Articles Posted in Business Litigation

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The Consumer Product Safety Act, or CPSA, and legislation like it, makes it a crime to sell products that are the subject of a safety recall. Nonetheless, that is precisely what the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, says that retail giant Best Buy did between 2010 and 2015. The retailer recently agreed to pay a $3.8 million penalty to the CPSC for breaking the law.

Compliance and Violation words on green road or street signs to illustrate the important choice between following or ignoring vital legal rules, guidelines, laws and regulations

The CPSC accused Best Buy of continuing to sell 16 products even after those items had been recalled. Ranging from cameras and laptops to dishwashers and electric ranges, each product posed a safety hazard. A recalled dehumidifier sparked a fire after being sold by a Best Buy store years after it should have been quarantined from sale. Given the more stringent clauses of the CPSA, which was amended in 2008, it was only a matter of time before the CPSC took notice.

Best Buy stated that they had a recall system in place during the 2010 to 2015 period. However, the CPSC found that Best Buy’s system for finding and getting rid of recalled products was ineffective. Among the findings, the CPSC says that the Best Buy system failed to permanently block product codes for recalled items. Additionally, some of those product codes were reactivated or the system functions that should have prevented a sale were overridden.

In addition to paying the $3.8 million penalty, Best Buy must also set up a much more robust system for identifying recalled products and preventing them from being sold. This system will include an internal component of controls and procedures as well as an element that requires reporting information to the CPSC.

Best Buy’s experience serves as a cautionary tale for all retailers. The CPSC is growing increasingly vigilant about enforcing the CPSA, and that means that more companies are going to see large penalties being levied against them. It is more important than ever for retailers to understand the CPSA and to stay informed regarding current government and manufacturer recalls. Working with an experienced business attorney is one of the best ways to ensure compliance.

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One of the questions I hear frequently is about whether we are accepting new clients.

While the short answer is “Yes”, here is some additional information which many people find interesting.

Great%20Fit%20Gears%2039896521-001.jpgOur law firm, Sylvester Oppenheim & Linde is committed to client service and quality legal representation for each and every client. That means that we only accept clients who we feel are a good match for our expertise, experience and areas of practice.

I learned a long time ago that we can’t be all things to all clients, but we can be all things to some clients: and those are the ones we welcome and serve in an exemplary manner.

The purpose of this blog is to provide helpful information to anyone who reads it. On our website, you will find another example of our “Be of Service” attitude by reading our Home Page Article “Eleven Questions to ask BEFORE Hiring a Business Attorney“. You will also find a list of our practice areas on that page.

Our clients tell us that they appreciate our honesty, accessibility and guidance. And we appreciate our clients.

Back to the question. The answer is: “Yes, we are always looking for one or two new good clients.” If you have a legal issue, I invite you to call and let’s find out whether we are a great fit for each other. I can be reached at 818-461-8500 or via the Contact form on this page.

Richard Oppenheim

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With approximately 60,000 employees participating in its 401(k) program, Morgan Stanley should be positioned to offer an outstanding retirement investment package. However, a group of employees is now seeking class action status as they sue the investment firm for mismanagement of the company’s 401(k) plan.

Balance in digital background / A concept of technology law or tIn the complaint, plaintiff Robert Patterson alleges that Morgan Stanley only made poorly performing investments available in its 401(k) program. The suit argues that instead of abiding by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which states that employers have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of plan members, Morgan Stanley routinely chose to include some of its least successful funds in the company 401(k).For instance, the available mid-cap fund was Morgan Stanley’s own Institutional Mid-Cap Growth Fund. Investment advisory firm Morningstar, Inc., gave this fund the worst rating for investors who held an interest in the fund over a period of several years. The small-cap fund that Morgan Stanley offered to its employees fared even worse. It underperformed 99 percent of all similar funds in 2014, and its performance didn’t improve much in the subsequent year.

Moreover, the lawsuit claims that Morgan Stanley was charging outrageous fees. Patterson and his co-plaintiffs allege that Morgan Stanley was charging their employees considerably more than outside clients were being charged. In some cases, employees were charged twice the going rate for outside clients.

In the complaint, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that the company “selected their proprietary funds not based on their merits as investments, or because doing so was in the interest of plan participants, but because these products provided significant revenues and profits to Morgan Stanley.”

Other financial management firms like Edward Jones and Franklin Templeton have been hit with similar lawsuits in recent months. Several high-profile educational institutions like Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University have also been accused of similar mismanagement. With lawsuits like these on the rise, it is more important than ever before for employers to ensure that their 401(k) plans comply with ERISA and other applicable legislation.

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From outward appearances, the 56 campuses of the Marinello Schools of Beauty were profitable and successful. However, the Department of Education believed that school administrators had engaged in an ongoing and systematic program of misrepresentation that enabled the school to collect millions of dollars in federal financial aid. The schools have now been shuttered and a portion of the $11 million settlement is poised to be distributed among six whistleblowing employees while the remainder is being returned to the government.

