Category Archives: Litigation

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip #5 – Treat Your Employees Fairly and Consistently

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The lifeblood of every business – big, small or in-between – is its employees, aptly called its human resources or human capital. A company can have the most innovative product or service idea in the world, along with a recognized market and an excellent strategy for capitalizing on it, but, without the right people to implement the idea and the right managers to train, supervise, and motivate that staff, the idea is likely to fail. That is why your employees are your most valuable resource. At the same time, however, employees are also frequent sources of litigation for businesses, including claims for wrongful discharge, discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment, failure to accommodate a disability, wage and hour violations, failure to properly pay overtime, breach of non-compete agreements, and theft of company trade secrets, to name just a few.

Employees are much more challenging to manage than any other resource your company uses to conduct its business. Your inventory, for example, is, for the most part, fungible. If one source dries up or becomes prohibitively expensive, chances are you will be able to find a replacement source. Similarly, your equipment is generally easily repairable or replaceable if something breaks. Not so with your employees. They require training, motivation, and incentives. They take sick days, personal days, and holidays. They go on vacation, care for sick or disabled family members, and sometimes they do not get along or work well with each other. And they sue their employers with increasing frequency.

In addition, studies show that the replacement of just one key employee can cost your business hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about the down time and lost productivity associated with the departure of the former employee, internal and external recruitment costs to find a replacement, costs of training and orienting the new employee, and the down time and lost productivity involved in getting the new employee up to speed. These are just a few of the costs associated with losing an employee.

In short, you have invested a huge amount of your company’s resources in your employees. Doesn’t it make sense that you should protect that investment by implementing policies to keep your employees productive, motivated, safe, healthy a relatively happy? Here are some things you can try to help accomplish that goal.

First, always treat your employees respectfully, honestly, and fairly. This suggestion might sound obvious, and it is, but it is also frequently forgotten or ignored in the normal stress of the business world. It might also sound inconsequential, but it might just be the key to reducing claims against the company by its employees. Every employee wants to feel like his or her work is valued and essential for the success of the business. Finding ways to recognize and honor all your employees’ contributions will pay significant dividends. Even simple gestures will reap rewards in areas like better employee morale and increased productivity among your staff.

Second, don’t BS your employees. They know what is going on in the world and how outside events affect the company. They also know far more than you think about changes the company is considering, especially changes that could affect them negatively. Silence and secrecy may be necessary, but outright lying to employees is never a good idea. It is guaranteed to produce a cynical, untrusting, and equally secretive staff.

Third, have clear, well-defined company policies to let employees know what behavior you expect from them, what behavior you will not be tolerate, and the consequences of engaging in that behavior. These policies should be memorialized in a written employee manual or, even better, easily accessible to employees on the company website. You should hire an experienced employment lawyer, who is knowledgeable about the current state of constantly changing employment laws in your jurisdiction, to draft your employee manual. The manual should also contain procedures for addressing problems when they arise, and for reporting violations. Whom do you call when X happens? To whom do you report violations of Y policy?

Fourth and finally, once you have those company policies in place, enforce them as consistently as possible. One of the most difficult management tasks is balancing the goal of fairness and consistency versus the desire to be flexible and treat people as individuals rather than as interchangeable parts. Rigid, unthinking, and blind adherence to rules can not only damage employee morale by stifling creativity and employee innovation, but also lead to unsatisfactory and inappropriate results. On the other hand, any perception by your employees that you are showing inconsistency or, even worse, favoritism in your enforcement of certain policies can lead to divisiveness and be equally damaging to employee morale. Inconsistently enforced rules are, in some ways, worse than no rules at all.

The safest, but perhaps most difficult path to follow, is to treat rules as sacrosanct except in unusual and rare cases that require special empathy and flexibility. If you conclude that a large number of your employee could qualify for the same exception if they were to ask for it, then you should either deny the request for an exception or consider scrapping the rule. Before making any exception to a policy or rule, consider the potential consequences down the road. What will you do the next time someone else asks for the same exception, particularly if that person is someone you do not particularly like? Reward your best employees with raises, promotions, stock options, and the like, not with exceptions to company policies. The former will motivate your good employees to try to be better; the latter will make them cynical about following company rules.

