Archives for February 2016

False Info in Employee Time Records Can Support Common Law Fraud Claim – IL Fed Court

Some key questions the Court grapples with in Laba v. CTA, 2016 WL 147656 (N.D.Ill. 2016) are whether an employee who sleeps on the job or runs personal errands on company time opens himself up to a breach of fiduciary or fraud claim by his employer.  The Court answered “no” (fiduciary duty claim) and “maybe” (fraud claim) in an employment dispute involving the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

Some former CTA employees sued the embattled transit agency for invasion of privacy and illegal search and seizure after learning the CTA implanted Global Positioning System (“GPS”) technology on the plaintiffs’ work-issued cell phones. An audit of those phones revealed the plaintiffs’ regularly engaged in personal frolics during work hours.

The CTA removed the case to Federal court and filed various state law counterclaims to recoup money it paid to the ex-employees including claims for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and conversion. The Northern District granted in part and denied in part the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the CTA’s counterclaims.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Sustaining the CTA’s breach of fiduciary duty claim against the ex-employees’ motion to dismiss, the Court looked to black-letter Illinois law for guidance.  To state a breach of fiduciary duty claim in Illinois, a plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty, (2) breach of that duty, and (3) breach of the duty proximately caused damages.  The employer-employee relationship is one the law recognizes as a fiduciary one.

While the extent of an employee’s duty to his employer varies depending on whether the employee is a corporate officer, the law is clear that employees owe duties of loyalty to their employers.  Where an employee engages in self-dealing or misappropriates employer property or funds for the employee’s personal use, it can give rise to a fiduciary suit by the employer.

Here, the Court found that the employees’ conduct, while irresponsible and possibly negligent, didn’t rise to the level of disloyalty under the law.  The Court made it clear that under-par job performance doesn’t equate to conduct that can support a breach of fiduciary duty claim. (**6-7).

Fraudulent Misrepresentation

The Court upheld the CTA’s fraudulent misrepresentation claim – premised on the allegation that the plaintiffs lied to the CTA about the hours they were working in order to induce the CTA to pay them.  Under Illinois law, a fraud plaintiff must show (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the party making the statement, (3) with the intent to induce the statement’s recipient to act, (4) action by the recipient in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage resulting from that reliance.

Under the Federal pleading rules, a fraud claimant must plead the “who, what, where when and how” of the fraud but the allegation of a defendant’s intent or knowledge can be alleged generally.

Here, the Court found that the CTA sufficiently alleged a fraudulent scheme by the employees to misrepresent the hours they worked in exchange for their paychecks.  This was enough, under Illinois fraud law, to survive the employees’ motion to dismiss.  See FRCP 9(b); (*7).

Take-aways:

1/ While an employee owes an employer fiduciary duties of loyalty, his sub-par job performance doesn’t equate to a breach of fiduciary duty.  There must be self-dealing or intentional conduct by the employee for him to be vulnerable to an employer’s fiduciary duty suit;

2/ An employee misrepresenting hours work can underlie a common law fraud claim if the employer can show it paid in reliance on the truth of the employee’s hour reporting;

 

 

 

Cab Passenger Fares Aren’t “Wages” Under IL Wage Payment and Collection Act – 7th Circuit

The salient question considered by the Seventh Circuit in Enger v. Chicago Carriage Cab Corp., 2016 WL 106878 (7th Cir. 2016) was whether “wages” under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 et seq. (the “Act”) encompasses “indirect wages” – monies paid an employee by third parties (i.e. as opposed to money paid directly from an employer).

The answer: No, it does not.

The plaintiffs, current and former Chicago cab drivers over a ten-year time frame sued various cab companies alleging Wage Act violations and unjust enrichment.

The plaintiffs alleged the companies violated the Act by misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees. The plaintiffs argued that the cab companies requirement that the driver plaintiffs pay daily or weekly shift fees (basically, a lease payment giving the drivers the right to operate the cabs) and other operating expenses, the companies violated the Act.

Affirming the district court’s motion to dismiss, the Seventh Circuit gave a cramped construction to the term wages under the Act examined the content and reach of the Act as applied to claims that

The Act gives employees a cause of action for payment of earned wages. “Wages” is defined by the Act as compensation owed an employee by an employer pursuant to an employment contract.

While the Seventh Circuit agreed with the drivers that there was at least an implied contract between them and the cab companies, those companies did not pay wages to the drivers as the term is defined by the Act.

This was because there was no obligation for the cab company to pay anything to the driver. The cab driver-cab company relationship was a reciprocal one: the driver paid a license fee to the company and then collected fares and tips from passengers.  No money was paid directly from the company to the driver.

The Court found that for the Act to apply to the drivers claims, it would have to expand the statutory definition of wages to include “indirect compensation:” compensation from someone other than the employer. Since there was no published case law on this issue, the Seventh Circuit refused to expand the Act’s definition of wages to include non-employer payments.

For support, the Court noted that Illinois’ Minimum Wage Law specifically defines wages to include gratuities in addition to compensation owed a plaintiff by reason of his employment. Since the legislature could have broadened the Act’s wages definition to include indirect compensation (like tips, etc.) but chose not to, the Court limited wages under the Act to payments directly from an employer to employee.

