Legal claims are made up of elements. To sue somebody and win, you need to allege and eventually prove each element that makes up the legal theory on which you’re suing. And oftentimes, those elements have distinct legal meanings that differ from their dictionary definitions. Failure to pay close attention to the requirements of each separate element can result in dismissal of the case before it even gets started. Last month, a Virginia court summarily dismissed an IT consulting company’s claims for tortious interference for failing to allege the facts necessary to support such claims.

The case–Forsythe Global, LLC v. QStride, Inc.–was decided under Michigan law. Michigan, like Virginia, recognizes separate torts for tortious interference with contract, and tortious interference with prospective business relationships or expectancies. Under both the law of Michigan and the law of Virginia, tortious interference requires more than mere “involvement in the activities and concerns of other people when your involvement is not wanted.” (See Merriam-Webster’s definition of interference). There’s no law that requires people to mind their own business. To prevail in court, the interference must approach a specific threshold–meddling in other people’s affairs won’t satisfy the claim if the interference does not reach this level.

Continue reading

The Stored Communications Act (“SCA”), found at 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2712, establishes both a criminal offense and a civil cause of action against anyone who “intentionally accesses without authorization a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided” or “intentionally exceeds an authorization to access that facility,” and by doing so “obtains, alters, or prevents authorized access to a wire or electronic communication while it is in electronic storage in such system.” Successful plaintiffs may obtain damages, equitable or declaratory relief, and reasonable attorney’s fees. (See 18 U.S.C. § 2707(b)). In the employment context, the SCA is often understood to place restrictions on those situations in which an employer can access its employees’ private email accounts (i.e., accounts maintained by third-party email service providers like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo). A few weeks ago, the Western District of Virginia decided Hoofnagle v. Smyth-Wythe Airport Commission, in which it rejected various justifications offered by an employer for accessing a former employee’s private Yahoo! email account.

Charles H. Hoofnagle was a government employee who worked as the Operations Manager for Mountain Empire Airport in Rural Retreat, Virginia. He reported to the Smyth-Wythe Airport Commission and his duties included answering phone calls and responding to emails from the public and customers. The Commission, however, did not have in place an official policy regarding use of computers or email. The airport did not even provide employees with an email address, so Hoofnagle created a Yahoo! Mail address, charliemkj@yahoo.com, which he used for both personal and business purposes. (MKJ is the airport’s FAA idendifier code). It was this Yahoo! address that was held out to the public as an official contact for the airport and provided to nearly all vendors and customers.

Continue reading

A “teaming agreement” is an agreement between two or more contractors to “team up” by combining their resources to bid on a major government contract, thereby increasing the likelihood of securing the work. Often, they will be drafted to require that the prime contractor use the subcontractor specified in the teaming agreement if the bid is accepted, but this is not always the case. Teaming agreements can be very appealing to smaller subcontractors, or subcontractors who don’t qualify to bid on a particular government contract, because they allow opportunities to work in tandem with larger or more qualified firms to gain access to lucrative government-contract work they would otherwise be excluded from. But are such agreements enforceable? Not always.

A “letter of intent,” like a teaming agreement, is a document signed by the parties that contemplates the formation of a formal contract to be executed at some point in the future. Virginia courts treat such agreements as “agreements to agree,” which basically means that the parties are agreeing to attempt in good faith to negotiate the terms of a formal agreement with respect to a particular subject matter. Letters of intent are typically short and devoid of material terms that would be necessary to make the agreement binding in court. There’s nothing preventing two parties from entering into an actual contract, intending to be bound, and calling it a “letter of intent,” but absent evidence of such an intention to be bound, such agreements will not be enforceable.

Continue reading

Earlier this month I wrote about the case of a dentist who had sued a consultant for breach of fiduciary duty and failed. The court in that case found that the allegations were insufficient to establish the existence of an agency relationship, and without such a relationship, the consultant owed no fiduciary duty to the dentist. In a similar case between a medical doctor and a consultant, Bocek v. JGA Associates, the trial court reached the same conclusion, but was reversed on appeal, the Fourth Circuit holding that the doctor had proved as a matter of law that the defendants were agents of the doctor and had breached fiduciary obligations by misappropriating a business opportunity for themselves. When the case went back to the trial court, the only issue was to determine the appropriate remedies for the consultants’ breach of fiduciary duty. The latest opinion offers a helpful guide as to the potential remedies available in breach-of-fiduciary-duty cases. What follows is a brief summary of the various forms of relief discussed in the opinion.

Continue reading

To state a plausible breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim in Virginia, a plaintiff must allege enough facts to prove (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty, (2) the breach of that duty, and (3) resulting damages. The first element—existence of a fiduciary duty—is often the most difficult to prove. Fiduciary duties can arise in a number of different contexts, including between employee and employer, between corporate officer and corporation, and between principal and agent. The Western District of Virginia recently dealt with a case, Broadhead v. Watterson, in which agency was alleged as the basis for a breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim. The court reviewed the allegations and found them insufficient to state a valid claim.

The Virginia Supreme Court has defined agency as “a fiduciary relationship resulting from one person’s manifestation of consent to another person that the other shall act on his behalf and subject to his control, and the other person’s manifestation of consent so to act.” (See Reistroffer v. Person, 247 Va. 45, 48 (1994)). Such consent may be manifested expressly or may be inferred from the conduct of the parties and from the surrounding facts and circumstances. Independent contractors, as a rule, are not agents of any principal. The distinction between contractors and agents generally lies in the degree of control (or right to control) the methods or details of doing the work. There’s a presumption that a person acts on his own behalf and not as the agent of another, but this presumption can be rebutted with appropriate evidence.