WhistleblowerMarinello School of Beauty was founded in 1905. The school eventually boasted 39 locations in California with others found in Nevada, Utah, Connecticut and elsewhere. Programs offered included cosmetology, barbering and hair design. However, recent students knew that trouble was brewing. A Connecticut graduate received multiple notices from the school telling her that she owed several thousand dollars. She told the school that her tuition was supposed to be covered by federal aid, but to no avail. The school refused to release her transcripts so she cannot get a cosmetology license.

Her story is like many others, but it was a group of six former employees who brought the allegations of misdeeds to the federal government. They alleged that the schools did not provide adequate training. Moreover, they claimed that the school knowingly requested federal student aid for enrollees who did not have a diploma. Some of these students were maneuvered into a high school diploma completion program that was not accredited. Other students did not receive all of the federal funds that they were entitled to. Marinello was further accused of inflating its enrollment numbers, graduation rates and the earning potential of graduates.

The Department of Education withdrew federal financial support of the schools at the end of 2015, and the schools shuttered for good in February of the following year. The government will only be able to recoup a small portion of the many millions of dollars that had been distributed to the schools in the last year or two alone, but this case remains a cautionary tale for other institutions that receive aid from the federal government.

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Judge R. Gary Klausner has ruled that Led Zeppelin may not collect almost $800,000 in defense fees from the plaintiffs in a recent copyright lawsuit. Earlier, the copyright infringement case was settled in the band’s favor.

monumentThe lawsuit centered around the band’s most successful song, “Stairway to Heaven.” Songwriter and guitarist Randy Wolfe had long harbored suspicions that the better-known rockers had lifted the introduction of his 1968 instrumental composition “Taurus,” to be used in their hit. Wolfe passed away in 1997, but his trust filed the lawsuit in 2014. If the suit had been decided in the plaintiff’s favor, the trust might have received several million dollars. Estimates suggested that the song has generated more than $500 million thanks to its popularity.

The jury decided in Led Zeppelin’s favor. However, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant along with Warner/Chappell Music, the song’s publishing company, had expended considerable money in fighting the lawsuit. Once they prevailed, they decided that they were entitled to recoup those expenses from the unsuccessful plaintiff.

Ultimately, Judge Klausner found that the songwriters and publishing company were not entitled to legal fees and miscellaneous costs related to their defense because the initial lawsuit was not frivolous. The defendants contended that the lawsuit was merely an attempt to obtain easy money from famous musicians and that an award of legal fees to the defendants would discourage other potential plaintiffs from embarking on similar efforts.

The judge was not swayed by these arguments, stating that he had found sufficient validity in the lawsuit to allow it to go to trial. By definition, this meant that the suit could not be categorized as frivolous. Moreover, the judge asserted that there was no evidence suggesting that the Wolfe trustee had acted with “nefarious motives.”

The Led Zeppelin copyright infringement lawsuit contains many fascinating and instructive components. The most important of these may be how crucial it is to preserve and defend intellectual property rights. Whether you are an inventor or are being accused of profiting from someone’s else’s innovation, you need competent legal counsel to protect yourself.

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Most people think Snapchat is just a fun messaging app. They use it to send photos and videos that self-destruct seconds after being viewed. Snapchat also features an app that makes it possible to creatively alter photographs. Known as “Lenses,” this app is what makes it possible for the photo’s subject to sport floppy dog ears, hearts instead of eyes or a floral headband. Now, this capability is at the center of a potential class action lawsuit.

Magnified illustration with the word Social Media on white background.

Illinois residents Jose Martinez and Malcolm Neal filed a complaint in Los Angeles in May of 2016, arguing that Snapchat violated their state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act. The law is aimed at preventing biometric identifiers from falling into questionable hands and sprang from concerns about how the necessary technology used to collect biometric identifiers might be used without the user’s knowledge or permission.

The lawsuit contends that Snapchat is collecting and maintaining detailed biometric information on their customers. This is being done without the knowledge and consent of the users, which is contrary to Illinois’ law.

Snapchat categorically denies the allegations, arguing that their service is not capable of collecting complex biometric information that would allow them to identify the face of one user as opposed to another. Instead, they say that the technology involved is merely for object recognition, which makes it possible for the program to determine which objects in a photo are faces and where the eyes, nose and mouth are located. Moreover, Snapchat denies that they are in any way storing the data that is used in the Lenses app.

Snapchat is not the first social media platform to be sued over similar technology. Both Facebook and Google are facing legal battles relating to face-recognition software that automatically identifies particular people in photographs.

This lawsuit is only in its beginning stages. It was moved to the federal courts in July 2016, and Snapchat may be facing stiff fines if their software is determined to be guilty of violating Illinois’ law. This incident demonstrates the powerful need for businesses to understand the laws of states where they will be operating.

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Well-known clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has taken plenty of media heat thanks to its restrictive “look policy.” At one time, they dictated everything from the length of employees’ fingernails to the color of their hair. In addition, employees were required to purchase clothes from the retailer.

