Articles Posted in Conspiracy

In this patent and trade-secret dispute between Safe Haven Wildlife Removal and Property Management Experts and Meridian Wildlife Services, the defendant tried to raise the stakes by inserting a number of business torts (including breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with contract and business expectancies, and business conspiracy) but the court dismissed these claims as time-barred and ordered that the case proceed only on the patent and trade-secret claims.

Those of you preparing for the Great Backyard Bird Count (which starts tomorrow!) and who spend much of your leisure time doing everything in your power to attract birds to your property may be surprised to hear that “bird removal” is big business. The plaintiff in this case, Safe Haven, “specializes in the safe, effective, and humane bird and wildlife removal solutions for facilities.” (See para. 19 of its Amended Complaint). Meridian, the defendant, describes itself as “an innovator and industry leader in [bird removal and wildlife management] services with extensive experience assisting commercial clients throughout the United States with interior bird removal, exterior bird population reduction, wildlife relocation, nest removal and full facility inspection services.” (See para. 9 of Meridian’s Answer). I guess it’s safe to assume these companies won’t be participating in the popular annual birding event.

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No employer likes to see a large number of its employees band together and leave en masse to form a competing business. A large number of employees leaving at once can lead to a loss of institutional knowledge and experience, not to mention customers and revenues. Mass departures hurt morale and can lead to increased costs for recruitment and training. A company’s reputation can be irreparably damaged once word gets out that a mass resignation has taken place, making it more difficult for the business to attract new talent. Depending on the circumstances, litigation against the former employees, as well as against the company that hired them, may or may not be warranted.

Possible legal claims include breach of fiduciary duty, breach of non-compete and/or non-solicitation agreement, tortious interference, business conspiracy, misappropriation of trade secrets, and more. Let’s take a quick look at how a Hampton Roads body-piercing business dealt with the sudden resignation of seven employees who went on to form their own body-piercing business in the same region. In the case of Chanah, Inc. v. Summers, currently pending in the Chesapeake Circuit Court, the plaintiff pursued a number of business torts against the departing employees. Most of the counts survived demurrer.

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About a year ago, a disgruntled systems engineer for government contractor Federated IT was sentenced to two years in prison for illegally accessing his former employer’s network systems, stealing critical servers and information, and causing a loss valued at over $1.1 million. In a civil lawsuit against his girlfriend and arising out of much of the same conduct, a former project manager at the same company has been held in default and ordered to pay over $150,000 in damages for breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, and conspiracy.

The facts of the case, which are assumed to be true by virtue of the fact the defendant was held in default for violating a court order, are as follows. Federated IT provides cyber security, information technology, and analytic and operations support services, and managed a contract with the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains. Ashley Arrington was a project manager for the Army contract and a direct supervisor of Barrence Anthony, the engineer currently serving a two-year prison sentence. Arrington and Anthony were romantically involved but did not notify Federated IT about the relationship. At some point during Anthony’s tenure, he began to behave insubordinately and failed to show up for work, eventually leading to his termination. He decided to go out with a bang. Among other spiteful acts he was accused of before and after he left, Federated IT alleged he:

  • deactivated all administrator accounts except his own and refused to share the master password with his replacement
  • changed the responsible-party contact information on Federated IT’s Amazon Web Services account to “Anthony Enterprises”
  • modified Federated IT’s Help Desk email address to redirect emails to his personal email account
  • deleted files from a SharePoint project folder, including encryption keys, account information, and network diagram files
  • wiped the hard drive on his work laptop
  • made unauthorized copies of the Army’s servers which contained their Financial Management System
  • attempted thousands of “brute force cyberattacks” against the Chief of Chaplains’ web application system, which necessitated a shutdown of one of Federated IT’s servers.

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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.

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