Earned Bonus Is Proper Subject of Employee’s Wage Payment Claim; Reliance on Employer Pre-Hiring Statements Is Reasonable – IL ND

After leaving a lucrative banking position in Florida for a Chicago consulting gig, Simpson v. Saggezza’s (2018 WL 3753431 (N.D.Ill. 2018) plaintiff soon learned the Illinois job markedly differed from what was advertised.

Among other things, the plaintiff discovered that the company’s pre-hiring revenue projections were off as were the plaintiff’s promised job duties, performance goals and bonus structure.

When plaintiff complained, the Illinois employer responded by firing him. Plaintiff sued the defendants – the employer and a company decision maker – for unpaid bonus money under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et. seq. (IWPCA) and for other common law claims. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims.

In denying the bulk of the defendants’ motion, the Court discussed the nature and reach of earned bonus liability under the IWPCA in the context of a motion to dismiss.

The IWPCA defines payments as including wages, salaries, earned commissions and earned bonuses pursuant to an employment contract.  820 ILCS 115/12. An earned bonus is defined as “compensation given in addition to the required compensation for services performed.”  Il. Admin. Code, Title 56, s. 300.500.

The IWPCA allows an earned bonus claim only where an employer makes an unequivocal promise; a discretionary or contingent promise isn’t enough.  So as long as the plaintiff alleges both an employer’s unambiguous promise to pay a bonus and the plaintiff’s satisfactory performance of the parties’ agreement, the plaintiff can make out a successful IWPCA claim for an unpaid earned bonus.

Here, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a meeting of the minds on the bonus issue – the defendant-employer unequivocally promised a $25,000 bonus if plaintiff met a specific sales goal – and that the plaintiff met the goal.

The court then partially granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s statutory and common law retaliation claims.

IWPCA Section 14(c) prevents an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for the employee lodging a complaint against the employer for unpaid compensation. 820 ILCS 115/14(c).  Since the plaintiff alleged both an agreement for earned bonus payments and that he was fired for requesting payment, this was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

The court did, however, dismiss plaintiff’s common law retaliatory discharge claim.  To prevail on this claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) he was terminated, (2) in retaliation for plaintiff’s conduct, and (3) the discharge violates a clearly mandated public policy.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that an IWPCA violation was enough to trigger Illinois public policy concerns. The court held that to invoke the public policy prong of the retaliation tort, the dispute “must strike at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties and responsibilities.”  And since the Court viewed an IWPCA money dispute to a private, economic matter between employer and employee, the employer’s alleged IWPCA violation didn’t implicate public policy.

Lastly, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s fraud in the inducement claim.  In this count, plaintiff alleged he quit his former Florida job in reliance on factual misstatements made by the defendant about its fiscal health, among other things.

To sufficiently plead fraudulent inducement, a plaintiff must allege (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce the other party to act, (4) action by the other party in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  To be actionable, a factual statement must involve a past or present fact; expression of opinions, expectations or future contingencies cannot support a fraudulent inducement claim.

Where there is a disparity in knowledge or access to knowledge between  two parties, the fraudulent inducement plaintiff can justifiably rely on a representation of fact even if he could have discovered the information’s falsity upon further investigation.

While the defendant argued that the predicate fraud statements were non-actionable embellishments or puffery, the court disagreed.  It found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant made factually false statements about the defendant’s financial state and the plaintiff’s job opportunities were specific enough to state a claim.

The court noted that plaintiff alleged the defendants supplied plaintiff with specific financial figures based on historical financial data as part of their pre-hiring pitch to the plaintiff. Taken in totality, the information was specific and current enough to support a fraud claim.

Afterwords:

Earned bonuses are covered by IWPCA; discretionary or conditional bonuses are not;

The common law retaliation tort has teeth. It’s not enough to assert a statutory violation to implicate the public policy element.  A private payment dispute between an employer and employee – even if it involves a statutory violation – won’t rise to the level of a public policy issue;

An employer’s false representations of a company’s financial status can underlie a plaintiff’s fraud claim since financial data supplied to a prospective hire is information an employer should readily have under its control and at its disposal.

‘Salesy’ LinkedIn Posts Can Violate Ex-Employee’s Noncompete – Minn. Federal Court

In July 2017, a Federal court in Minnesota grappled with the in-vogue issue of whether a former employee violates post-employment nonsolicitation provisions by asking her network for business on LinkedIn.

The warring factions in Mobile Mini v. Vevea, (see here) are direct competitors in the portable storage business.  Plaintiff sued when the defendant, a former sales representative for plaintiff, went to work for a competitor in violation of noncompete requirements in her employment agreement.  After the defendant posted on LinkedIn where she was working and requested viewers to call her for quote, the Plaintiff sued.

Partially granting the request for an injunction, the Court examined the pleading and proof elements for injunctive relief and whether a social media post can support a nonsolicitation violation.

Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs preliminary injunctions.  The moving party must establish: (1) the likelihood of the moving party’s success on the merits; (2) the threat of irreparable harm to the moving party; (3) the state of balance between the alleged irreparable harm and the harm that granting the injunction would inflict on the other party; and (4) how the public interest is impacted if an injunction does/doesn’t issue.  The critical question on a request for an injunction is whether a Court should “intervene to preserve the status quo” until it determines the merits of the case.

