Articles Posted in Conspiracy

A conspiracy to harm another’s business may be actionable under Virginia’s business-conspiracy statute, which provides for a cause of action where two or more people “combine, associate, agree, mutually undertake or concert together for the purpose of…willfully and maliciously injuring another in his reputation, trade, business or profession by any means whatever.” (See Va. Code §§ 18.2-499, 18.2-500). To prevail in a lawsuit for business conspiracy in Virginia, a plaintiff must prove (1) a combination of two or more people or entities for the purpose of willfully and maliciously injuring the plaintiff in his business; and (2) damage that resulted from the combination. A combination exists where there is concerted action designed to “effect a preconceived plan and unity of design and purpose.” (Schlegel v. Bank of America, 505 F. Supp. 2d 321, 326 (W.D. Va. 2007)). When the people being sued for conspiracy work for the same company, a question arises as to whether the first element–the requirement of “two of more people”–can be satisfied. The intra-corporate immunity doctrine holds that employees working for the same company are generally immune from conspiracy claims when acting on behalf of their employer. This is because a corporation acts through its employees, so the the employees’ actions are really the corporation’s actions and a corporation cannot conspire with itself. In other words, a business-conspiracy claim requires concerted action of at least two legally distinct persons or entities. A corporation can’t conspire with its employees, and its employees can’t conspire with each other if they are acting within the scope of their employment. As with most areas of the law, however, there are exceptions.

Some courts recognize an exception to the intracorporate immunity doctrine where the employee has an “independent personal stake” in achieving the goals of the conspiracy. Although the Virginia Supreme Court has not recognized any such exception, federal courts sitting in Virginia and applying Virginia law have applied it on several occasions. (See, for example, Greenville Publishing Company v. Daily Reflector, Inc., 496 F.2d 391 (4th Cir. 1974) (observing that an exception to the intracorporate immunity doctrine “may be justified when the officer has an independent personal stake in achieving the corporation’s illegal objective.”); Cvent, Inc. v. Eventbrite, Inc., 739 F. Supp. 2d 927 (E.D. Va. 2010)). Even if you’re in a court that does recognize a personal-stake exception, it will apply only to those cases in which the conspirator gained an independent personal benefit from the conspiracy. This benefit must be separate and distinct from the corporate benefit enjoyed by the employer.

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Not long ago, Serco, Inc., won summary judgment on various claims asserted against it by L-3 Communications Corp. and L-3 Applied Technologies, Inc., including claims for statutory business conspiracy, common law conspiracy, and tortious interference with business expectancy. On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, however, the court found that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on the conspiracy claims and sent the case back to the Eastern District of Virginia for further proceedings.

The dispute centered around rights to a lucrative government contract. In 2004, the Air Force awarded a prime contract to Serco that called for testing and upgrading services to protect certain Air Force sites from “high altitude electromagnetic pulse” (“HEMP“) events. The Air Force would periodically issue work orders for various projects, and if Serco could not complete the work itself, it could issue a request for proposals (“RFP”) to invite subcontractors to bid on the work.

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You can’t interfere with your own contract. A contract is a bargained-for exchange that may entitle you to certain benefits, like money, products, or services. If you do not realize the benefit of your bargain because the other party does not honor the agreement, you may be entitled to sue for breach of contract. What you probably cannot do, if all we’re talking about is disappointed economic expectations resulting from the failure of one party to fulfill his end of the bargain, is sue for tortious interference with contract. From the moment tortious interference became recognized as a cause of action in Virginia in 1985, the claim has been available only against strangers to the contract at issue. In other words, if the person causing the interference is a party to the contract, the appropriate claim for the plaintiff to bring is for breach of contract and not tortious interference.

Under Virginia law, a claim for tortious interference consists of the following 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 Schaecher v. Bouffault, 290 Va. 83 (2015)). In the 1985 case of Chaves v. Johnson, the Virginia Supreme Court explained that these elements can only be asserted against someone outside the contractual relationship:

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The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (commonly known as “RICO“) became effective on October 15, 1970. It was originally intended primarily to assist in the prosecution of mafia leaders, as it permitted them to be tried for crimes they ordered others to do rather than committed themselves. Congress never intended to limit RICO to organized crime, however. G. Robert Blakey, the primary author of the statute, once told Time Magazine, “We don’t want one set of rules for people whose collars are blue or whose names end in vowels, and another set for those whose collars are white and have Ivy League diplomas.” The statute includes a civil provision, found at 18 USC § 1964(c), that has proven particularly popular in business litigation as it allows for the recovery of treble damages and attorneys fees.

RICO makes it unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt. (See 18 USC § 1962(c)). Key concepts in civil RICO cases typically include whether a true “enterprise” exists, whether the defendant has engaged in “racketeering activity,” and, if so, whether such activity constitutes a “pattern.”
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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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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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To recover for statutory business conspiracy in Virginia, a plaintiff must show (1) concerted action between two or more people; (2) legal malice towards plaintiff’s business; and (3) resulting damage to the plaintiff’s business. Where the defendants have a principal/agent or employer/employee relationship, and the agent is acting within the scope of his or her duties, the first element is not met because the parties are not separate entities, and a single entity is not legally capable of conspiring with itself. Applying these principles, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in Rogers v. Deane.

