Articles Posted in Business Litigation

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Patent trolls may find it harder to do business thanks to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. That is good news for any business or entrepreneur who has ever been the subject of a frivolous patent infringement lawsuit. However, the decision also may make it more difficult to pursue legitimate infringement complaints.

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Companies that function as patent trolls make a practice of buying up patents merely for the purpose of suing large companies for infringement. They don’t make a product, nor do they provide a service. They earn a “profit” by collecting settlements from businesses that want to avoid the time and expense of a lengthy lawsuit.

Formerly, patent trolls could file complaints in any court district that they felt would be most advantageous to them. The Eastern District of Texas, in particular, is considered friendly toward such lawsuits. Most of the cases were decided quickly in favor of the patent owner, resulting in large settlements. In fact, the favorable climate for filing infringement lawsuits in the area became something of a cottage industry. One hotel in Marshall, Texas even purchased an account with the U.S. District Court’s online database to improve their appeal to visiting lawyers.

Under this model, the company being sued didn’t have to be located or associated with Texas in any way, forcing representatives to travel to defend themselves. This new decision by the Supreme Court changes that as it requires that patent infringement lawsuits be filed in the state in which the defendant is incorporated.

The decision was rendered on a case involving TC Heartland, an Indiana company that was being sued for patent infringement by Kraft Heinz in Delaware. Counsel for TC Heartland argued that they shouldn’t have to be sued in Delaware, and the Supreme Court ultimately agreed. While this decision is likely to slow down patent trolls, it also may make things more difficult for entrepreneurs who want to assert their patent rights against an organization in another state.

Anyone who is being sued for patent infringement or believes that their rights are being infringed, needs to retain intellectual property counsel.

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The one-time owner of a successful car dealership group in California has been awarded more than $256 million by a jury. Mike Kahn, who ran the Superior Automotive Group with dealerships in LA and San Francisco, fought Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp. for eight years before achieving this judgment. NMAC is the financing arm of the Nissan company, and its representatives say that they plan to appeal this verdict.

1504001-Gavel-Money-2During the financial crash of 2008-2010, many new-car dealerships were struggling. Superior’s were among these, but this wasn’t always the case. Nissan had recognized Superior as one of the top three dealership groups in the world prior to 2008. The company had sold more than $1 billion of inventory in the period between 2001 and 2008. That all changed with the economic downturn. Suddenly, consumers weren’t buying cars.

Typically, car dealerships finance the purchase of new cars through an organization like NMAC. The loan on the car is frequently paid back when the car is sold to a consumer. However, with cars not moving, dealerships everywhere were defaulting on these loans. Mike Kahn’s dealerships were among these. He reached out to NMAC, asking for them to not default him on his outstanding loans. The company agreed, and then proceeded with a default anyway.

Kahn sold one of his dealerships to cover some of what he owed to NMAC, but it wasn’t enough. More than 800 employees were put out of work when all seven dealerships had to close, and NMAC sued Kahn for an additional $40 million while also seizing all of his personal and business assets. A relationship that once thrived was now deeply contentious.

Kahn countersued and eventually prevailed after nearly a decade of litigation. A jury awarded him compensatory and punitive damages in what appears to be an indictment of large corporations deliberately putting local companies on the chopping block. NMAC plans to appeal the decision, so this saga is not over yet. Nonetheless, this is an apt demonstration of how an excellent partnership can quickly go wrong, making the requirement for careful planning and good contracts a necessity.

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A former teacher in Illinois has prevailed over his erstwhile employer in court. Bruce Vukadinovich sued the Hanover Community School Corp. for age discrimination, retaliation and violation of due process. Although the court rejected the discrimination and retaliation claims, Vukadinovich was awarded more than $200,000 for the due process claim.

you-are-firedThe story began years ago in a different school district. Back then, Vukadinovich was working for Hammond Schools when he filed a lawsuit against his employer for age discrimination. That lawsuit was settled, and the plaintiff went on to Hanover Central High School. He worked there for eight years until his contract was terminated in a workforce reduction. Vukadinovich sought answers from the district about why he was fired, but couldn’t get a straight answer. That’s when he filed the lawsuit against the Hanover Community School Corp.

The wrinkle is that a school district official who worked for Hammond Schools when Vukadinovich sued that district had recently transferred over to the Hanover Community School Corp. Vukadinovich believed that his firing was an act of retaliation over his earlier successful suit against Hammond Schools.

Several years of litigation followed, with Vukadinovich representing himself against his former employer. A jury and a judge ultimately agreed with the plaintiff that he was denied due process. In his decision, Judge Philip Simon wrote: “To put it bluntly, after several years of presiding over this litigation, including a five day jury trial, I cannot tell you why Vukadinovich was terminated.” The judge went on to say that the jury sympathized with Vukadinovich’s desire to receive a “straight-forward explanation” for his firing.

The judge also took issue with the school district’s claim that they didn’t tell Vukadinovich why he was terminated because he didn’t ask. Arguing that the situation was “not a game of ‘Guess the Reason You’re Being Fired,'” Simon pointed out that the reason should have been disclosed up front so that Vukadinovich could have defended himself.