The Court also rejected the drivers’ argument that they received wages under the Act since drivers are often paid by the cab company when a passenger pays a fare via credit card. In this credit card scenario, the court found that the cab company simply acted as an intermediary that facilitated the credit card transaction. The company did not assume role of wage paying employer just because its credit card processor was used to handle some passenger credit card payments.

The driver’s unjust enrichment claim – that the cab companies were unjustly enriched by the drivers’ shift fees – also fell short.  Since there was an implied contract between the drivers and cab companies, unjust enrichment didn’t apply since an express or implied contract negates an unjust enrichment claim.

Afterwords:

This case clarifies that recoverable wages under Illinois’ Wage Act must flow directly from an employer to an employee.  Payments from third-party sources (like cab passengers) aren’t covered by the Wage Act.

Enger also serves as latest in a long line of cases that emphasize that an unjust enrichment can’t co-exist with an express or implied (as was the case here) contract governs the parties’ relationship.

 

Feelin’ Minnesota? Most Likely (Court Pierces Corporate Veil of Copyright Trolling Firm To Reach Lawyer’s Personal Assets)

After being widely lambasted for its heavy-handed and ethically ambiguous (challenged?) BitTorrent litigation tactics over the past few years, an incarnation of the infamous Prenda law firm was recently hit with a piercing the corporate veil judgment by a Minnesota state court.

In Guava, LLC v. Merkel, 2015 WL 4877851 (Minn. 2015), the plaintiff pornographic film producer, represented by the Alpha, LLC law firm (“Alpha”), filed a civil conspiracy suit and state wiretapping claim against various defendants whom plaintiff claimed illegally downloaded adult films owned by the plaintiff.

Alpha’s lone member is Minnesota attorney and Prenda alum Paul Hansmeier, who has garnered some negative press of his own both for his copyright trolling efforts and his more recent ADA violation suits against small businesses.  In October 2015, the Supreme Court of Minnesota instituted formal disciplinary proceedings against Hansmeier for various lawyer misconduct charges.

The Alpha firm’s litigation strategy in the Guava case followed the familiar script of issuing a subpoena blitz against some 300 internet service providers (ISPs) to learn the identity of the movie downloaders.  Many of the ISP customers fought back with motions to quash the subpoenas.

After assessing monetary sanctions against Alpha for bad faith conduct – trying to extract settlements from the ISP customers with no real intent to litigate – the trial court entered a money judgment against Alpha for the subpoena respondents and John Doe defendants.

Through post-judgment discovery, the subpoena defendants learned that Hansmeier had transferred over $150,000 from Alpha, defunding it in the process.

The judgment creditor defendants then moved to amend the judgment to add Hansmeier individually under a piercing the corporate veil theory. After the trial court granted the motion, Alpha and Hansmeier appealed.

Held: Affirmed

Rules/Reasoning:

In Minnesota, a district court has jurisdiction to take actions to enforce a judgment when the judgment is uncollectable and where refusing to amend a judgment would be inequitable.

A classic example of an equitable remedy that a court can apply to amend an unsatisfied money judgment is piercing the corporate veil. A Minnesota court will pierce the corporate veil where (1) a judgment debtor is the alter ego of another person or entity and (2) where there is fraud.

The alter ego analysis looks at a medley of factors including, among others, whether the judgment debtor was sufficiently capitalized, whether corporate formalities were followed, payment or nonpayment of dividends, and whether the dominant shareholder siphoned funds from an entity to avoid paying the entity’s debts.

The fraud piercing factor considers whether an individual has used the corporate form to gain an undeserved advantage. The party trying to pierce the corporate veil doesn’t have to show actual (read: intentional) fraud but must instead show the corporate entity operated as a constructive fraud on the judgment creditor.

Here, the defendants established both piercing prongs. The evidence clearly showed Alpha was used to further Hansmeier’s personal purposes, there was a disregard for basic corporate formalities and the firm was insufficiently and deliberately undercapitalized.

The court also found that it would be fundamentally unfair for Hansmeier to escape judgment here; noting that Hansmeier emptied Alpha’s bank accounts after it became clear that defendants were trying to enforce the money judgment against the Alpha firm.

Afterword:

While a Minnesota state court ruling won’t bind other jurisdictions, the case is post-worthy The case lesson is clear: if a court (at least in Minnesota) sees suspicious emptying of corporate assets when it’s about to enter a money judgment, it has equitable authority to modify a judgment so that it binds any individual who is siphoning the corporate assets.

The case is also significant because it breaks from states like Illinois that specify that piercing the corporate veil is not available in post-judgment proceedings. In Illinois and other states, a judgment creditor like the Guava defendants would have to file a separate lawsuit to pierce the corporate veil.  This obviously would entail spending time and money trying to attach assets that likely would be dissipated by case’s end.  The court here avoided what it viewed as an unfair result simply by amending the money judgment to add Hansmeier as a judgment debtor even though he was never a party to the lawsuit.