Articles Posted in Business Litigation

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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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Does a company have the right to use someone’s image without their permission? That question is central to a new lawsuit. While the lawsuit’s merit remains undetermined, it is stirring up negative publicity for the company. Entrepreneurs who are starting an ad campaign may want to consult with an experienced business attorney to avoid finding themselves in a similar situation.

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Plaintiff Leah Caldwell filed her lawsuit against Chipotle Mexican Grill. The complaint names Steve Ells, the company’s founder and CEO, as a defendant as well as a photographer named Steve Adams.

Caldwell alleges in her complaint that her photograph was taken without her knowledge while she ate in a Chipotle restaurant in Denver during the summer of 2006. She recalls that the restaurant was virtually empty, and she also states that she did not see any cameras or notices of a photo shoot being underway. Nevertheless, as she left the restaurant, she alleges that Adams approached her and asked if she would sign a release for the use of her image. Caldwell refused.

Caldwell was in Orlando in December 2014 when she visited another Chipotle location, only to see her image displayed. In her complaint, she says that the image was digitally altered, most notably by including bottles of alcohol in her vicinity. A few months later, she visited two other Chipotle locations in California, only to see her picture yet again.

She responded by filing the lawsuit, claiming that Chipotle did not have the right to use her image in their marketing campaign. Caldwell is representing herself in the case, and she has asked for a settlement of more than two billion dollars, the amount which she says the restaurant chain earned as a result of the use of her unauthorized photo.

Chipotle has not commented publicly on the suit, and much investigation will be required to determine whether or not Caldwell’s rights were violated and if so, how much money she may be entitled to. Speaking with a qualified business attorney is the best way to avoid legal pitfalls when it comes to using or designing marketing materials.

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A screenwriter/producer is suing The Walt Disney Company over its award-winning animated film “Zootopia.” The writer claims that the entertainment giant stole his idea after he pitched it to studio executives in 2000 and 2009.

Copyright-Law-135827413-001Gary Goldman, whose many credits include writing the script for “Total Recall” and acting as an executive producer for “Minority Report,” filed the lawsuit in March 2017. Goldman asserts that he produced a treatment in 2000 that dealt with “an animated cartoon world that metaphorically explores life in America through … anthropomorphic animals.” His treatment included a human cartoonist who creates the world of the anthropomorphic animals, which would be called Zootopia. The title of the project was “Looney.”

Goldman says he pitched his idea to a Disney executive in 2000, but that the studio passed on the project. The subject came up again in 2009, this time with Goldman providing executives with a more developed treatment that included illustrations and descriptions of characters. Disney said the project would be considered, but Goldman alleges that they never contacted him. Shortly afterward, Disney appeared to be developing a Zootopia project of their own.

The plaintiff in this case appears to have done almost everything right. He registered the original treatment with the Writer’s Guild to protect ownership of the source material. However, current media reports do not disclose whether or not he took further steps to protect his rights, like asking Disney executives to sign a legally-binding agreement before showing them any intellectual property.

The question of whether Disney “stole” or was at least “inspired by” Goldman’s ideas remains unanswered at this time. Comparing the character illustrations commissioned by Goldman with the final look of the characters in the completed film does show some similarities. However, this is not necessarily enough to convince a judge that Disney borrowed someone else’s ideas. After all, anthropomorphic animals confronting human issues in a cartoon world is hardly a concept that hasn’t been explored in detail before Zootopia.

Companies and individuals that want to protect valuable intellectual property are encouraged to consult with legal counsel before sharing their ideas.

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A Workers’ Compensation claim made by a woman who lost part of her leg at work has been upheld by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The decision comes after her employer, Starr Aviation, disagreed with the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, which ruled that the worker was entitled to compensation.

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Modesty Colquitt was driving a luggage transporter at the Pittsburgh Airport in September 2014 when the accident occurred. The transporter overturned, pinning Colquitt’s left leg beneath it. She was taken to the hospital, where her left leg was amputated below the knee.