Prior to their separation and divorce, Edwina and Edward Rogers employed Jon Deane, a certified public accountant, for tax and accounting services. After the Rogers divorced, Mrs. Rogers sued Mr. Deane for statutory business conspiracy and other claims, contending that Mr. Deane diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in credits and tax deductions into Mr. Roger’s tax return, that he diverted tax liability into her tax returns, and that he intentionally damaged her reputation and business.

Mrs. Rogers, faced with a motion for summary judgment, argued that her husband and Mr. Deane should be treated as two separate entities capable of forming a conspiracy because (1) there was no agency relationship, and (2) even if there was, the defendants’ actions fell outside the scope of the agency. The court disagreed.

Sometimes a court must decide a matter that turns on the law of another jurisdiction. If the other jurisdiction’s law is unclear, the deciding court can make a formal request to its sister court asking that court to clarify an issue. The Fourth Circuit recently invoked this procedure and certified two questions to the Virginia Supreme Court: one involving application of Virginia’s business conspiracy statute and another regarding the statute of limitations applicable to tortious interference claims.

James Dunlap operated two AAMCO Transmission franchises for over thirty years. When an asset-management company that owned a large share of AAMCO competitor Cottman Transmission Systems purchased AAMCO, Dunlap found his franchises on the chopping block as part of a plan to eliminate overlap among the businesses by converting Cottman franchises to AAMCOs and closing some franchises. Dunlap claimed that AAMCO attempted to terminate his franchises for minor violations as a pretext to force him out of business. Dunlap settled his dispute with AAMCO and was allowed to continue operations. Dunlap then brought an action against Cottman and new AAMCO principal Todd Leff alleging a conspiracy to force him out of business. The complaint, filed in Chesapeake Circuit Court and later removed to federal court, raised claims for violation of Virginia’s business conspiracy statute, tortious interference with contract, and tortious interference with business expectancy.

At one time, established case law indicated that conspiring to procure a breach of contract was actionable under Virginia’s business conspiracy statute. However, the Virginia Supreme Court shifted away from that approach in Station #2 v. Lynch, 280 Va. 166 (2010) where it held that an independent duty arising outside the contract is required to establish a conspiracy claim. question.jpgRelying on Station #2, the district court dismissed Dunlap’s conspiracy claim because he did not allege a valid “unlawful act” as a predicate for the conspiracy. Rather, all of the allegedly breached duties and damages involved arose out of contractual obligations.

AWP, Inc. is engaged in the business of traffic control solutions for road construction sites and emergency situations. AWP alleges that Shawn Watkins, a former employee, began his own traffic control business, Traffic Control Solutions, LLC (TCS) while still working at AWP, and that he misappropriated information he obtained from his position at AWP such as the identity, needs and issues of customers, pricing, and protocols and methodologies for traffic control. AWP deems this information protected trade secrets. Watkins also allegedly solicited four AWP employees to join him at TCS. AWP prepared to sue Watkins but settled prior to litigation, with Watkins agreeing to cease TCS operations, never work with an AWP competitor, and turn over all AWP property. Watkins also signed an affidavit stating that he was instrumental in creating TCS and had access to AWP’s trade secrets which he used without permission to underbid AWP on jobs and misappropriate AWP customers.

Instead, AWP sued its competitor Commonwealth Excavating, Inc. and its president, Ira Biggs. AWP claimed that Watkins approached Biggs and offered to sell AWP’s trade secrets and equipment for $45,000. Commonwealth allegedly offered to hire the four AWP employees who left for TCS, and it offered Watkins an $85,000 salary which Watkins refused for fear of violating his non-compete agreement. AWP believes that Watkins and Biggs plotted to have Commonwealth take over at least four of AWP’s customers, but the complaint does not state whether any of the customers accepted the offer. The complaint contains counts for common law conspiracy, statutory business conspiracy, misappropriation of trade secrets under the Virginia Uniform Trade Secrets Act (VUTSA), tortious interference with contract or business relationships and unjust enrichment. The defendants moved to dismiss.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must show more than a mere possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Rather, a plaintiff must demonstrate enough factual matter which, if accepted as true, states a plausible claim for relief. In ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion, a court will accept factual allegations as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, but threadbare recitations of the elements of a cause of action are not sufficient and must be supported by sufficient facts.

If you’re going to sue a bunch of former employees for various business torts, you need to be clear in your allegations as to who did what. It’s all too easy to lump all the defendants together when describing the wrongful conduct in the complaint, especially when there are numerous defendants. Increasingly, however, Virginia courts are dismissing defendants from cases in which their specific involvement cannot be ascertained from the face of the complaint.

Recently in a Virginia federal court, Alliance Technology Group, LLC (Alliance), an IT services provider, sued a cadre of its employees and Achieve 1, LLC (Achieve), a competing company, for conspiracy, fraud, misappropriation of trade secrets, and other claims. One defendant, William Ralston, moved to dismiss due to the fact that many of the allegations of the complaint lumped all the defendants together, accusing all the defendants of committing tortious conduct collectively.

The rules are pretty lenient on what a complaint must contain to survive a motion to dismiss. A complaint must include a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, and enough factual information to give the defendant fair notice of the nature of the claim. It must allege enough facts–not conclusions–to make the asserted right to relief plausible on its face rather than merely speculative or conceivable.

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