There are other ways to enhance and retain your human resources, such as training your managers to know and follow the applicable federal, state, and local employment laws,  and minimizing the use and severity of non-competition agreements. I will cover these topics in future installments of this blog, so stay tuned!

Click here for Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business
Click here for Tip #2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family
Click here for Tip #3: Check Your Insurance Coverage Frequently to be Sure it Protects Your Business from Exposure and Risk
Click here for Tip #4: Every Significant Business Transaction Should Be Documented

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

 

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip #4: Every Significant Business Transaction Should be Documented

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There is a nostalgic notion among traditional businesspersons that the best deals are sealed by a hand-shake (or an elbow in this COVID-19 world in which we live), and you don’t need fancy lawyers and contracts to be successful in the business world. That approach to reaching agreements seems to work well in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, but it can lead to problems in the real world. Robert Frost famously said: “Good fences make good neighbors.” In the business world, good contracts make good deals.

So why should you insist on – and pay the expense of creating – written contracts to memorialize your significant agreements? Consider the myriad of psychological research studies, which show that memories fade with age and the passage of time and that, even under the best of circumstances, we tend to remember what we want to remember. The corollary to that rule is that different people will tend to remember different things, depending upon their varying interests. Next consider that, according to the natural order of the world, otherwise known as “Murphy’s Law,” if something can go wrong, chances are it will go wrong. Finally, consider what will happen when you and the other party to the deal have differing recollections about the terms of the deal but nothing in writing to confirm either party’s position.

For example, suppose you understood that your customer was going to pay shipping costs for the goods it purchased from your company. Your customer, to the contrary, is certain that shipping costs were included in the price it paid for the goods. Similarly, what if our customer thinks it is entitled to receive a 2% price discount if it pays your invoice within 20 business days of receipt. You recall discussion of a discount but swear the terms you agreed to required payment of the invoice within 10 days and a resultant 1% discount.

How will you resolve such disputes without a definitive written agreement that includes provisions for shipping, payment and price terms? To paraphrase Yogi Berra: If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there? More to the point, if you don’t have a contract, how will you know what the deal is?

Faced with such a disagreement about the terms of the deal, you will either negotiate a new deal to resolve the disputed issues, stop doing business with the other party, or end up in court. If you end up in court, without a written contract, it will be your word against your adversary’s. Unfortunately, that kind of litigation, which depends upon either a jury or judge deciding whose testimony is more credible – a so-called “credibility contest” — is one of the most expensive and unpredictable kinds of contract disputes to resolve. Moreover, even if you are fortunate to prevail in the litigation, you will most likely be responsible for your own attorney’s fees and costs, which could be enormous. Under the so-called “American Rule,” which is followed, with rare exception, by every state and federal court in this country, each side bears its own costs of litigation, regardless who wins. One exception to the American Rule occurs when the contract that is the subject of the litigation contains a “loser pays” provision. But, of course, without a written contract containing such a provision, you will be out of luck and will probably have to bear your own litigation costs.

One additional reason to insist upon a written contract to memorialize significant transactions is the good will it will buy you with your most valuable customers. The truth is that wasteful and unnecessary litigation is just as expensive, time consuming, and distracting for your customer as it is for you. Your adversary will be forced to eat its own attorney’s fees and litigation costs, just as you are, if the dispute ends up in litigation. Therefore, both parties will benefit from a well-drafted contract that resolves disagreements without the need to resort to litigation.

Finally, not every deal requires a full blown contract with all the bells and whistles, but even in those circumstances, there should be some written confirmation of the agreement. In many cases, a simple purchase order with pre-printed standard terms and conditions, sent by one party and accepted by the other, will suffice. Some simple deals will only require a confirming email or two back and forth to provide a record of the principal terms of the deal. With the convenience of electronic communications these days, there is no good excuse for not documenting every deal in writing!

