Articles Posted in Business and Corporate

Suppose you’re a senior executive at a company that regularly transacts large volumes of business with another company, when the wife of the other company’s CEO files what you believe to be an unwarranted sexual harassment lawsuit against your company, presumably with the consent or approval of her husband. I suspect many would assume that you would have the right to cease doing business with that company due to the strain on the relationship caused by the wife’s lawsuit. Shouldn’t you have the right to decide for yourself which companies deserve your business? Well, be careful. In an opinion written by Eastern District of Virginia Judge James C. Cacheris last month, the court found that allegations like these were sufficient to state a claim for tortious interference with contract under Virginia law.

Tortious interference is a legal theory that requires a plaintiff to allege (and eventually prove) the following 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. If the contract is “at will,” such as the typical employment contract that either party is free to terminate at any time, it must also be proven that the defendant employed “improper methods.” After the case of Stephen M. Stradtman v. Republic Services, Inc., it would appear that “business retaliation” can qualify as the required “improper method” to support a tortious interference claim.
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“I made a copy of the client list because they are my clients; I won the business for my company” is a refrain I hear often in consulting with former employees. We’re sorry to have to tell you that this commonly held belief is not accurate. Those clients and customers you may have generated as an employee are not “yours” to take with you. They belong to the company. Making a copy of such a list by printing it, downloading a file, copying it onto a flash drive, or emailing the list to yourself can get you into a lot of trouble because such actions violate Virginia common law as well as certain Virginia statutes. This is true whether or not employees are subject to a noncompete or nonsolicitation agreement. Here are several laws a former or soon-to-be former employee may be violating by copying or taking a former employer’s client or customer list:

If you copy, download, or upload the company’s client and/or customer lists, you may be committing the business tort (the legal term for a civil “wrong”) of conversion. Conversion is the wrongful exercise over another’s property, which deprives the owner of possession, or any act of dominion wrongfully exerted over the property in denial of or inconsistent with the owner’s rights. This means that if your former employer gets its IT people to inspect your computer or work phone and discovers you’ve taken a client list, you may be found liable for conversion of the employer’s property.
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Last month, I wrote about blue-penciling of non-competition and non-solicitation agreements and about the fact that if you are dealing with an unenforceable noncompete in Virginia, the entire clause will likely be stricken rather than amended. If you are a Virginia employer seeking to ensure your employees are actually bound by their agreements not to complete with your business post-employment, one thing you may be able to do is specify in the agreement that it will be governed by the law of a different state (i.e., one whose laws permit blue-penciling or which are otherwise considered more favorable to employers). This approach, however, will only be viable if your company (or the employee) has some significant connection with the selected state, as it is considered a violation of due process rights to surprise employees with arbitrary choice-of-law provisions. There is an easier way to ensure the noncompete provisions have teeth: make the obligations severable.

Virginia law will permit you to include a “severability clause” when drafting a noncompete agreement, permitting the court to analyze and enforce the various noncompete and non-solicitation provisions separately. The benefit to employers is that if the court finds one of the sections overly broad and therefore unenforceable, the court can “sever” the unenforceable provision and enforce the other sections, provided they don’t suffer from the same enforceability issues. For this to work, the parties need to reach an agreement (preferably expressed explicitly in the contract itself) to the effect that any restrictive covenant found by a court to be unenforceable can be severed from the agreement, leaving the remainder of the provisions intact. Such a clause might look something like this:

Severability. If any clause, provision, covenant or condition of this Agreement, or the application thereof to any person, place or circumstance, shall be held to be invalid, unenforceable, or void, the remainder of this Agreement shall remain in full force and effect.

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In Virginia, covenants not to compete (a.k.a. non-competition agreements or simply “noncompetes”) are considered restraints on trade and are therefore disfavored in the law. Unlike California, which prohibits them outright, Virginia will enforce such agreements if (and only if) they (1) satisfy the general principles of contract formation and enforceability, and (2) are no broader than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests. In examining breadth and overall reasonableness, Virginia courts will look primarily to provisions regarding the duration of the restriction, the geographic scope, and the activities that the agreement purports to restrict. What happens, you might ask, if a noncompete is found to be just a tad broader than it needs to be to protect the employer’s interests? Will it still be enforced to the “fullest extent of the law,” disregarding whatever phrase rendered the agreement overly broad? While that might seem the most fair outcome to many employers, if the agreement is governed by Virginia law, the noncompete will be stricken in its entirety and the employee will be free to compete as if the agreement never existed.

