Articles Posted in Complex Business Litigation

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The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, is designed to protect the interests of employees who are benefit plan participants. It does this by guarding retirement savings plans from mismanagement. ERISA also ensures that the individuals who are charged with overseeing the plan act in the best interests of the participants.

ERISA-206785026_XS-e1565728450304However, some of these plans are exempted from ERISA oversight. This includes so-called “church plans.” Under this exemption, employee benefit plans for church employees are not subject to ERISA’s minimum standards. However, it isn’t always entirely clear which plans are exempted and which are not. This is true of hospitals that are associated with a religion.

Dignity Health is a healthcare conglomerate that operates in numerous states. It administrates the Dignity Health Pension Plan for its 80,000 employees. Moreover, Dignity Health is associated with the Catholic Church.

Starla Rollins was employed by Dignity from 1986 to 2012, during which time she participated in the Dignity Plan. Rollins and other plan participants sued Dignity under ERISA because it was underfunded. When the complaint was filed, the plan had only enough assets to pay 75 percent of their obligations.

Dignity Health is arguing that their plan isn’t subject to ERISA oversight because it is a church plan. Over the last several years, the Catholic Church has taken over multiple hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Catholic hospitals earn billions of dollars in revenue each year and also receive billions in taxpayer dollars.

However, it is unclear whether or not employees of Dignity Health actually qualify as church employees. Instead, the plaintiffs are arguing that they are the secular employees of a secular health care organization that provides its services through the distant oversight of the Catholic Church.

Rollins’ lawsuit raises a Constitutional objection to the exemption for church plans. This is because Dignity Health has chosen to compete in an industry with other commercial businesses. Thanks to the exemption, Dignity does not have to meet certain costly legal requirements. The outcome of this case may change the way these exemptions are applied to other hospital organizations that are affiliated with religions.

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Women who participated in a massive, decade-long legal battle against the makers of mesh implants are now suing the attorneys who helped them to obtain settlements in those cases.

on-brass-scale-32746330-001The women accuse their former lawyers of unjustly enriching themselves by charging attorneys’ fees that amount to 44 percent of the settlements rather than the 33 percent limit that’s imposed by state law. In another case, women accuse their former attorneys of stretching themselves too thin to provide adequate representation. They claim that court filing deadlines were missed, making it necessary for them to settle with the makers of the pelvic mesh out of court. Those settlements were far less substantial than the ones obtained through litigation.

Each of these suits, which were filed in New Jersey and Texas, is being brought against personal injury firms. Among the claims are negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. This follows on the heels of one of the largest tort cases in American history.

The pelvic mesh lawsuits were brought against half-a-dozen medical manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific. In excess of 100,000 plaintiffs have participated in such lawsuits, stemming from the implantation of pelvic mesh, a treatment that is supposed to treat pelvic prolapse.

However, women who underwent the surgery suffered side effects like painful sex, bleeding and uncontrollable urination. The manufacturers agreed to pay billions of dollars in settlements and to stop making the pelvic mesh.

Despite being awarded decisions and settlements worth millions or billions of dollars, many of the plaintiffs in these cases were only promised about $60,000 before legal fees and costs, an amount that they say is not enough to cover their ongoing medical expenses.

While defendants in the new lawsuit have called it “pure nonsense,” attorneys for the plaintiffs say that meeting deadlines for court filings is a basic responsibility of every lawyer. Some legal experts note that the new litigation may even shine a helpful light on a process that gets little oversight from the courts: Administering settlements in mass tort cases to ensure that the process is conducted in accordance with the law.

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When a new mother returns to the workplace, certain sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, continue to grant her special protections. Employers that fail to observe these protections may find themselves subject to a costly lawsuit.

Legal-Fees-PaidSuch is the case with the City of Tucson. A recent federal trial court jury’s decision found in favor of a plaintiff to the tune of $3.8 million. The plaintiff, Carrie Clark, was employed by the City of Tucson as a paramedic. Upon returning from maternity leave, Clark needed to be able to express breast milk throughout the day. However, the city assigned her to fire stations that lacked appropriate facilities for meeting this need.

Under Section 7(r) of the FLSA, employers are required to provide break time for nursing mothers to express breast milk. This accommodation must be made for up to a period of one year after the child’s birth. Moreover, employers are required to provide a private, hygienic place, which is not a bathroom, in which the mother can express breast milk away from curious eyes.