Click here for Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business
Click here for Tip #2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family
Click here for Tip #3: Check Your Insurance Coverage Frequently to be Sure it Protects Your Business from Exposure and Risk

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip #3 – Check Your Insurance Coverage Frequently to be Sure it Protects Your Business from Exposure to Risk

umbrella 2Although having adequate insurance coverage is not necessarily a way to avoid litigation, I have included it on my list of litigation-avoidance tips because it is so important in protecting you and your business from financial disaster when litigation does occur. Despite the important role it plays in a business’s defenses to litigation, I can’t tell you how many times I have asked a business owner for details about his company’s insurance coverage, such as “Do you have coverage for X?,” only to be met with the response, “I don’t know.” Similarly, when I ask when was the last time you reviewed your coverage with your insurance agent, the response is frequently a blank stare. I get it; many of us would prefer a visit to the dentist to sitting with our insurance agent to discuss our coverage. But, unfortunately, your mother was right when she taught you that delaying doing something because it is unpleasant doesn’t make it go away; it only makes it worse.

First, you need to find a bright, industrious insurance agent, who has experience working with companies of your size and in your industry. You will know if your agent fits that description by the insightfulness of the questions she asks you when you meet to review your coverage. Your agent should want to know everything about your business, such as: what does it sell; how does it generate revenue; who are its customers; how many and what kind of employees and independent contractors does it use and for what purposes; does it own or lease vehicles for business use; what intellectual property does it own and does it license the use of any of that property; does it hold or invest money or other property for its customers; and numerous other similar questions about the company’s business. If your agent is not customizing your company’s coverage to your specific business needs, you should find someone else.

Second, you will know if your agent is the right agent for you if she insists on a meeting with you periodically to review your coverage and learn if there have been significant changes in your company since the last review. Your agent should also discuss with you at that meeting changes in the law that might create new risks or opportunities for your company, and that might require more or different coverage. Finally, your agent should discuss with you new types of insurance coverage (e.g., cyber security insurance) that are now available and might be appropriate for your company.

Third, you will also know if your insurance agent is right for you if she contacts you on a regular basis when there has been a change in the types of coverage available for companies like yours or a change in the law that potentially affects your company’s risk exposure. If those changes are significant, your agent should not wait until the next regular meeting to discuss them with you. You can reciprocate by letting your agent know when there has been a change in the company that might affect the amount or type of coverage you need.

If your agent does not fit the above description, then you should consider making a change. Ask competitors and your trusted business advisors whom they recommend. Or ask me. I know several insurance reps at different market levels who are on top of their game and will give you the service you deserve and get you the coverage you need.

Finally, it is an added bonus if your insurance agent is able to offer your company and its employees loss prevention training. A physician’s insurers, for example, frequently provide training on avoiding medical malpractice, wrongful discharge, sexual harassment, and hostile work environment claims. Many insurers offer this type of training free of charge to help their insured clients reduce their exposure to certain types of risks. Your agent should discuss these opportunities with you, but, if not, be sure to ask what is available.

Click here for Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business
Click here for Tip #2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip # 2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family.

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Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

This tip might sound counterintuitive to you, and, in any event, it might be unachievable, given that most of the businesses in this country start out, at least, as family businesses, but let me explain. Business people make their best decisions when they are able to be objective, analytical, and emotionally detached from the issue. Now, think about disagreements you have had with members of your family. I rest my case!

If your family is like mine, family squabbles are usually highly subjective, irrational and overly emotional. It is difficult to be emotionally detached when family members are on the opposite side of a dispute. Overlaying family issues on top of business issues can lead to very nasty conflicts. Although it can be difficult to resolve a disagreement with your business partner of 20 years, it is even more difficult when your business partner is also your brother-in-law.

When family members are involved in a business decision, remaining emotionally detached and trying to make a rational decision can be impossible.  Too often, historic personal issues and feuds between family members rear their ugly heads. “Mom always liked you better!” This makes it more difficult to make the tough decisions with which business owners are faced on a daily basis. As a result, all too often the owner avoids making tough decisions just to avoid causing domestic strife. It is difficult enough having to fire an employee. How much harder is it to fire that employee when it is your brother’s son, the slacker, and you know, as a result, your mother might never speak to you again? And, when the owner makes a decision that implicates family politics, the result can be explosive and contentious litigation that combines the worst aspects of business litigation and family court.