In some states, courts will modify any noncompete deemed unreasonable and enforce it to a degree deemed reasonable. For example, if a noncompete prohibits competitive activity for a 5-year period when the business really can’t justify imposing such a restriction beyond one year, the noncompete will be enforced but only for one year rather than the five stated in the agreement. This practice has become known as blue-penciling. Other states allow blue-penciling only if the restrictive covenant as a whole does not reveal any deliberate intent by the employer to place unreasonable and oppressive restraints on the employee. Virginia, however, does not allow blue-penciling at all. As a general rule, unreasonable covenants not to compete will be declared void and unenforceable, and courts will not modify them by re-writing contracts previously agreed to by the parties.
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Virginia’s business conspiracy statute provides for civil liability and treble damages where “[a]ny two or more persons…combine, associate, agree, mutually undertake or concert together for the purpose of…willfully and maliciously injuring another in his reputation, trade, business or profession….” See Va. Code § 18.2-499, 500. The cause of action is popular among plaintiffs’ lawyers not only because of the triple-damages provision but also because a successful plaintiff can recover attorneys’ fees. To state a valid claim for statutory business conspiracy, a plaintiff must allege three key elements: that the defendants (1) engaged in concerted action, (2) with legal malice, (3) that resulted in damages. “Concerted action” refers to the requirement that the defendants combined together to effect a preconceived plan and unity of design and purpose. “Legal malice” (not to be confused with actual malice, common-law malice, or New York Times malice) requires a showing that the defendant acted “intentionally, purposefully, and without lawful justification.” The legal-malice standard allows a plaintiff to recover even if the defendant’s primary and overriding purpose in forming the conspiracy was to benefit himself rather than injure the plaintiff’s reputation, trade, or business, provided that causing such injury is at least one of the purposes of forming the conspiracy.

Late last week, Judge Moon of the Western District of Virginia allowed such a claim to go forward against Sandy Spring Bank. The plaintiff, Christopher Jaggars, was in the business of purchasing residential real estate for the purpose of renting the property to tenants and holding it as an investment so that he could later sell the property at an appreciated value. According to the allegations of his amended complaint, he was targeted as a potential victim of the DpFunder Program scheme by a company called Global Direct Sales. The scheme allegedly involved a fairly complicated money-laundering arrangement pursuant to which a small group of individuals and mortgage companies arranged to loan the plaintiff money for real estate investment, mislead the settlement agent into transferring a portion of the loan proceeds to another company, which transferred them to Global Direct, which conspired with Sandy Spring Bank to open a new account in Mr. Jaggars’ name (without his knowledge or consent) to receive the funds, all in violation of the Patriot Act. Then, the allegations continue, Global Direct issued a fraudulent Form 1099, falsely showing that it had paid $43,500 in sales commissions to Mr. Jaggars, presumably to allow Global Direct to conceal the loan proceeds and to shift tax liability from Global Direct to Mr. Jaggars.
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Liquidated damages are damages the amount of which has been agreed upon in advance by the contracting parties. When a contract contains a liquidated-damages provision, the amount of damages in the event of a breach is either specified, or a precise method for determining the sum of damages is laid out. This is often done in situations where the parties agree that the harm likely to be caused by a breach would be difficult or impossible to measure with any precision, so they agree on a figure in advance and dispense with the time and effort that would otherwise be involved in proving compensatory damages at trial. Another benefit often cited is the ability to control exposure to risk that normally is inherent in business litigation.

Fairfax Circuit Court judge Charles J. Maxfield was recently presented with the interesting question of whether to enforce an optional liquidated damages clause, an issue not yet decided by the Virginia Supreme Court. Sagatov Builders LLC v. Hunt involved a sale of real estate. The seller alleged the buyer was supposed to pay a $50,000 deposit but didn’t. The parties’ contract contained the following provision:

If the Purchaser is in default, the Seller shall have all legal and equitable remedies, retaining the Deposit until such time as those damages are ascertained, or the Seller may elect to terminate the contract and declare the Deposit forfeited as liquidated damages and not as a penalty …. If the Seller does not elect to accept the Deposit as liquidated damages, the Deposit may not be the limit of the Purchaser’s liability in the event of a default.

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One of your top executives puts in his notice that he is leaving to join your fiercest competitor. Fortunately, he signed a noncompete that restricts him from doing just that. Your lawyer sends him a letter reminding him of his contractual obligations to your company, of course, but also recommends that you put the new employer on notice of the noncompete and threaten a tortious interference action against the company should it proceed to hire your employee. After all, he advises, the company has deeper pockets than the executive, and if the competitor hires him with knowledge of his contractual obligations to his existing employer, they are automatically on the hook for tortious interference. Right? Wrong, says the Fourth Circuit.