The case seems cut-and-dried. However, there are additional facts that are worthy of consideration. Starr Aviation argued that Colquitt was not performing her job duties when the she was driving the transport. Colquitt had forgotten her wallet and feminine hygiene products on that day. Knowing that she would need lunch and the feminine hygiene products during her shift, she called her mother to bring them to her. Colquitt obtained permission from her supervisor to take the transport to meet her mother, which is when the accident occurred.

Both the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and the court relied on the “personal comfort doctrine,” a rule of law which stipulates that a worker is still “on-the-job” if they temporarily leave to take medication, use the restroom or complete other small tasks that make it possible for them to perform their job. In essence, the judges felt that Colquitt would have been adversely affected by not having her wallet and the required feminine hygiene products. She simply would not have been able to perform as effectively if she did not have lunch or access to appropriate feminine hygiene products.

This decision comes despite the testimony of co-workers who offered her crackers and pointed out that feminine products were available in the restroom. However, the judge found that this testimony related to “collateral issues” rather than whether or not compensation could be claimed.

Work Injury claims are almost always complicated. This is why it is imperative for California employers to work with experienced attorneys who can offer valuable guidance and advice.  If you have any questions about business litigation or work injuries feel free to contact me, Rich Oppenheim at 818-461-8500 or use the “Contact” option in the right column.

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Technology giant IBM is on the receiving end of a lawsuit by the State of Pennsylvania. The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the Department of Labor and Industry, is in response to what the government says is a failed update to its outmoded unemployment compensation system.

Computer-bug-63136248-001The story began in 2006 when the State of Pennsylvania and IBM signed a $109.9 million contract. According to the agreement, IBM was going to overhaul the state’s system for distributing unemployment compensation and collecting unemployment insurance taxes. The Department of Labor was using systems that were outdated and consisted of several programs that were not compatible. IBM was supposed to replace this with a streamlined substitute that would be more efficient and cost-effective in the long run.

A completion date of February 2010 was established by the contract. However, that deadline came and went without a working system being installed at the Department of Labor. Various delays stretched the deadline out to September of 2013, by which time the state had paid $60 million in excess of the agreed-upon sum. The government alleges that even after numerous delays and the extra payments, the computer system at the Department of Labor had still not been updated.

Both sides assert numerous reasons why the project was not completed as agreed upon. Turnover at IBM, and the re-assignment of various employees, caused delays, miscommunication and complications. IBM argues that at least some of the fault lies with the government, citing their failure to appoint personnel to manage the project.

It is safe to say that this case will not be resolved quickly or easily, considering the amount of money and the reputations that are at stake. However, this situation provides a useful reminder of how imperative it is for governments, companies and individuals to be exceptionally cautious when it comes to signing contracts. A well-drafted agreement is the key to a successful project, while one that is poorly written merely opens the door to numerous costly legal battles. Accordingly, it is wise to have all contracts reviewed by a business attorney before signing on the dotted line.

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Charges filed by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer have put an abrupt end to operations for numerous acting workshops. Feuer leveled accusations against five workshop companies, claiming that they operated in violation of a 2009 law known as the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act.

Stage-Door-123374603-001At any given time, Hollywood is home to thousands of aspiring actors who are desperate to break into show business. It’s hard for these young artists to gain the attention of casting directors who offer parts in movies and television shows, especially when the actors don’t have a top agent working for them. Workshops run by defendants like the Actor’s Key, the Actor’s Link and Studio Productions purport to offer educational classes that allow actors to essentially audition for casting directors. The trouble, as Feuer sees it, is that the workshops charge the actors for their participation. Under the definitions of the Krekorian law, this essentially is a pay-to-play scam in which the actors must submit a fee in order to audition.