Another problem faced by family businesses is that owners who are not actively involved in managing the business might lack the full knowledge needed to make informed decisions about crucial management and policy issues affecting the future of the company. Often, such owners are more focused on their own short term economic interests at the expense of the future growth and health of the company. They might, for example, choose to bypass an opportunity that could be very lucrative for the company in the future, such as adding a new product line or moving into a new geographic territory, because the opportunity requires an investment today of the company’s profits.

So how do you deal with these inherent problems as the owner of a family business? First, consider clearly defining management responsibility as separate and distinct from the ownership structure of the company. Allow the ownership to continue to be spread across members of the family, but focus management responsibilities in the hands of the people who understand the challenges and opportunities that the company must address if it is going to continue to be successful. Management of the company should be viewed as distinct from the ownership structure; just because someone owns a share of the company does not entitle him or her to be involved in management. The more you can isolate management from family disputes, the better for the company.

Second, the added complications of running a family business offer one more good reason why a strong business operating agreement is essential to any company, but especially a family business. Your family business operating agreement should include a detailed description of both the ownership structure and management responsibilities of your company.

These steps will help you avoid litigation and maintain peace and harmony in your family and growth and prosperity in your company.

 

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg

Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

Tip for Avoiding Costly Business Litigation: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business

Tips for avoiding litigation

As a career commercial litigation attorney, I have been asked by several people why I would write a column advising business people on how to avoid needing my services. That’s a good question for which I do not have a good answer, other than to say I believe, in our ever-more complex commercial world, there will be plenty of commercial litigation to keep me busy. At the same time, I hope my clients will benefit from using an ounce of prevention to avoid paying a pound for a cure involving litigation.

Litigation is expensive, time-consuming, a distraction from running a successful business, and unpredictable. It is NEVER a good thing for a business to be involved in litigation; it generally means you owe someone money or someone owes you money. Either way, you are not happy, but you will be even less happy if you end up in litigation, regardless whether you are the plaintiff or defendant.

I plan to post one litigation avoidance tip per week for the next several weeks. I hope you find these tips helpful, and if you have questions or want to discuss any of them with me, I am happy to oblige. So, here is my first tip for avoiding litigation:

Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business.

No matter what type of business you have, be it a pizza parlor or a high tech company, and regardless how your business is organized, as a corporation, partnership, LLC, or whatever, you should start your business with a well-drafted operating agreement. This is the document that governs all the important decisions and activities in the life of your business, such as ownership structure, voting rights, management responsibilities, resolution of disputes between owners, death or disability of an owner, adding new members, transfers of ownership interests, and, ultimately, dissolution of the business. For example, the death of one of the owners of the company need not automatically lead to the death of the business. A well-drafted agreement will spell out exactly how the deceased owner’s interest in the company will be distributed and valued and how the company will be managed going forward. Without such an agreement, however, an owner’s death could lead to a power struggle among the remaining owners, expensive litigation, and, eventually, dissolution of the company.

Business operating agreements are generally ignored until there is a significant event in the life of the business. When such an event occurs, however, you will be happy you have one. For example, many businesses with multiple owners reach a stage in their development where the owners develop different visions for the future of the business and how the business should be managed. They might disagree about whether to expand the company into a new line of business, take on additional debt, hire a new employee, or any number of other critical business decisions. Without a strong agreement that specifies how such disputes are to be resolved, the company could find itself in a stalemate position, requiring resort to a court to break the deadlock. The cost of a court battle alone (payment of attorney’s fees and costs of suit, plus the expenses associated with the possible appointment of a receiver to run the business while the owners and the court sort things out) is reason enough to avoid litigation. The other detriments inherent in business litigation, such as the business opportunities the company is unable to pursue, and the time spent by the business’s owners and key employees on the litigation that should be devoted to the business, reinforce the conclusion that litigation is not a desirable outcome. Finally, the litigation might very well produce a result that neither of the owners wants.

In short, every business should avoid litigation if possible, and one of the best ways to do that is to have a well-drafted, comprehensive operating agreement. Be sure to entrust this most important task in the life of your business to an experienced and able business attorney who has drafted many agreements of this kind.

Stay tuned for more tips in the coming weeks!