The law does not require that employers pay employees for this break time. However, if compensation is provided for such break periods, then it must be paid to the worker.

Section 7(r) is not the most well-known component of the FLSA. Nonetheless, the City of Tucson may now be wishing that they had been more aware of their responsibilities under the law. The jury found that the city appeared to exacerbate the situation by retaliating against Clark when she made repeated requests for adequate accommodations for expressing breast milk.

The April 2019 jury decision found in favor of the plaintiff on all counts. According to the decision, Clark was discriminated against for a pregnancy-related condition. Additionally, because her employer required her to take leave so that she could express breast milk in private and punished her for allegedly “not being in harmony with others,” Clark was awarded further damages.

This case is a stark reminder for employers everywhere to be aware of all facets of FLSA, discrimination and anti-retaliation laws.

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Mike Hestrin, a district attorney in Riverside County, California, recently filed a civil lawsuit against two law firms and at least five individuals. The lawsuit claims that the defendants violated the state’s unfair competition laws by pursuing dozens of lawsuits against businesses within the county.

ADA-138029727-001In the complaint, the plaintiffs detail a “shakedown” in which the attorneys and a plaintiff who is not an attorney pursued more than 100 lawsuits against small business owners in Riverside County. Each lawsuit accused the defendant of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. According to the district attorney, the lawyers targeted certain small businesses, making misrepresentations in court filings that were designed to elicit a financial settlement from the defendants.

The defendants in the new Riverside County lawsuit include attorneys Babak Hashemi, Joseph Manning Jr., Michael Manning and Craig Cote. James Rutherford, who served as the plaintiff in many of the ADA lawsuits, also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. In fact, court records indicate that Rutherford has been named as a plaintiff in at least 200 separate ADA-related lawsuits. These civil actions have been filed against small businesses and individuals in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Orange counties.

Defense attorney David Darnell has taken on representation of the defendants in the district attorney’s action. He says that the lawsuit “is completely misguided and without any merit.” Moreover, he argues that “those corporations that were sued did violate the act, and they settled or tried to settle the cases.”

The district attorney’s office states that it “fully supports accessibility rights for disabled persons” and that “the ADA laws are designed to help and protect disabled persons.” However, the office argues that the defendants in the lawsuit acted for the “purpose of illegitimate financial gain” rather than a disinterested effort to ensure compliance with the ADA.

Darnell argues that the district attorney’s case “is an attack on the ADA” because “this is a law they don’t like.” Moreover, he believes that “a reasonable judge” will immediately see their point of view and decide the case in their favor.

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A recent decision by the Supreme Court of California declares that workers don’t have the right to sue a payroll company with which their employer has a contract. This ruling is a reversal of a decision in a lower court. If that decision had been affirmed, employees would have been empowered to sue payroll companies for tort and breach of contract claims.

Timeclock-45269690-001The case was Goonewardene v. ADP. Plaintiff Sharmalee Goonewardene sued her employer over unpaid wages. Later, her complaint was amended to include Automatic Data Processing, or ADP, which has a contract with her employer for payroll services. Goonewardene alleged that ADP had violated wage orders and the California Labor Code, effectively asserting that she was a joint employee of her employer and ADP.

Goonewardene accused ADP of negligent misrepresentation, professional negligence and breach of contract. However, a trial court dismissed these claims. Goonewardene appealed, and the appeals court decided that she didn’t have the right to sue ADP under the California Labor Code. Nonetheless, the court found that she could sue ADP for other claims such as breach of contract and negligence because she was a third-party beneficiary of the contract between her workplace and ADP. This appeals court opinion made it possible for workers across the state to jointly sue their employer and their employer’s payroll processor.

The Supreme Court of California was called upon to review the case. This court disagreed that the plaintiff was a third-party beneficiary of the contract. The decision was based on the theory that any employer’s agreement with a company like ADP is for their benefit rather than the benefit of employees. Moreover, imposing liability on a payroll services company was judged to be against the expectation of the two parties to the contract.

With this Supreme Court decision, it is clear that a payroll company is not a joint employer with its clients, nor does such a company owe a duty of care to the employees of clients. This is likely to minimize the number of lawsuits that would have proliferated if the appeals court decision had been sustained.

If you are an California employer or business owner with questions about any legal issue feel free to contact me, attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500 or via the Contact form on this page.