Feuer filed charges against a total of five workshop companies, including nearly two dozen individuals, on February 9. Just five days later, one of the most popular and prolific of these workshops, the Actor’s Key, ceased operations and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Owners Kristen Caldwell and Katherine Shaw, along with workshop manager Jessica Gardner, are all named in Feuer’s charges. In a statement given to the Hollywood Reporter, the principals of the Acting Key said, “… we have found that there is no realistic alternative to closing the business, and commencing bankruptcy proceedings … .” Additionally, they claim that they have been listing upcoming workshops as “full” for the last several weeks in anticipation of the closure and the charges filed by the city.

Caldwell, Shaw, Gardner and the other defendants are scheduled for arraignment on numerous charges in March. Penalties may include one year in jail and fines of $10,000. Given the high stakes involved, it is clear that understanding all relevant facets of the law is crucial for business owners. Working with a reputable business attorney is the best way to ensure compliance.

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It’s not unusual for litigation to require months or years before settlement. Even then, it does not necessarily follow that anyone will receive timely compensation. That is where companies like RD Legal Funding step in.

Funding-61101867-001RD Legal Funding is a New Jersey company that was founded by Roni Dersovitz. Their business involves advancing money to plaintiffs who are entitled to settlement money. RD Legal provides the plaintiff with money, which the plaintiff later pays back, with interest, when they receive their settlement. There is nothing inherently wrong with this business model. In fact, numerous companies provide similar services across the U.S.

However, a lawsuit has been filed against RD Legal by the New York Attorney General and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Among the allegations leveled in the complaint, RD Legal is accused of scamming 9/11 first responders and former NFL players who are suffering the after effects of multiple concussions. The CFPB and the Attorney General claim that the contracts given to clients of RD Legal were confusing and inaccurate. What’s more, many people who accepted the deals offered by the New Jersey company ended up paying interest in excess of 250 percent, which would be a clear violation of state usury laws.

The case of former NYPD Officer Elmer Santiago is one example. After serving as a 9/11 first responder, Santiago was declared disabled because of an associated respiratory illness. He was awarded a $3.9 million settlement in 2014 that was scheduled to be paid to him within 18 months. RD Legal offered to advance him $355,000 at 19 percent interest. However, when he received his settlement money, RD demanded payment in the amount of $860,000, which was apparently in excess of the contract terms.

Dozens of similar situations are detailed in the lawsuit. RD Legal Funding maintains that it has done nothing wrong while CFPB Director Richard Cordray alleges that the company is part of an “illegal scheme.”

This lawsuit is far from concluded, but it is a helpful reminder for companies to review their policies to ensure compliance with all state and federal laws.

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A December 2016 decision reached by an Administrative Law Judge in New Jersey may have implications for employers in other states where medical marijuana is legal. With the current trend toward legalization of marijuana, it’s only logical for entrepreneurs to consult with attorneys about how these laws might affect them.

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The current case involved Andrew Watson, a lumber company employee who injured his hand on-the-job. Initially, Watson’s doctors prescribed Percocet to manage his chronic pain. His doctor then recommended that he try medical marijuana. Watson legally purchased medical marijuana, and submitted a claim to his employer’s worker’s compensation insurance. An ounce of medical marijuana costs an average of $489 in New Jersey, which is one of the most expensive prices in the U.S. The insurer refused compensation.

Nonetheless, Watson found that the marijuana helped manage his chronic pain effectively and with fewer side effects than the opiates. He took his case to court so that he could continue with the treatment and have the expenses reimbursed by his employer’s worker’s compensation coverage.

After considering the situation, Judge Ingrid French ruled that Watson’s use of medical marijuana is appropriate and that the insurer should pay for the associated expenses. She notes in her decision that “the effects of the marijuana … is not as debilitating as the effects of the Percocet.” Additionally, French found that Watson had “achieved a greater level of functionality,” because of the medical marijuana use and that “his approach to his pain management needs (is) cautious, mature …”

She went on to say that whether or not medicinal marijuana is used is a matter that should be reserved for doctors and patients in states where its use is legal. While some employers expressed concern over the outcome, others say that it likely will not affect them. That’s because the requirements for qualifying for medical marijuana are so stringent in New Jersey. This, coupled with the relatively limited chances of a worker also qualifying for a worker’s compensation claim, keeps them optimistic.