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

 

Trends in Arbitration Agreements

Trends in arbitration agreementsThe New Jersey Supreme Court in late November 2019 heard oral argument in Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., 456 N.J. Super. 613 (App. Div. 2018), cert. granted, 237 N.J. 310 (2019), in which the Appellate Division boldly refused to enforce arbitration agreements that fail to identify a specific “arbitral forum.” At least one Justice hinted during the argument that Flanzman may have taken Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 447 (2014) – the Supreme Court’s landmark decision requiring arbitration agreements to waive unambiguously the parties’ “time-honored right to sue” in court – to an unintended extreme.

Atalese focused on the need for arbitration provisions to reflect, through unequivocal language, the parties’ understanding of the rights they give up by agreeing to arbitration. Id. at 443-45. Flanzman, by contrast, held they must also demonstrate they understand the process that will replace those rights. According to the Appellate Division, only a mutual assent to a specific “arbitral forum” – which it defined as the “mechanism” or “setting” for arbitration – reflects “a meeting of the minds about what rights the parties gave up and what rights they received.” 456 N.J. Super. at 624. Justice Patterson, noting this foundational gap in Flanzman’s premise, remarked, “Atalese is about what you’re giving up.”

In fact, Flanzman rested not so much on Atalese as on the Appellate Division’s decision in Kleine v. Emeritus at Emerson, 445 N.J. Super. 545 (App. Div. 2016). In Kleine, the arbitration clause named the AAA, but when the suit arose the AAA no longer arbitrated claims of that type. The appellate court, finding no mutually agreed-on forum should the AAA prove unavailable, held the clause unenforceable for lack of mutual assent; it then proceeded to ground its holding in Atalese: “As Atalese instructs, the party . . . must be able to understand – from clear and unambiguous language – both the rights that have been waived and the rights that have taken their place.” Id. at 552-53. But Atalese spoke only of the waived rights; it said nothing about an understanding of the rights that will take their place.

As for how to adequately show the parties’ mutual understanding, Flanzman stressed the need to identify an arbitral forum. According to Flanzman, different sets of arbitral rules – for example, those of the AAA and JAMS – can mean different substantive and procedural rights for the parties. Flanzman, 456 N.J. Super. at 626-27. But the significance of that identification was not obvious to the Court. “How will knowing the name of the arbitrator assist your client in knowing the rules of the game?” Justice Albin asked. Flanzman itself conceded that parties, instead of actually naming a forum, may agree to decide later on a forum when the need arises, or to each select an arbitrator who would, in turn, select a third. Id. at 629. However, the court did not explain how such a broad provision would inform the parties of their rights in the arbitral process. Nor did it say how much detail an arbitration clause must contain, insisting only that parties “generally address in some fashion what rights replace those that have been waived.” Id. at 626. “The question is, what is essential?” Justice LaVecchia asked. In reply, respondent’s counsel tried to direct the Court’s focus towards Flanzman’s larger point: “How can you waive your right to a jury trial if you have absolutely zero information?”

The Justices’ comments and questions may have shown a reluctance to broaden Atalese, itself a bold decision that stopped just short of enforcing arbitration agreements more narrowly than other contracts, which the Federal Arbitration Act forbids. Interestingly, in a 2019 unpublished decision, the Appellate Division declined an opportunity to limit Atalese to consumer and employment agreements. The court explained that Atalese’s central concern – that waiver of the right to judicial resolution must be clear and unambiguous – applies to sophisticated parties, too. See Itzhakov v. Segal, No. A-2619-17T4, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1829, *10 (App. Div. Aug. 28, 2019). That decision was in keeping with Atalese, which continues to control New Jersey courts’ enforcement of arbitration agreements. Nonetheless, the Court may well decide, under the Federal Arbitration Act and established principles of contract law, that it has gone far enough in requiring greater specificity in arbitration provisions.

Daniel Epstein Litigation Attorney
Questions? Let Daniel know.

Daniel C. Epstein is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department, where he represents corporate and individual clients in all aspects of litigation.