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A “Charge of Discrimination” filed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development against Facebook is making waves. In the Charge, HUD accuses that Facebook “unlawfully discriminates based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability” when it comes to advertisements for housing.  The document can be viewed HERE.

https://www.californiabusinesslitigation.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/283/2016/05/http.www-51883498-001.jpgThrough Facebook’s ad platform, advertisers are able to target users of the social media service who are most likely to be interested in their goods and services. HUD says that these practices may violate the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson argues: “Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live.” Calling the practice “as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face,” Carson objects to features on the advertising platform such as toggle buttons that make it possible to include or exclude men or women. There’s also a search box that can be used to exclude individuals who are not fluent in a certain language.

Attributes that advertisers can choose or exclude include accessibility, Hispanic culture, hijab fashion and foreigners. Additionally, Facebook’s advertising platform features a map tool that advertisers use to exclude people living in certain areas from seeing specific ads.

A U.S. Administration Law Judge will be responsible for hearing the case unless one of the parties demands a federal court venue instead. The Administrative Law Judge has the power to award damages in the event that discrimination is proved.

The Charge comes just after Facebook announced that they had reached settlements in nearly half-a-dozen housing discrimination lawsuits. Altogether, the social media company will pay $1.95 million to the plaintiffs in these cases. Settlements in the cases also require that Facebook make massive changes to its ad platform as it relates to advertising for credit, employment and housing.

A Facebook spokesperson is surprised by HUD’s new Charge in light of these recent settlements and the changes that are underway with the ad platform. Legal experts are closely watching the situation to see if HUD is using the Charge to warn others to avoid similar advertising practices that could be used in a discriminatory manner.

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Agrochemical giant Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, is facing a slew of lawsuits based on its popular Roundup weed killer. Roundup contains an herbicide called glyphosate. Critics argue that this herbicide is carcinogenic and responsible for causing numerous cases of cancer.

949759_dollar_signCalifornia plaintiff Edward Hardeman sued Bayer-Monsanto on the grounds that use of Roundup contributed to his diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Hardeman owns property consisting of more than 50 acres. For 25 years, he sprayed the property with Roundup to control poison ivy and other invasive plants. Attorneys estimate that he used 6,000 gallons of the product throughout those years.

When Hardeman was diagnosed with cancer, it didn’t take long for him and his doctors to start taking a closer look at his habitual use of Roundup. Bayer-Monsanto currently is dealing with in excess of 11,000 lawsuits in the U.S., all of which argue that the glyphosate used in the product causes cancer in people.

Recently, a jury agreed with Hardeman’s conclusion that Roundup caused his illness. Their decision is said to be based on scientific evidence, which is in line with another jury decision from last year. In that case, the plaintiff was a landscaping employee with a public school district. The jury concluded that Roundup was responsible for the plaintiff’s terminal illness, awarding him almost $290 million. Eventually, the verdict was reduced to $78.5 million, a decision that is currently on appeal.

In the second phase of the current trial, plaintiffs will have to demonstrate that Monsanto had knowledge of the possibility that glyphosate could cause cancer and they did not provide adequate warnings. Presiding judge Vincent Chhabria unsealed documents that allegedly demonstrate that Monsanto worked to discredit independent scientific research that showed their product was unsafe. Moreover, the documents may indicate that Monsanto executives persuaded officials at the EPA to approve glyphosate contrary to the scientific evidence.

The outcome of this case remains in the balance, as does the outcome of the thousands of similar lawsuits. It seems Monsanto did a poor job of protecting their customers and in doing so failed to protect themselves.

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Facebook is dealing with a massive class action lawsuit that may see them refunding millions of dollars to parents who were the victims of so-called “friendly fraud.” The complaint alleges that since around 2011, Facebook has permitted minors to unwittingly make multiple transactions on their parent’s credit card through playing online games at the social media platform’s website.

Social-Media-37877338-001Kids love to play games like Angry Birds, Barn Buddy, Ninja Saga and others on Facebook. Frequently, they log in to the website using their parent’s Facebook account, though they also may have an account of their own. If the parent lets the child use their credit card to make an in-game purchase just once in one of Facebook’s games, the system stores the card number. Subsequently, the child makes multiple charges as they play, sometimes adding up to hundreds or thousands of dollars that parents may not be aware of until weeks later.

Evidence suggests that Facebook was aware of the loophole and that employees took a fairly hard line against allowing refunds for a practice that they referred to as “friendly fraud” or “FF.”

