Articles Posted in Torts

Jennifer Taylor worked for Allied Waste Industries. When Allied merged with Republic Services, Inc., Taylor found the new management’s style different and problematic. Her new supervisors were described as “micromanagers,” and Taylor clashed with them over many issues, including her job performance with which her supervisors’ were dissatisfied. Taylor attempted to resolve the issues through the Human Resources office, but ultimately separated from Republic. According to Taylor, she would have continued employment with Republic but for the allegedly tortious actions of her supervisors. Taylor sued Republic and her supervisors for various torts including tortious interference with business expectancy. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the tortious interference claim.

To state a claim for tortious interference in Virginia, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a valid contractual relationship or business expectancy; (2) knowledge of the relationship or expectancy on the part of the interferer; (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. In an at-will employment situation such as this, the plaintiff must also prove that the method of interference was improper. Improper methods of interference include means that are contrary to law or regulation and methods that employ violence, threat, intimidation, or fraud. Actions motivated by spite do not necessarily constitute improper means.

A tortious interference claim usually requires three actors – two parties to the contract and a third party who interferes with the contract, so typically, the alleged interferer is not a party to the contract. However, a tortious interference claim may lie where an agent of one of the contractual parties acts outside the scope of his employment in tortiously interfering with the contract. An act is within the scope of employment if (1) it was expressly or impliedly directed by the employer or is naturally incident to the business, and (2) it was performed with the intent to further the employer’s interest.

If you’re going to file a lawsuit against someone, you’d better explain the basis for it. A complaint doesn’t need to include much detail, but it must at least allege facts showing that you’ve been wronged and that you are entitled to a remedy of some sort. In federal court, you must also demonstrate a basis to invoke the court’s jurisdiction. Failure to do so can result in monetary sanctions.

Take the case of Michael Harris v. Jeffrey Seto, brought in the Harrisonburg Division of the Western District of Virginia. Michael F. Harris and his company, M. F. Harris Research, Inc., filed a complaint against Jeffrey K. Seto, Matthew S. Johnson, and others, alleging fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and corporate diversion. Harris stated in conclusory fashion that Seto and others defrauded him by scheming to take over his company and steal confidential information and business opportunities.

The complaint consisted of a two-page handwritten document. (Hint: that’s not the best way to make a good first impression with the judges). The complaint alleged nine counts but did not set forth the factual basis supporting them. According to the civil cover sheet filed with the complaint, Harris asserted the court’s jurisdiction was based on a federal question. He checked boxes describing the case as being in the nature of “Assault, Libel & Slander,” “Property Damage Product Liability,” and “Patent.” Defendant Johnson was the only defendant served and he wisely moved to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim.

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.

It is not an uncommon sentiment to want to “get someone fired” by conveying unflattering and possibly damaging information to another person’s employer. Most litigation attorneys will tell you that such conduct can put you at risk for a claim for tortious interference with the employee’s employment contract or business relationship. The Minnesota Court of Appeals, however, has held that claims for tortious interference based on truthful, non-defamatory statements made to another’s employer may be constitutionally protected, regardless of the speaker’s motivation.

Moore v. Hoff involved certain statements made by John Hoff (a.k.a. “Johnny Northside”) on his blog, “The Adventures of Johnny Northside.” When Hoff learned that former community council director Jerry Moore was working for a University of Minnesota group studying foreclosure issues, Hoff wrote in his blog that Moore had been fired from his position as executive director of a local community council due to misconduct and that court evidence showed Moore had been involved in a high-profile fraudulent mortgage. Hoff’s friend, Donald Allen, then sent an email to the university, linking Moore to someone under indictment for mortgage fraud, accusing him of a questionable deal, and warning the university it could face a “public relations nightmare” by employing Moore. Allen included a link to Hoff’s blog in the email. The University fired Moore immediately.

Moore sued Hoff for defamation, intentional interference with contract, and interference with prospective advantage. Moore was court.jpgdeemed a “limited purpose public figure” because he’d assumed a prominent role in a public controversy as director of the community council and the alleged defamation related to that controversy. A jury found Hoff interfered with Moore’s contract and prospective business advantage and awarded Moore $60,000. But it also found Hoff’s statements were “not false.” Hoff appealed.