What the %@#&? Supreme Court Strikes Down Ban on Immoral or Scandalous Trademarks

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The Supreme Court struck down the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registering “immoral or scandalous” trademarks in its recent decision in Iancu v. Brunetti. Erik Brunetti is an artist who created a clothing line that uses the trademark FUCT. When he sought to register the mark, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) denied his application, citing the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registering trademarks that contain immoral or scandalous matter. It is not hard to imagine that the mark would bring to mind perhaps the most famous four-letter curse word in American culture. Brunetti appealed and argued that the prohibition violates the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court agreed with Brunetti and held that the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registering immoral or scandalous trademarks is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. By way of example, the Court pointed out how the USPTO registered the mark “D.A.R.E. TO RESIST DRUGS AND VIOLENCE” but refused to register “BONG HITS 4 JESUS” because it “suggests that people should engage in an illegal activity [in connection with worship]” and since “Christians would be morally outraged by a statement that connects Jesus Christ with illegal drug use.”

The Supreme Court’s rationale follows the same line of thinking from its decision in Matal v. Tam, two years ago, when the Court held that the ban on registering marks that “disparage” any person living or dead was unconstitutional. In that case, the Court also held that if a trademark registration bar is viewpoint-based, then it is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Does this mean that American consumers are likely to see an influx of brand names containing lewd, sexually explicit, and profane slogans? Not necessarily. While the Lanham Act’s prohibition had prevented the registration of immoral or scandalous marks, there is nothing that previously prevented individuals or businesses from using immoral or scandalous marks in commerce and enforcing the mark against potential infringers. Registration simply provides trademark owners with additional, valuable benefits such as the legal presumption of national ownership of a trademark. In other words, the landscape for offensive marks being used in the marketplace is unlikely to change too much, but owners will have an easier time protecting and enforcing these types of marks.

Questions? Let Eric know.

Eric ClendeningEric Clendening is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Intellectual Property and Litigation Departments. He focuses his practice on intellectual property litigation and commercial litigation, including contract disputes, employment litigation, and other commercial disputes. He also advises clients on protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights online, including the resolution of domain name disputes and matters concerning e-commerce, online speech and conduct, and related intellectual property issues involving trademarks and copyrights.

Hiring A Competitor’s Employee? Proceed With Caution!

For the first time since its enactment over four years ago, a federal court has interpreted a provision of the New Jersey Trade Secrets Act (the “Act”).  The decision, unfortunately, leaves New Jersey employers who are considering hiring a competitor’s employee on uncertain ground.

In Baxter Healthcare Corp. v. HQ Specialty Pharma Corp., Baxter, a pharmaceutical company, sued its competitor HQ for patent infringement, tortious interference with the non-competition provision of its former employee’s employment contract, and breach of the Act for misappropriation of its trade secrets.   The court refused to dismiss the claim under the Act, despite finding Baxter could not prove HQ knew the employee was subject to a non-compete agreement or had knowledge of the former employer’s trade secrets.

George Owoo worked as a scientist for Baxter before leaving to work for its competitor, HQ.  He was a specialist in esmolol premixed injectable bag drug delivery systems.  At the time it hired him, HQ was not a participant in that market.  However, HQ soon filed several patent applications, listing Owoo as the inventor, for new esmolol products that would compete with Baxter’s similar products.

Before hiring Owoo, HQ had interviewed him extensively to inquire about his experience at Baxter.  He repeatedly denied he had an employment contract with Baxter or any knowledge of Baxter’s trade secrets, insisting that his knowledge in the esmolol premixed injectable bag market was in the public domain.  Based upon his representations, HQ hired Owoo and put him to work on developing esmolol products.

To prove its interference with contract claim, Baxter needed to show that HQ had acted with “malice”, i.e., an intention to interfere with its former employee’s contractual obligations to Baxter.  Because there was no evidence HQ had any knowledge of the employment contract, and, to the contrary, had been repeatedly assured by Owoo he had no contract, the court ruled Baxter could not show HQ acted maliciously and, therefore, could not prove tortious interference.

By contrast, a claim under the Act requires neither an employment agreement nor knowledge of it by the new employer.  Baxter claimed HQ misappropriated Baxter’s trade secrets by using them without authorization to develop its own competing products.  The court stated HQ could be liable for breach of the Act if Baxter could show HQ had used Baxter’s trade secrets at a time when HQ either knew or should have known Owoo had acquired them through improper means.