This case demonstrates the importance of keeping documentation citing all of the reasons for an adverse employment action. Doing so may prevent a lawsuit from being filed.

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The embattled Fox News network now has another lawsuit to add to its list of legal woes. Employee Diana Falzone has filed a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court. In her complaint, she charges her employer with discrimination on the basis of gender and disability.

Gender-Discrimination-105366239-001Falzone was employed as a host of programming on FoxNews.com. In January 2017, she published an article that chronicled her battle with endometriosis. This difficult condition affects millions of women across the U.S. Falzone wrote and published the article at the encouragement of the medical team that treats her, feeling that sharing the story of her struggle might provide support to other women with the condition.

Falzone alleges in her complaint that her employer knew about and approved the article prior to its publication. However, three days after publishing her article, Falzone was called in to talk to her supervisor. He told her that senior Fox executives had ordered him to tell her that she would never again host her own shows and that she was no longer permitted to appear on FoxNews.com. Additionally, senior executives forbade her from conducting interviews, appearing on the Fox television network and doing voiceover work for the station.

Falzone alleges that she demanded to know several times why her activities were being restricted, but never received a cogent answer. A formal discrimination complaint filed through the 21st Century Fox hotline did not yield results. That was when Falzone hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit.

Falzone contends that Fox executives believed that the public disclosure of her illness “detracted from her sex appeal and made her less desirable,” thus leading them to ban her from maintaining her public role with the network.

Fox News has made headlines several times over the last year, mostly with regard to various discrimination and harassment lawsuits as well as the ouster of network chief Roger Ailes. Though their example may seem a bit extreme, it still serves as a crucial reminder to organizations in all industries to ensure that they are complying with all laws related to workplace discrimination and harassment.

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In general, most employers are happy to grant reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This does not mean that there aren’t limits to which an employer is willing to go. What’s more, employers are by no means obligated to grant every request for ADA accommodation that they receive.

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As an example, consider the case of a librarian employed at Florida Atlantic University. The librarian had suffered from epileptic seizures since childhood, and she had long known that stress aggravated her condition. In an EEOC claim and a lawsuit that she eventually filed against her employer, she asserted that the university had failed to acquiesce in her requests for reasonable workplace accommodations. It seemed that the librarian thoroughly disliked her supervisor’s management style, and that the stress she suffered on the job caused her to have more frequent seizures.

Although her employer accommodated some of her requests, such as ensuring that there were no sharp corners in her cubicle, they declined to grant other requests. They denied requests related to the “rough or harsh” treatment that she alleged came from her supervisor. She demanded that he be ordered to cease the “series of hostile confrontations,” which she said that he repeatedly used with her and that the university find a way to “sensitize” him to the needs of women with epilepsy.

The university did not feel compelled to grant the requests that they believed were vague and difficult to define, and the courts agreed with them. In testimony, the plaintiff could not cite specific instances of confrontational behavior. Moreover, the court argued that it was not the responsibility of the employer to provide a work environment that was free of stress, and that it was not possible for the plaintiff to “immunize herself from stress and criticism.”

This outcome demonstrates that employers are well within their rights to refuse requests for accommodations under ADA when they are not specific and reasonable. Nonetheless, it is crucial that all such requests be thoroughly investigated, preferably under the guidance of legal counsel, to ensure that a legitimate request is not ignored.

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Getting a high-profile celebrity to endorse a product or service can be a major coup. After all, in a society that emulates famous personalities, what could be more desirable than an A-list star saying that they use a company’s wares?

Reputation-Management-105888720-001While celebrities are public personalities, this does not necessarily mean that their images can be used for a marketing campaign without their permission. Traditionally, lawsuits have sprung up around campaigns that utilized the voice or image of a famous person without their consent. These campaigns were problematic because they caused the public to believe that the celebrity was endorsing the product.

While those kinds of lawsuits still occur, a recent lawsuit that Sofia Vergara settled against Venus Concept highlights a new wrinkle in this area of law. The trouble began in 2014 when Vergara posted a photo to her WhoSay account. Vergara was undergoing a massage using a Venus machine. Venus Concept learned of the image and subsequently used it on their social media accounts, claiming that Vergara “loved” the treatments.

Unfortunately, Vergara contends that she found the treatments a waste of time and money, and that she had no intention of starring in a campaign for the company. Arguing that she had been paid $15 million for other endorsements, Vergara sued Venus Concept for that amount, which would approximate the money she would have received if she had agreed to endorse the product.

The early settlement of the suit suggests that Venus Concept backed off fairly quickly. However, their legal troubles were probably completely unexpected. It’s easy to imagine that executives at the company were eager to promote their brand and an apparent association with an A-list television star. They made the mistake of not even asking for permission to re-use Vergara’s image, let alone negotiating a deal that might have been mutually beneficial.

While it is exceptionally easy to re-post the social media commentary of others, it is not always a good idea to do so without seeking their permission. This is particularly true with high-profile personalities. When in doubt, it is always best to seek legal counsel.

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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.