Continue reading

Everybody knows you can get in trouble for breaching a contract. But did you know that you can also get sued for inducing someone else to breach a contract that you’re not even a party to? Virginia, like many states, recognizes a cause of action for “tortious interference with contract.” The tort requires proof of four elements: (1) the existence of a valid contractual relationship or business expectancy; (2) knowledge of the relationship or expectancy on the part of the interferor; (3) intentional interference inducing or causing a breach or termination of the relationship or expectancy; and (4) resultant damage to the party whose relationship or expectancy has been disrupted. (See Chaves v. Johnson, 230 Va. 112, 120 (1985)).

Basically, this means that if your business partner breaches a contract with you and the cause of the breach is the meddlings of a third person, your legal remedy may involve not only a breach-of-contract action against the business partner, but a tortious-interference claim against the meddler. This is a recognition of the value the law places on contract rights. Interfere with them at your peril.

Still, there won’t always be a culprit. Sometimes, contracting parties are simply unable to meet their obligations and have no choice but to breach. Other times, a third person might have induced the breach, but for reasons that the law regards as understandable and reasonable (and therefore privileged). Breaching a contract on the advice of counsel, for example, is unlikely to result in a tortious interference claim against the lawyer. And once a contract has been breached without the involvement of any third parties, no tortious interference claim will lie against anyone who wanders into the situation after-the-fact.

Continue reading

Much has been made of the latest amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, effective December 1, 2015, some going so far as to call them “the most significant change to federal civil practice in the last decade.” In particular, Rule 26 has been amended to include a new “proportionality” provision. Rule 26(b)(1) now limits discovery to “any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case,” apparently imposing an enormous limitation on the scope of permissible discovery.

The concept of proportionality, however, is nothing new. Even before the 2015 Amendments, Rule 26 provided that discovery should be limited if it “is unduly burdensome or expensive, taking into account the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, limitations on the parties’ resources, and the importance of the issues at stake in the litigation.” The Eastern District of Virginia recently had a chance to grapple with the new rule in a defamation case, and the implication of the court’s holding is essentially that not much has changed, but that litigants and the court should pay a little extra attention to proportionality as they deal with discovery issues.

Continue reading

Don’t think you can get out of your non-compete agreement just because you’re a contractor and not an employee. While it’s true that independent contractors, unlike regular employees, may not owe a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the party that hired them (hence their independence), a business may legitimately require its consultants and contractors to enter into binding non-compete and non-solicitation agreements that will restrict their right to compete with the business for a reasonable length of time after their contracts end.

A few weeks ago in Newport News, Judge Raymond A. Jackson allowed a case brought by tax-preparation firm Tax International against two of its former independent contractors to go forward, denying the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The litigation involved allegations not only that the defendants had violated their non-compete agreements but also that they committed trade secret misappropriation, tortious interference with business expectancy, copyright infringement, trademark infringement, false designation of origin, and unfair competition. Judge Jackson allowed all claims to go forward, finding the allegations plausible on their face.

Continue reading

In Virginia, non-compete agreements are legal but they are not favored and not always enforceable. As restraints on free trade, they will only be enforced if the employer can prove the terms are (1) no broader than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests, (2) not unduly harsh or oppressive in curtailing the employee’s ability to make a living, and (3) not against public policy. Ultimately, the test is one of reasonableness, considering the circumstances of the business, the nature of the work, and any and all other facts that may be relevant. On December 14, 2015, allergist and immunologist Thomas Fame of Roanoke received some good news: he had been successful in challenging his two-year non-compete agreement, having persuaded the court that it unfairly restricted his right to earn a livelihood by practicing his specialty in his chosen home.

In determining whether a non-compete clause is reasonable, courts examine three factors: (1) the duration of the restriction, (2) the geographic scope of the restriction, and (3) the “function” of the restriction; namely, the precise activities the employee is restricted from engaging in. To be enforceable, the noncompete must be found reasonable as a whole, considering all three elements. If one of the factors is grossly unreasonable, it can invalidate the entire agreement, even if the other two factors are narrowly drawn. (See Home Paramount Pest Control Companies, Inc. v. Shaffer, 282 Va. 412, 419 (2011) (holding that “the clear overbreadth of the function here cannot be saved by narrow tailoring of geographic scope and duration”).

Continue reading

Suppose you want to sue a contractor for breaching a contract, or you want to sue a competitor for stealing your employees. What kind of lawyer do you need? Should you just whip out the Yelp app and search for the nearest five-star-rated lawyer? If you’ve tried that, you may have been told by the highly rated lawyer that he or she doesn’t handle the particular legal problem you’re experiencing. There are many types of lawyers, and knowing which kind of lawyer you need is the first step towards hiring the right one. The attorney who did such an excellent job drafting your will may not be the best lawyer to challenge your non-compete agreement. Personally, I get many calls from prospective clients who want me to appeal their criminal conviction, or fight for custody of their kids, or get them out of a traffic ticket, and I don’t do any of those things. And lawyers who do handle such matters typically don’t practice in the sorts of business disputes and defamation matters that my firm typically handles.

So I thought I would offer this quick-and-dirty guide to what I consider to be the ten most in-demand types of lawyers for most individuals and small businesses. If you find yourself in need of legal advice or representation and don’t know what kind of lawyer you need, check out the descriptions below, locate the legal issue you’re experiencing, then narrow your search to focus on the type of lawyer that corresponds to your specific need. Continue reading

Contact Us

Virginia: (703) 722-0588
Washington, D.C.: (202) 449-8555

Contact Information