Lawsuit word breaking through red glass to illustrate legal action brought by a plantiff against a defendant in a court of law through opposing lawers or attorneys

Abercrombie & Fitch is now being sued for this aspect of their look policy. Judge Jesus Bernal recently ruled that a lawsuit that was originally filed by two former employees could move forward as a class action. The class could potentially have thousands of members, making this case much more significant, and possibly much more costly, if the plaintiffs prevail.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the store’s policy that required its approximately 62,000 employees to exclusively buy their work attire through the brand. The complaint, which was filed in California, notes that workers were expected to purchase clothes at least five times per year to coincide with the seasonal fashions found in the stores. Allegedly, all employees were given a “style booklet” outlining what they were supposed to buy and how it should be worn.

The complaint claims that this policy caused the hourly pay rate to fall below minimum wage. At the same time, the plaintiffs say that Abercrombie benefited from the policy. Although employees received a discount on their purchases, the retailer nonetheless made a substantial profit through requiring workers to shop there. Moreover, employees working on the sales floor were considered “models” who were displaying the store’s latest fashions. This enticed customers to spend more money to attain the same look that employees were wearing.

Abercrombie has already drawn fire for refusing to hire a Muslim female who needed to wear a hajib and for firing another worker who had a prosthetic arm. Their situation provides a helpful reminder for other employers that employee dress codes need to be well thought-out and reasonable. Most importantly, they should be in line with the law and all Constitutional rights. It is a wise idea to have an experienced attorney review a dress code policy to minimize the opportunities for litigation.

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Sometimes, the only appropriate way to respond to a lawsuit is by filing a countersuit. At least, that seems to be the philosophy of Groupon, Inc. The story began a few months ago when International Business Machines, better known as IBM, filed a lawsuit against Groupon. IBM claimed that Groupon, which is an e-commerce marketplace that connects subscribers with merchants in their local area, infringed four of its patents.

Balance in digital background / A concept of technology law or tIBM claimed that at least two patents that are related to its late-1980s telecommunications service Prodigy are clearly infringed by the technology upon which Groupon bases its services. In their complaint, IBM asserts that they deserve compensation from Groupon for the newer company’s use of IBM’s patented technology. An IBM spokesperson notes, “Over the past three years, IBM has attempted to conclude a fair and reasonable patent license agreement with Groupon.” Frustrated in these efforts, IBM filed a lawsuit in Delaware where the company is organized.

Groupon chose to file a countersuit in Illinois, where it has its home base in Chicago. Among other charges in the complaint, Groupon skewers IBM as a “relic of once-great 20th Century technology firms.” Moreover, Groupon asserts that the technology giant “has now resorted to usurping the intellectual property of companies born this millennium.” A spokesperson from Groupon said in an emailed statement to journalists that: “Unfortunately, IBM is trying to shed its status as a dial-up-era dinosaur by infringing on the intellectual property rights of current technology companies, like Groupon.”

Groupon alleges in its countersuit that IBM actually infringes its patented technology with its WebSphere Commerce software. Merchants can use WebSphere to track customer orders and sales as well as offer special deals and pricing based on the customer’s current geographic location. Groupon insists that much of this technology has already been patented by them, which entitles them to royalties from the “billions of dollars in revenue that IBM has received” from their unfair use of Groupon’s technology.

The outcome of these cases remains pending, but the situation highlights the need to protect intellectual property and perform appropriate due diligence before developing new technology.

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Fireworks%2039914849-001.jpgThe team at Sylvester, Oppenheim & Linde and the California Business Litigation blog  wish all of our clients, friends, business associates and blog readers a very safe and extremely fun 4th of July Holiday!

In observance of Independence Day our office will be closed Monday July 4th.

Enjoy your holiday, stay cool and keep your pets indoors!

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Megan Messina, a 42 year-old executive at Bank of America, is suing her employer for gender discrimination and whistleblower retaliation. The complaint was filed in a Manhattan federal court in May of 2016.

Gender%20Discrimination%20105366239-001.jpgMessina began working at Bank of America in 2007. Before that, she spent a decade at Salomon Smith Barney. Her education and experience enabled her to attain a position as the co-head of the structured credit products division. The complaint alleges that Messina was treated unfairly by Bank of America from the beginning of her employment. In particular, her complaint outlines the interview she had with her supervisor when she was promoted to her current position.

She alleges that the supervisor asked her questions about the color of her eyes and whether or not she dyed her hair during the meeting. Moreover, Messina points out that while her male co-head met with the supervisor up to three times a day, she met with him exactly twice in her entire tenure. The complaint also argues that Messina was not included in important department emails and meetings, despite the fact that surveys showed she was outperforming many of her male co-workers.

Messina compares her own pay to that of her departmental co-workers, all of whom are male. In particular, she notes her $1.5 million 2015 bonus, comparing it to the $5.5 million received by the male co-head of her department. The complaint also details several department business deals that may have run afoul of the law. When Messina brought these matters to the attention of supervisors, she was essentially told not to rock the boat. Ultimately, she was forced by the bank to take a leave of absence.

Messina’s case illustrates important points that employers must be aware of. It’s sensible to treat all allegations of wrongdoing seriously. Moreover, it’s important to be proactive when it comes to matters of equal treatment and compensation. Doing so can prevent an employer from occupying a similar position to the one in which Bank of America now finds itself.
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