Similar facts were presented in Discovery Communications, LLC v. Computer Sciences Corporation. Discovery had an employment agreement with its chief accounting officer, Thomas Colan, which required Colan to remain with Discovery for a specific term. Discovery alleged that Colan breached his agreement by quitting his job prior to the expiration of the term to go work for CSC. Discovery alleged that it put CSC on notice of the employment agreement after CSC offered Colan employment but before the effective date of Colan’s resignation. Discovery argued that CSC tortiously interfered with the contract by hiring Colan after being put on notice of the employment agreement. The district court held that was not enough, and the Fourth Circuit agreed, affirming the dismissal of the case.
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Last September, I noted the case of Dunlap v. Cottman Transmissions Systems, LLC, in which the Fourth Circuit certified two questions to the Virginia Supreme Court seeking clarification with respect to Virginia’s business conspiracy statute and the applicable statute of limitations for tortious interference claims. The Virginia Supreme Court has now answered those questions, holding that causes of action for tortious interference with contract and tortious interference business expectancy qualify as the requisite “unlawful act” to proceed on a business conspiracy claim under Va. Code §§ 18.2-499 and -500 because both claims are predicated on an independent common law duty arising outside of contract. The court also held that claims for tortious interference are governed by § 8.01-243(B)’s five-year statute of limitations because such claims involve injury to property rights.

James Dunlap sued Cottman Transmission Systems, LLC, and Todd Leff for tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with business expectancy, and business conspiracy in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-499 and § 18.2-500. The claims arose from Dunlap’s franchise agreements with AAMCO Transmissions, Inc. When a new owner of AAMCO (who already owned a controlling interest in Cottman) sought to convert Cottman Franchises into AAMCO franchises, Dunlap’s franchises were closed, and Dunlap claimed that the closings were due to a conspiracy between Cottman and others.
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They can be. The Uniform Commercial Code provides that a contract for the sale of goods may be made in any manner sufficient to show agreement, and that “an order or other offer to buy goods for prompt or current shipment shall be construed as inviting acceptance either by a prompt promise to ship or by the prompt or current shipment of conforming or non-conforming goods.” In MidAtlantic International Inc. v. AGC Flat Glass North America Inc., a federal court in Norfolk examined whether purchase orders reflected an enforceable contract between the parties and concluded that they did.

MidAtlantic supplied Spanish dolomite to AGC under a contractual relationship that their predecessors began in the late 1990s. At the end of each calendar year, AGC sent MidAtlantic a purchase order providing a rough estimate of its needs for the coming year. AGC supplemented the annual purchase order with monthly orders that were more exact. Each purchase order set forth requirements and conditions for the delivery of the product and contained the price and quantity of the product, details regarding how the agreement could be cancelled, shipment requirements and other details necessary for both sides to understand how the transactions were to occur. The quantity of dolomite was occasionally altered via email and phone between the parties. Additionally, the purchase orders provided requirements for the chemical composition and physical properties of the product. For example, the maximum allowable levels of iron, silicon dioxide and acid insoluble particles were specified, and no acid insoluble particle was to be coarser than 30 mesh.
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Upon a litigant’s motion, a court can enter a “preliminary injunction” preventing a party from pursuing a particular course of action until the conclusion of a trial on the merits. A preliminary injunction is considered an extraordinary remedy and requires the moving party to establish that (1) he is likely to succeed on the merits of the case at trial; (2) he is likely to suffer irreparable harm unless the injunction is granted; (3) the balance of the equities tips in his favor; and (4) an injunction is in the public interest. The party must make a clear showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits. Where a defendant has acted in an underhanded manner, but the plaintiff is unable to establish these factors, a court will deny the request for injunctive relief. In BP Products v. Southside Oil, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia considered and denied BP’s request for a preliminary injunction even though it was clear that Southside had acted deviously.

Defendant Southside owns gas stations and also has fuel supply agreements with independent gas stations. BP decided to stop owning stations and simply sell gas to BP stations through middlemen. As part of its strategic plan, BP sold many of its Virginia gas stations to Southside, and Southside agreed to continue to market BP products at BP’s former stations. The parties renewed the contract in 2010 and agreed that BP would have a Right of First Offer (ROFO) as to any proposed sale of any of Southside assets. Before Southside sold any BP stations or changed any BP stations to other brands, it was required to provide a term sheet outlining its goals; BP could then either negotiate with Southside or allow negotiation with other buyers. Southside was not required to accept any offer by BP to purchase its assets.

The 2010 agreement also gave BP a Right of First Refusal (ROFR) requiring Southside to give BP written documentation regarding any proposed sale so that BP could determine whether to buy Southside’s entire business. The 2010 contract expired on October 2, 2013. During renewal negotiations, BP sent a “notice of non-renewal” indicating that if the parties failed to reach a new agreement by October 2, 2013, the contractual relationship would end. Southside declined to renew the agreement and the relationship ended.

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