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U.S. District Judge Susan Illston has ruled that Walmart truck drivers are not entitled to an additional $80 million in a class action lawsuit settlement. The complaint was filed in 2008 with hundreds of California truck drivers claiming that they did not receive at least minimum wage for performing certain tasks. Although the judge denied the plaintiffs’ claim to the $80 million, Walmart will still have to abide by the initial $54 million settlement that was awarded in an earlier jury decision.

walmart-truckclose-up-side-view_129821854433586541-001Walmart asserts that its truck drivers are among the best paid in the industry, with many of them earning between $80,000 and $100,000 per year. Moreover, their attrition rate is low, and the judge commended them for taking rapid action to comply with evolving compensation laws. The drivers argued in their lawsuit that their employer compensated them only based upon miles driven and specific activities rather than hours worked, which constituted a violation of state law. Accordingly, the drivers claimed that they did not receive adequate compensation for tasks like washing and inspecting trucks. They further argued that they were not appropriately paid for mandatory 10-minute breaks and 10-hour layovers.

In November 2016, a jury of seven agreed with the drivers, awarding them approximately $54 million in back pay. This latest decision came in response to the plaintiffs’ request for an additional $5.8 million for restitution, $54.6 million in liquidated damages and $25.6 million in penalties. The judge went along with the request for $5.8 million in restitution, but denied the other claims, saying that there is not sufficient evidence that Walmart acted in bad faith or with “dishonest and wrongful motive.”

It’s possible that Walmart may still appeal the decisions by the judge and the jury. However, they scrapped their former driver-compensation package in 2015 in favor of a new one that is in compliance with California law. Because compensation laws change periodically, it is only sensible for all business owners to have their compensation practices reviewed by an employment attorney on a regular basis. This may prevent a company from finding itself involved in a similar class action lawsuit.

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Ownership of some of the most well-known Beatles songs has been on a tortuous path for decades. Sir Paul McCartney, a former Beatle and writer or co-writer of many of the group’s biggest hits, is taking legal action to reclaim the rights to his creations. It’s an ongoing odyssey with no end in sight.

Beatles-Imagine-2902823-001McCartney is the author of many famous Beatles songs. Sometimes collaborating with John Lennon, he wrote tunes like “Love Me Do” and “Yesterday.” However, the rights to those songs were often immediately signed away. Most of the rights were lost between 1962 and 1971. Various publishers snapped up the rights, but by the 1980s, publisher ATV owned most of them. When an Australian businessman who owned a controlling share in the songs put them up for sale in 1984, Michael Jackson notoriously outbid Paul McCartney to become the owner of the Beatles’ catalog.

In fact, Jackson and Sony formed Sony/ATV, with the Beatles’ works being among the company’s major assets. The Jackson family sold their share of the company to Sony after Michael Jackson’s 2009 death. Now that Sony/ATV can claim sole ownership, McCartney is suing them to regain ownership of his work.

The lawsuit, which was filed in New York, is based on a facet of the 1976 Copyright Act, which stipulates that any creative works made prior to 1978 be returned after 56 years to their originators. McCartney’s filing is timely considering that he and Lennon first began writing together in 1962, precisely 56 years before 2018. Accordingly, a court could decide that McCartney may reclaim the lucrative rights to his songs as early as next year.

McCartney has been trying to reclaim those rights for many years. Thus far, Sony/ATV is unwilling to accommodate his request. They cite a long-term relationship with McCartney, and express disappointment that the musician filed the lawsuit, which they call unnecessary and premature.

The battle over the rights to the Beatles’ catalog is likely to continue for many years, which only highlights the need for individuals and companies to protect their intellectual property rights.