The question before the court,therefore, was whether HQ knew or had reason to know that its new employee’s esmolol formulation for HQ was derived from his knowledge of Baxter’s trade secrets.  Significantly, the court found there was some evidence that suggested HQ knew of Owoo’s prior involvement in developing Baxter’s esmolol program.  Most troubling, the court found HQ’s interrogation about his work history at Baxter revealed a concern on HQ’s part that he might have been privy to Baxter’s trade secrets and might have been preparing to use them at HQ without Baxter’s authorization.  Thus, the very investigation by HQ that formed the basis for the court’s decision to dismiss the interference with contract claim became the key fact in the court’s conclusion not to dismiss Baxter’s Trade Secrets Act claim.

What can companies do in light of the Baxter decision to protect themselves from Act claims when they are considering hiring a competitor’s employee, who might have knowledge of its trade secrets?  The Baxter decision suggests that perhaps HQ was damned if it did and damned if it didn’t investigate.  Despite that HQ did investigate, and, in fact, at least in part, because it did investigate, the court refused to dismiss the Trade Secrets Act claim against it.  On the other hand, although not addressed by the court in Baxter, had HQ not investigated, the court almost certainly would have refused to dismiss the Trade Secrets Act claim, and perhaps the interference with contract claim, as well.  In other words, choosing not to investigate new employees’ backgrounds is not a wise strategy for avoiding future liability.

There are ways a new employer can enhance the benefit of its investigation in the hope of avoiding claims under the. Act.  First, HQ could have had its new employee sign a written statement following the investigation certifying that he (1) was not under any contractual obligations to Baxter, and (2) either had no knowledge of Baxter’s trade secrets, or, in any event, agrees not to use that knowledge in his new position.

Second, HQ accepted without attempting to verify Owoo’s claim that his information was in the public domain. Had it done so, it would have had a stronger argument to avoid liability under the Act.

Finally, employers can reduce exposure to liability by insulating their new employees from working in competition with their former employers.  That tactic might make the new employee less valuable to the new employer, so each employer will have to perform its own risk/reward analysis comparing the potential benefits of no restrictions on its new employee to the legal costs of an expensive lawsuit alleging violations of the Act.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the Hobson’s choice presented by the Baxter decision.  Companies considering hiring a competitor’s employee should proceed with caution, especially when the employee may know the competitor’s trade secrets.

Questions? Let Phil know.

 

Philip Kirchner is a shareholder in and former chair of Flaster/Greenberg P.C.’s Commercial Litigation Practice Group, a member of the Labor & Employment and Construction Litigation Practice Groups, and member of the Restaurant & Hospitality, Construction, Nonprofit & Charitable Organizations, Gaming and Alternative & Renewable Energy Industry Groups.

New Jersey Court Sets Limits For Enforcement Of Mandatory Arbitration Clause

 

Companies considering including a provision requiring arbitration of disputes in their contracts can learn valuable lessons from a recent New Jersey appellate court decision.  The court’s opinion highlights the pitfalls of relying upon an imprecisely drafted and/or one-sided arbitration clause, especially in a consumer contract.  Despite the continuing rise in popularity of arbitration clauses and the strong preference for arbitration under both federal and New Jersey law, the case reminds us that not every arbitration agreement will be enforced.

Background.

Analysis of early impact of the revised federal rules of discroty.

In Dvorak v. AW Development, LLC, (N.J. App. Div. January 13, 2016), homeowners contracted with AW Development to construct and install a two-bedroom prefab ranch home after their previous home had been destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.  Disputes arose about whether the house was timely delivered.  Despite a provision in the contract seemingly requiring non-binding arbitration, the homeowners filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state court alleging breach of contract and other causes of action.  The trial court granted AW’s motion to dismiss the complaint on the basis of the non-binding arbitration provision, and the homeowners appealed.

The Contract’s Arbitration Clause.

The arbitration clause in the contract said, in relevant part:

Any claim arising out of or related to this Agreement shall be subject to non-binding arbitration . . . in accordance with the Construction Industry Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. . . .  [T]his paragraph does not preclude [AW Development] from seeking prejudgment remedies and/or emergency relief from a court of equity or other court of competent jurisdiction.  Buyer may not seek such prejudgment/emergent relief under any circumstances.  EACH PARTY WAIVES ANY RIGHT TO TRIAL BY JURY WITH RESPECT TO ANY SUIT, ACTION OR PROCEEDING ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THIS AGREEMENT OR OTHERWISE RELATING TO THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE PARTIES, WHETHER IN CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE.  (emphasis in original)

The Court’s Decision.  