A paper trail from within Facebook shows conflicting viewpoints on the practice. One email from a Facebook employee mentions that game developers should be counseled to block friendly fraud transactions. Other internal documents reveal that Facebook actually educated developers about friendly fraud and encouraged them to enable such practices in their games.

When parents were stonewalled in their attempts to get refunds from Facebook, they contacted their credit card companies in attempts to invalidate the charges made by their children. Once again, internal Facebook documents show that the company was aware of an inordinate number of chargebacks associated with games like Angry Birds. However, there was concern that taking steps to minimize or eliminate friendly fraud transactions might also interfere with legitimate transactions.

The California lawsuit is still ongoing, but the recently published documents concerning it are illuminating. Business owners and executives may want to consider the transparency of their transactions and how well they communicate pricing strategies to customers in order to avoid similar confusion.

If you a California business owner with a legal challenge or 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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When a worker suffers an on-the-job injury, what sort of accommodation is her employer legally required to make to ensure her ability to return to work? The law is deliberately vague on this subject, generally stating that employers must make “reasonable” accommodations. Failing to do so can lead to legal headaches.

Wrongful-TerminationThat’s the case for Dignity Health in California. Dignity manages St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital. Virginia Hoover had been working at the hospital for approximately 24 years as a radiologic technologist. In 2014, she suffered an injury to her shoulder while moving some equipment. The hospital granted her a leave of absence for recovery.

By August 2014, Hoover was cleared to return, but she was given limitations. She wasn’t supposed to lift anything heavier than 15 pounds with her non-dominant left arm and she was not permitted to raise that arm above her head. However, Hoover claims that Dignity made no effort to accommodate these restrictions. She was fired in December 2014 after her employer concluded that she couldn’t perform her duties.

Hoover filed a lawsuit against Dignity in 2016. Recently, a jury awarded her just over one million dollars for lost wages and emotional distress. The plaintiff claimed that Dignity had wrongfully terminated her and discriminated against her based on her age. Among the claims, Hoover says that another employee with similar restrictions had been accommodated by the hospital to remain in their position.

Dignity argued that they accommodated Hoover by granting her a leave of absence and then working with her to return to her duties. However, supervisors ultimately concluded that she wasn’t capable of performing the essential functions of her job.

In such cases, the law states that employers must find alternative work for an employee, but no documents from the lawsuit indicate whether or not this was attempted.

If you are an employer and one of your workers gets injured on the job, do you know how to comply with the relevant laws? Failing to do so can result in a costly lawsuit and negative publicity. If you are an California employer or business owner with questions about on the job injuries or any legal issue feel free to contact me, attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500 or via the Contact form on this page.

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Shareholders Sue Mindbody Over Acquisition Deal

Shareholders in software company Mindbody are suing the company for breach of fiduciary duty. Plaintiffs claim that the company’s proposed acquisition by Vista Equity Partners provides plenty of compensation for Mindbody executives and the board of directors but leaves stockholders out in the cold.

Vista Equity Partners is a private equity company that focuses on acquiring promising software and tech companies like Mindbody. In December 2018, Vista and Mindbody reached an acquisition agreement that is valued at $1.9 billion.

Lawsuit-64354059-001The next month, public shareholder in Mindbody Joseph Schmit filed a lawsuit against the companies in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. Among the claims, Schmit alleges that Mindbody and its board “breached their fiduciary duties of loyalty, good faith, due care and disclosure” with their acceptance of the acquisition deal.

Schmit believes that the deal was engineered to benefit Mindbody executives and board members without giving appropriate consideration to the financial interests of shareholders. The company went public in 2015, and stocks traded at an all-time high of $43.85 in May 2018. However, the acquisition deal will make the company private again. Vista will pay just $36.50 per share.

Schmit argues that Mindbody is a company on the rise. While the stocks may be trading today at approximately $36.50 per share, he believes that profits will skyrocket. The acquisition locks out shareholders from financially benefitting from that profit.

In the lawsuit, Schmit details that Mindbody executives and board members will receive huge payouts because of the deal. One executive stands to take home $61 million while another may receive just over $11 million. Several other executives and board members stand to earn a few million dollars each.

Qatalyst Partners LP, an investment bank, advised Mindbody on the terms of the agreement and whether or not it was fair to all involved. The bank also acted as an adviser to Apptio Inc. which was acquired by Vista in November 2018.

Several other law firms are looking for plaintiffs who feel they may have been injured by this deal, which may mean that Mindbody and Vista could be facing a class action lawsuit.