Likelihood of Success on the Merits

The Court found plaintiff’s prospects for winning on the merits were strong.  To prevail on a non-compete claim in Delaware (Delaware law governed the parties’ agreement), a plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of a valid, enforceable contract; (2) breach of a contractual obligation by the defendant; and (3) damages.

A Delaware non-compete agreement is valid if it its duration and geographic reach are reasonably limited and the non-compete’s purpose and effect is to protect a legitimate employer interest. The Court found the subject agreement met these requirements

Next, the court turned to defendant’s LinkedIn activity and whether that amounted to a breach of the employment agreement.  The Court found the plaintiff breached the contract by making “two blatant sales pitches” for her new employer before the noncompete lapsed.

The court viewed the defendant’s solicitations as going further than simple status updates.  It held that had defendant simply posted her new position and contact information, it likely wouldn’t have run afoul of the defendant’s employment contract. For support, the Court pointed to an Ohio Federal court and a Mass. state court which held that a defendant’s social media postings did not rise to the level of an actionable noncompete claim. See Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. v. Anthony, 2016 WL 4523104, at *15 (N.D. Ohio 2016) (press release posted on LinkedIn and Twitter announcing that an employer had hired a new employee was not a solicitation); Invidia, LLC v. DiFonzo, 2012 WL 5576406, at *5 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2012) (hair stylist’s Facebook post announcing new job not a solicitation).

Since the defendant’s purpose in her LinkedIn postings was to entice business from her network and not simply announce a job change, the Court held that defendant likely violated the the employment contract.

Other Injunctive Relief Factors

The Court then found the plaintiff satisfied the irreparable harm element.  It noted defendant’s past and threatened future noncompete violations and that they could imperil plaintiff’s future customers, goodwill and reputation.

On the noncompete’s start date (the plaintiff wanted the court to reset the time to the date of the court’s order on the plaintiff’s preliminary injunction motion – several months after suit was filed), the court sided with the defendant.  The Court agreed that restarting the clock would give the plaintiff a windfall and impede defendant’s ability to earn a living.

Take-aways:

This case is instructive on how the line between digital self-promotion and blatant sales pitches can blur.  One of the case’s chief lessons is that while noncompetes are not favored,  social media posts can still violate post-employment restrictions.  Those who sign noncompetes should be careful whether their post-employment LinkedIn posts can objectively be viewed as a sales pitch.

 

 

Florida Series III: Parent Company’s Merger Doesn’t Impact Subsidiary’s Noncompete with M.D.

Collier HMA v. Menichello a medical noncompete dispute, considers whether a third party can enforce a noncompete after a merger.  Jettisoning the “changed corporate culture and mode of operation” test, the Florida appeals court applied basic principles of corporate law to determine whether a parent company’s merger necessarily meant its subsidiary merged too and couldn’t enforce a noncompete involving one of its staff doctors.

Halfway through a three-year employment contract between the plaintiff and doctor defendant, the plaintiff’s corporate parent was acquired by another entity.  The plaintiff-doctor employment contract contained a 12-month noncompete and specifically said it was not enforceable by third parties, successors or assignees of the parties.

After the acquisition, the doctor defendant quit and went to work for one of plaintiff’s competitors.  The plaintiff sued the doctor for violating the 12-month noncompete. The doctor defended by stating that the parent company’s merger with another entity made the plaintiff a successor under the law that could not enforce the restrictive covenant.  The trial court agreed and entered summary judgment for the doctor.  The employer appealed.

Held: Reversed.  Plaintiff employer can enforce the doctor’s noncompete.

Reasons:

Under Florida law, S. 542.335(1)(f), Florida Statutes (2012),  an employment contractual provision that authorizes a third-party beneficiary, assignee or successor to enforce a restrictive covenant is valid.

The statute is silent on the meaning of “successor” but case law defines it to mean “a corporation that, through amalgamation, consolidation or other assumption of interests, is vested with the rights and duties of an earlier corporation.”

Here, the plaintiff employer’s status did not change after its parent company’s merger.  Under the law, a parent corporation is a separate and distinct legal entity from its wholly-owned subsidiary.  As a corollary, a parent company cannot exercise rights of its subsidiary.

The subsidiary plaintiff here continued its existence after the merger as the same single member LLC and didn’t sell or transfer its assets to another entity.  Any change in company ownership several tiers up the corporate chain simply didn’t impact the doctor’s employment contract since plaintiff continued to operate and to employ the doctor.  As the lone signer of the employment contract that contained the noncompete, plaintiff could enforce it.

Afterwords:

The Court refused to apply the nebulous “culture and mode of operation” test which looks to the parties’ post-merger conduct (i.e., did the parties act as though the acquiring company was dictating the acquired company subsidiary’s actions?) to decide whether a third-party can enforce a noncompete.  Instead, the Court considered whether the plaintiff continued its operations (it did) in the wake of the parent company’s merger.

Under black-letter corporate law principles, the Court found that the plaintiff’s parent company’s merger had no impact on the plaintiff as “no other entity emerged from the transaction as a successor to [plaintiff].”  Summary judgment for the plaintiff reversed.