Not everyone was happy when KIBZ 104.1 FM (The Blaze) replaced its rock format with new programming. One unhappy listener tried contacting the radio station to express his displeasure but had trouble reaching a live person. So he took his complaints to the station’s advertisers. He succeeded in getting a response, but it came in the form of a cease-and-desist letter from the station’s lawyers, accusing him of defamation and of tortiously interfering with the station’s contractual relationships.

Three Eagles Communications, a Colorado-based company, had rearranged its programming for a Lincoln, Nebraska radio station, The Blaze. It brought in a show from the Omaha market, replacing or rearranging other programming to do so. The new show included political, pop culture and off-color commentary. Many listeners objected to the changes and banded together to boycott the show. They established a Facebook page, started a petition, published a list of those who advertised with the show, and included information on how to contact members of Three Eagles management. They also held a public event, sent emails and letters to Three Eagles management, and sent emails to advertisers with The Blaze. Some stated Three Eagles was not a local operation.

Ted Pool was among those who opposed the changes. He sent emails to some Blaze advertisers objecting to the changes, attributing them to regional and out-of-state decisions, and encouraged the email recipients to sign the petition. He urged the recipients to contact Three Eagles to ask if the company would continue “jeopardizing YOUR advertising dollars by being associated with” the new show.

In Virginia, to state a claim for tortious interference with contractual relationships, a plaintiff generally must allege (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. A person must be a stranger to a contract to tortiously interfere with it; one cannot interfere with his own contract. Some states take this “stranger” requirement further, holding that a plaintiff can sue a defendant for tortious interference only if the defendant is a stranger to both the contract and the underlying business relationship giving rise to the contract.

In those states adhering to the so-called Stranger Doctrine, third-party beneficiaries are not considered strangers to the contract even though they are not parties to it. If a defendant has a legitimate interest in either the contract or a party to the contract, the defendant is not considered a stranger. In Georgia, for example, there can be no tortious interference claim where the plaintiff and defendant were parties to “a comprehensive interwoven set of contracts.” A recent unpublished opinion from the 11th Circuit shows how restrictive this rule can be.

In GT Software, Inc. v. webMethods, Inc., GT Software brought a tortious interference claim against webMethods after webMethods instructed Action Motivation, Inc., to withhold sales leads gathered by GT at Integration World, a convention hosted by webMethods in November 2006. GT had issued a news release that webMethods believed contained certain inaccuracies about one of its partner companies, so webMethods removed GT’s representatives from the convention and instructed TBA Global, the company it had hired to run the convention, to ensure that GT did not receive any of the sales leads that GT had collected during the convention using scanners provided by Action Motivation.

Does an employer have any sort of ownership interest in its employees’ tweets or Twitter following? This very current social-media question may be tested in a lawsuit originally filed last July in federal court in California by PhoneDog, a South Carolina-based company that reviews mobile phones and services online, against former employee Noah Kravitz. An amended complaint in the case, filed on November 29, 2011, has attracted considerable media attention.

When Kravitz worked for PhoneDog as a product reviewer and video blogger from 2006 to 2010, he tweeted under the handle @PhoneDog_Noah and attracted some 17,000 followers for his comments and opinions on Twitter. When he left the company, he continued tweeting under the name @NoahKravitz. But he didn’t create a new account with that name; instead, he kept the account (with all its followers) and just changed the Twitter handle to @NoahKravitz. Eight months later, PhoneDog sued Kravitz, alleging that his continued use of the account and his tweeting to his followers constitute a misappropriation of PhoneDog’s trade secrets, intentional interference with prospective economic relationships, and conversion. Phone Dog said that it had suffered loss of advertising revenue as a result and that Kravitz “was unjustly enriched by obtaining the business of PhoneDog’s Followers.”

PhoneDog essentially claims ownership rights due to the fact that it directs its employees to maintain Twitter accounts and instructs them to tweet links to PhoneDog’s website, thus increasing PhoneDog’s page views and generating advertising Kravitz.jpgrevenue for PhoneDog. PhoneDog said in the complaint that since Kravitz now works for TechnoBuffalo, a competitor of PhoneDog, he is exploiting PhoneDog’s confidential information on behalf of a competitor. PhoneDog is seeking $340,000 in damages — $2.50 per month per Twitter follower for eight months. Although PhoneDog said in the complaint that “industry standards” peg the value of a Twitter follower at $2.50 per month, the company did not give a source for that estimate. Nor did PhoneDog attempt to distinguish between people who followed Kravitz because of his connection to PhoneDog and those followers who are merely friends of his or enjoy his commentary.

