwide class of unhappy job applicants, but also be responsible for statutory damages, punitive damages and the attorneys' fees of the plaintiff class, all in addition to their own counsel fees.
Notwithstanding this recent class action, a criminal background check is a useful tool when it is related to the employment being offered. For example, a bank seeking candidates to work as a teller would want to know if a job applicant has convictions for drugs and theft. No problem here as long as the bank complies with the requirements under the FCRA and Pennsylvania state law. On the other hand, perhaps a background check is not relevant to a landscaping company who is seeking employees to cut grass over the summer. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has weighed in on this recently and stated that employers "must be able to show the inquiry into conviction is substantially related to an applicant's suitability to perform major job duties and required by business necessity."
The vast majority of family owned businesses fail to reach the next generation of owners as a result of poor succession planning. In fact, according to the Small Business Administration, while almost 90% of business are family owned, less than 30% of these businesses survive its second generation. Family businesses face unique intra-familial succession issues that can devastate a successful business if they are not dealt with in advance.
While not an exhaustive list, the top succession issues that a family business should examine include:
1. Reconfirm the goal or mission statement of the business and identify the best personnel suited to carry the stated goal forward.
2. The development of an exit strategy for founding that not only defines the reduced roles but future compensation (cash and/or stock) after the transfer from one generation to the next.
3. The development of a training program to educate and/or mentor the next generation of leaders.
4. Reexamine compensation system and determine whether members are being compensated fairly and establish a system based upon objective criteria or goals.
5. Consider employment agreements designed to prevent key personnel from competing with your business during transition period.
Effective December 24, 2012, Pennsylvania became the 29th state to adopt the Uniform Interstate Depositions and Discovery Act (UIDDA). The UIDDA is a model uniform law that allows out of state litigants to obtain discovery in Pennsylvania quickly and in a more cost efficient manner. Here is a link to to the act as adopted in Pennsylvania.
The procedure to obtain a Pennsylvania subpoena under the UIDDA is simple and straightforward. Foreign litigants merely present the subpoena issued by the foreign state to the prothonotary's (clerk's office) office in the county where the person subject to the subpoena resides. After payment of a nominal fee and compliance with a few local rules, the prothonotary will issue a subpoena for service. The best part of the UIDDA is that foreign litigants do not need to hire local counsel, nor do they have to have their counsel admitted pro hac vice to obtain the subpoena. The process of obtaining a foreign subpoena under the UIDDA will not constitute the unauthorized practice of law.
Prior to the adoption of the UIDDA, if a litigant in California (for example) wanted to compel the appearance of an individual in Pennsylvania to appear for a deposition, the California issued subpoena alone was not enough. The attorney in California would have to embark on a time consuming endeavor where they needed a California court to issue an order that asked a Pennsylvania court to issue a subpoena. This process could take months and get very expensive because once the California court issued the order; local counsel in Pennsylvania was required to obtain a local order asking the Pennsylvania court to issue the local subpoena.
Earlier this month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that border agents may not perform a forensic search of a traveler's laptop merely because he is crossing the border into the United States. In the current climate of heightened security to prevent terroristic acts, we have sacrificed some of our basic freedoms as Americans. In this particular case, it was the breadth of coverage of the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution versus the boarder search exception doctrine.
The Fourth Amendment states in a nut shell that we shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This boarder doctrine is a product of United States criminal law that allows basically unfettered searches and seizures within 100 miles of a border without the need for a warrant.
In the case before the Ninth Circuit, a traveler's laptop computer was confiscated by the government for 5 days while it ran encryption software to break the traveler's security codes. The Court recognized that while the Supreme Court has virtually suspended the Fourth Amendment at international boarders, this type of conduct went too far. The Ninth Circuit clearly stated in its Opinion that the government needed a "reasonable suspicion of illegal activity" before border agents can invade a person's right to digital privacy. In particular, the Court stated, "A person's digital life ought not be hijacked simply by crossing a border." Please click this link to read a copy of the Opinion.
Too bad for the traveler in this case however; while the Court stated a standard that required a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, the Court found that this standard was met. This traveler had a prior conviction for child pornography and was travelling from Mexico which is known to have a high incidence of child sex crimes. Combined with the fact that significant child pornography was indeed found on his computer's hard drive made for an easy decision to get this predator off the street and rule the seizure valid.
So what should employers in Philadelphia and the surrounding four counties (Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware) take away from this regarding digital privacy rights? Well, Philadelphia International Airport (and Newark Airport for that matter) is considered an international boarder. Thus, the government conceivably can just walk up to one of your employees and in the name of security confiscate your company laptop, tablet or smart phone. What trade secrets or customer lists are on these digital file servers? What confidential agreements have you just broken by allowing the government to view highly confidential information? Do you have an obligation to immediately file an injunction to prevent the government from viewing the contents of your smart phone? Do you have to report this to your Board of Directors?
CLIENT ALERT: RECENT COURT RULING REGARDING THE VIOLATION OF A COVENANT NOT TO COMPETE - SOLICITATION OF PAST CUSTOMERS
In a breach of contract case last month (January 2013), a Pennsylvania trial court correctly ruled (in my humble opinion), that a seller did not violate the terms of a covenant not to compete in an asset purchase agreement by providing services to its former clients. The new owners of the company argued for a broad interpretation of the word "solicit" and a holding that the seller had solicited its former business clients. The court disagreed, and in a very clearly worded opinion held the word "solicit" means more than just accepting work from a former client. In this case, the seller did not proactively reach out to any of his former clients, but merely agreed to work for them after the former clients unilaterally approached him.
This unfortunately was a case of a lawyer not paying attention to the details. The main asset in this sale appears to have been the customer list, and the buyer failed to ensure it was properly protected. This problem could have easily been easily avoided by including in the agreement a list of clients the seller could not work with, a mandatory referral clause, or perhaps a broader geographical restriction, just to name a few options. Realize now, every case turns on its own unique set of facts and circumstances and your situation may differ from what the court analyzed here. In the above example, the key fact for this particular court was that the plaintiff was unable to produce any evidence to contradict the seller's statement that he did not reach out to former clients.
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.
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.
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.