  1. Imprecise Contract Language.

An arbitration clause will be enforced only when it is the product of mutual assent and clearly explains to the parties that they are waiving their right to go to court.  If arbitration is intended to be a mandatory condition that must be satisfied before a lawsuit can be filed, the contract must clearly say so.  Because this contract did not clearly state that arbitration was a condition precedent to filing a lawsuit, the court ruled that it was not.  In the court’s opinion, the statement in the contract that claims “shall be subject to non-binding arbitration,” does not expressly or impliedly prohibit a party from filing suit or empower another party to force the dispute into arbitration after a lawsuit has been filed; it merely says the parties agree to non-binding arbitration if one of them demands it.

Next, the court took issue with the fact that the jury waiver provision had a broader reach than the arbitration clause.  The latter applied only to “claims arising out of or related to this Agreement,” whereas the jury waiver provision applied additionally to claims “relating to the relationship of the parties, whether in contract, tort or otherwise.”  Certain claims, therefore, could be subject to the jury waiver but not the non-binding arbitration clause.  That inconsistency also led the court to conclude that the arbitration provision was unenforceable.

Finally, with regard to the precision of the non-binding arbitration clause, the court found fault with its reference to “the Construction Industry Arbitration Rules of the [AAA],” because those rules do not include a provision for non-binding arbitration.  For all these reasons involving imprecise drafting, the court found that the arbitration clause did not clearly and unambiguously require the parties to arbitrate their claims before filing a lawsuit.

  1. Unconscionable Contract.

Even if this arbitration clause had been precisely drafted to bar a lawsuit, it would have been unenforceable, nonetheless, because it is an unconscionable contract of adhesion.  A contract of adhesion is one drafted solely by a party with superior bargaining power and imposed on the other party as a “take it or leave it” proposition.  Although calling a contract one of adhesion sounds pejorative, such contracts are, in fact, enforceable unless they are unconscionable in content.  Here, the court found the contract was so unfairly one-sided that it was unenforceable.  Among other reasons, the contract was objectionable because it allowed AW, but not the homeowners, to cure defects, and because it allowed AW, but not the homeowners, to seek recovery of consequential damages.  Such provisions, the court held, reflect the unequal bargaining power of the parties.  The most egregious discrepancy was in the arbitration provision itself.  That clause gave AW, but not the homeowners, the right to seek injunctive and emergent relief from a court without regard to the arbitration requirement.  As the court put it, “[t]his grossly imbalanced approach to the availability of interlocutory or emergent relief constitutes harsh and unfair one-sided terms that do not deserve judicial enforcement.”

WHAT SHOULD CONTRACTING PARTIES DO TO ASSURE THAT THEIR ARBITRATION AGREEMENTS ARE ENFORCED?

  • First, define all contract terms and reference arbitration rules and procedures that actually exist. If your contract calls, for example, for arbitration under the rules of the American Arbitration Association, make sure that the AAA rules and procedures provide for the type of arbitration your contract mandates.
  • Second, your contract must state that the parties are waiving their legal right to go to court and have a jury trial and are agreeing instead to refer their disputes to arbitration. If the intent is to make arbitration non-binding, but a prerequisite to filing suit, the agreement must expressly state those terms.
  • Third, be fair in allocating rights and privileges under the contract and resist the temptation to give the company, but not the other party, a procedural or substantive advantage unless there is an objective rationale for doing so. Courts do not look kindly on contracts that provide for disparate treatment of the parties without justification, and any attempt to use superior bargaining power to gain an unfair advantage over an adversary might backfire.
  • The same dynamics at play in this case involving a consumer contract are frequently found in employment agreements, which are also prone to contracts of adhesion. An employer that chooses to implement mandatory arbitration agreements with its employees should ensure that the contracts are even-handed and comply with other legal requirements the courts have imposed on employment arbitration agreements.

Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster/Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

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