In a dispute between two Virginia lawyers, a U.S. District Judge has rejected attorney Cynthia Smith’s claim that another attorney, Timothy Purnell, interfered with her contract with a client and caused her to suffer nearly $4 million in financial losses.

Smith had been representing a Northern Virginia family, the Wieses, in a dispute with their neighbors. Eventually, the Wieses became dissatisfied with her representation and hired Purnell in her place. Smith sought her full $30,000 fee from the Wieses but ended up settling the fee dispute with them for $5,000. She and the Wieses signed a settlement agreement in 2009 that provided for a full release of all claims. Two years later, Smith sued Purnell over his role in representing the Wiese family, alleging that Purnell tortiously interfered with her right to receive the full payment from the client. She said that Purnell at one point promised her that he would ensure that she would be “paid in full” by the Wieses and that he reneged on this promise. She also claimed that she signed the settlement agreement under duress in that her “decision to trust God” led to a series of financial losses.

U.S. District Judge James Cacheris, in a December 9, 2011, ruling, rejected all of Smith’s claims and dismissed the complaint. He turned down her motion for leave to amend her complaint, finding that any amendment would be futile because the facts before him did not state a cause of action. Judge Cacheris wrote that Smith’s claims were barred by the release language in Reject.jpgthe settlement agreement that she signed in 2009 with the Wieses. In his ruling, the judge pointed out that the agreement extinguishes all claims that Smith might have not only with the Wieses but also with their attorneys. Judge Cacheris ruled further that Smith’s financial distress at the time did not amount to legal “duress” that permitted her to avoid the provisions of the settlement agreement.

A Swedish law firm has failed in its effort to sue a director of a former client for “misrepresentation” in Virginia federal court after the court ruled the claim was barred by Virginia’s two-year statute of limitations applicable to negligence claims. The law firm had conceded that it would be unable to maintain a cause of action for fraud under the laws of Virginia, and the court opted to analyze the viability of the claim as a negligence action.

The law firm, Andersson Gustafsson Advokatbyra KB, sued eSCRUB Systems, Inc., a Virginia company, and three people associated with the company, claiming that eSCRUB had failed to pay the firm’s legal bills after it hired the law firm in 2007 to help it resolve a dispute. The law firm alleged that John Packard, a former director of eSCRUB, committed fraud in that he breached a “continuing obligation to notify Andersson of the risks of non-payment it ran in performing services for eSCRUB.” The allegation was essentially that Packard was part of a scheme to induce the law firm to provide legal services to eSCRUB with the full knowledge that the company would never pay the firm’s legal fees.

In Virginia, negligence claims carry a two-year statute of limitations. Virginia follows the general rule that the event that starts the limitations clock ticking is the negligent act itself. There is no “discovery exception” that starts the clock at a later date,Hourglass.jpg such as the date the plaintiff actually discovers that the alleged negligence occurred or that he has been damaged. Statutes of limitation can expire before a potential plaintiff even learns of the grounds for a lawsuit.

In a case that turns on a law firm’s ethical obligations to avoid conflicts of interest, a large D.C. law firm has once again been procedurally rebuffed in its effort to have a federal judge in the District of Columbia declare that it has not violated any ethics rules in a high-profile environmental case.

Patton Boggs, a major D.C. firm, represents various parties in Ecuador that are involved in high-stakes environmental litigation against Chevron. A lobbying subsidiary of Patton Boggs, the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, has done work on behalf of Chevron on similar issues. Gibson Dunn, the law firm representing Chevron, is taking the position that Patton Boggs has a conflict of interest and has tried to have Patton Boggs removed from the case.

Patton Boggs moved in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for a declaratory ruling that it does not have such a conflict. Last April, however, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy dismissed this case, finding that the courts that are actually Quito.jpghearing the environmental cases against Chevron are best equipped to handle that issue. Judge Kennedy also ruled that Patton Boggs could not amend its complaint to allege that Chevron and Gibson Dunn had tortiously interfered with its contract with the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and had engaged in a civil conspiracy, since Patton Boggs had not alleged facts suggesting that they had caused any actual breach of the contract.

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