Recently in Commercial Litigation Category

April 7, 2015

SEC TARGETS EMPLOYMENT CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENTS THAT INTERFERE WITH WHISTLEBLOWER INVESTIGATIONS

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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February 26, 2015

NEW JERSEY'S BAN THE BOX EFFECTIVE MARCH 1, 2015

New Jersey's "Ban the Box" law goes into effect next week on March 1, 2015. Employers in New Jersey may no longer have an employment application that contains either a box that must be marked or a question asked that relate to an applicant's criminal record or lack thereof. Employers also cannot ask about an applicant's criminal history or even run a criminal background check at the early stages of the employment process. A more thorough analysis of this new law can be found by clicking here to see a previous blog post.

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February 3, 2015

BUSINESSES MUST BE REGISTERED TO DO BUSINESS IN PENNSYLVANIA IN ORDER TO BRING LAWSUIT TO VERDICT

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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January 20, 2015

NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT SETS TEST TO DETERMINE INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR STATUS

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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December 2, 2014

COMPLEX BUSINESS LITIGATION PROGRAM ESTABLISHED IN NEW JERSEY

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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November 13, 2014

Pennsylvania's Breach of Personal Information Notification Act

Last month I had a business client come into my office concerned about a data breach. A disgruntled former employee hacked into the company server. While it appears this employee did not enter into any sensitive areas on the server, my client wanted to know what his responsibilities were with regarding to notifying customers of this unauthorized intrusion. After quickly moving for an injunction to prohibit further intrusions, we sat down with our client to review his data breach policy. Not surprisingly, he did not have one.

Every data breach policy has to be created with an eye towards the sector your business operates. For example, HIPPA notification requirements with regard to "protected health information" are different from the requirements for a web based business.

In Pennsylvania we have the Breach of Personal Information Notification Act. This law has been on the books since June 2006 and is currently in the process of being amended as it relates to municipalities and school districts. This applies to any business organization (for-profit or non-profit) that maintains or stores computerized data that includes personal information. The impact of this Act is far reaching because it applies to businesses of other states whose customers are Pennsylvania residents.

Notification requirements are triggered when there is a breach of a computer data system where any "resident of Pennsylvania's unencrypted and unredacted personal information was or is reasonably believed to have been accessed and acquired by an unauthorized person." I won't bore you with the details of the intricacies of how all these seemingly simple to understand words have definitions that go on for pages. Suffice to say even the definition "reasonably believed" is complicated. The key take away however is that the notification requirements are NOT triggered if the information is encrypted or redacted. Failure to comply will prove costly as the Act provides that a violation is deemed to be a violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.

Circling back to my client who contacted me last month, his records were encrypted and thus Pennsylvania's Breach of Personal Information Notification Act did not apply. However, we reviewed and updated his data breach policy to bring it into compliance with the existing laws that affected his business. At Danziger Shapiro & Leavitt we understand the global environment that affects your business and are here to assist you navigate the complicated web of laws and regulations that need to be complied with in this new electronic world. Please feel free to contact any of our attorneys for a free consultation to discuss any concern that is affecting your business.

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October 9, 2014

NEW JERSEY SUPREME COURT TIGHTENS REQUIREMENTS FOR CONSUMER ARBITRATION AGREEMENTS

On September 23, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court in a unanimous decision held that an arbitration clause in a consumer contract was unenforceable because it did not clearly and unambiguously signal to the consumer that she was surrendering her right to pursue her claims in court. The Court was troubled that the arbitration clause did not clearly explain what arbitration is and how it is different from proceeding in a court of law.

The Court stated that no prescribed set of words is required. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the arbitration clause must contain a clear and unambiguous statement that explains that the consumer is giving up his or her right to bring their claims in court or have a jury resolve the dispute. This for obvious reasons will have dramatic impact upon consumer class actions and how they proceed.

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August 7, 2014

PENNSYLVANIA HAS NEW POWER OF ATTORNEY REQUIREMENTS

On July 15, 2014 House Law 1429 went into effect and drastically changed what is required under financial powers of attorney (POAs). The new law was in response to rising incidents of elder abuse where agents placed their own self-interests before the principal. As such, the new law, among many other changes, places limitations and requirements on an agents ability to make gifts, terminate trusts and change beneficiary designations. Seems simple, right?

The new law also places an affirmative duty on the agent to act in accordance with and preserve the principal's estate plan and when making decisions to account for the principal's foreseeable obligations for maintenance. Have you ever been involved in a situation where children don't like their dad's second wife? With this new law, seems like the agent has just taken on a lot of responsibility that is open to second guessing and attack.

Because this law was enacted in response to individuals taking advantage of the elderly or otherwise incapacitated individuals, this new does not apply in most commercial settings.

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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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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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