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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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Home improvement retail giant Lowe’s has agreed to pay an $8.6 million settlement to disabled workers that the company fired. The agreement was reached after the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against the company in California.

Gardne center worker in a wheelchair holding a flower pot in a greenhouse

The settlement money will be distributed to former Lowe’s employees who were fired from the company between January 1, 2004 and May 13, 2010. Eligible employees were terminated after exceeding the company’s 180-day or 240-day medical leave policy. All of the affected employees were either disabled, “regarded as” disabled or were associated with someone who was disabled.

While Lowe’s stipulated a maximum leave policy of either 180 days or 240 days, officials with the EEOC argued that the policy was not in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. In fact, the EEOC charged that Lowe’s “engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination” against employees who were disabled. Moreover, the lawsuit argued that Lowe’s routinely failed to provide adequate accommodations for disabled workers.

Also as a part of the settlement agreement, Lowe’s is required to hire ADA consultants who can help to reshape the company’s leave policies and assist them to address accommodation issues. Lowe’s will be required to create a system for recording and tracking employee requests for accommodation and how those requests are dealt with. Additionally, staff and management members across the company will be asked to undergo training related to ADA issues.

Lowe’s executives argue that they revamped their leave policies and more closely examined their compliance with ADA in 2010. Nonetheless, they agreed to this settlement to further the effort to comply with all facets of the ADA.

Lowe’s situation acts as an important lesson to other employers who are not sure if they are in compliance with all applicable aspects of ADA. Hiring a consultant or seeking legal advice before a serious problem arises is the best way to avoid a costly lawsuit from the EEOC or a former employee. Proactive measures toward offering accommodations and not violating ADA medical leave policies are important for any company that is seeking long-term success.

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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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In an age where smartphones, social media and the Internet have led to improved connectivity, California legislators are looking for ways to prevent jurors from violating the rules. Judges issue strict instructions to jurors that they must not perform any Internet research regarding the case they are deciding. Moreover, jurors are told in no uncertain terms that they are prohibited from discussing the case on social media.

scales%20and%20gavel%2090061933-001.jpgThese warnings are often to no avail as an increasing number of jurors are being caught making social media posts or doing online research in violation of the orders. Jurors who are caught breaking the rules may be held in contempt of court. Typically, this means that misbehaving jurors are dismissed without much in the way of consequences. When a juror is dismissed, there is a good chance that a mistrial will be declared, leading to spiraling court costs and hundreds of wasted hours.

The new measure, which is currently before the California Assembly, is the first of its kind in the nation. If it passes, it would give judges the ability to immediately issue a citation to jurors who break the rules about Internet research and social media postings. The new process would be much easier and more efficient than the process for finding a juror in contempt. Just as importantly, it would empower the judge to levy a fine of up to $1,500.

Internet and social media use by jurors has been an increasing problem in recent years. Across the country, juror infractions have led to verdicts being overturned and mistrials being declared. Louisiana State University’s Press Law and Democracy Project kept a close eye on such events until recently. That’s because these violations used to be relatively rare. Now, they are so common that participants decided the effort was “more trouble than it was worth.”

This legislation seems to have broad-based support and appears to be on the way to the governor’s desk for approval. If this happens, it seems inevitable that other states will soon consider taking similar measures in an effort to crack down on wayward jurors.

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Executives at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores may be forced to re-evaluate their safety policies after a jury awarded a victim who was injured at one of their locations a multi-million dollar verdict.

Wet%20Floor%20Caution%20101639883-001.jpgKelly Henrickson, a 41 year-old mother of three, was shopping at a Lowe’s store in Las Vegas when she received the injury. Hendrickson was in the store’s garden center looking at palm trees in July 2013 when she fell on a “slimy, wet substance.” The substance was leaking from the bottoms of several planters in the area.

Employees had placed a yellow, three foot tall cone in the vicinity, but Hendrickson argued that it was obscured from plain view, which is why she did not see it until she was already falling.

Hendrickson hit her head on the concrete floor in the accident, fracturing her skull and injuring her neck. Brain damage has caused her to permanently lose the abilities to taste and smell. Moreover, she suffers from chronic headaches and experiences difficulties with balance. Hendrickson has also received medical treatment for depression and anxiety. Her dream of becoming a school bus driver has fallen by the wayside.

Hendrickson filed a personal injury lawsuit against the store in an effort to receive compensation for her medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering. Attorneys for Hendrickson also sought punitive damages, citing an ongoing record of falls at Lowe’s stores throughout the Las Vegas vicinity in the last five years.

A jury awarded Hendrickson approximately $13 million as a result of the litigation. This falls short of the amount that the plaintiff and her attorneys were seeking because the jury chose not to award punitive damages. They decided that the retailer was 80 percent responsible for the accident while Hendrickson was responsible for the remaining 20 percent.

Plaintiff’s lawyer Sean Claggett said that Lowe’s is “still not getting it right because they don’t care about it.” Nonetheless, Hendrickson’s attorneys count this decision as a victory, and they expressed their hope that Lowe’s might change their safety policies and practices in the wake of the verdict.

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A settlement agreement between ride-service firm Lyft and its drivers may set a precedent for similar litigation against Uber. Both Lyft and Uber provide services in which customers use their smartphones to hail a ride from participating drivers. Neither company classifies its drivers as employees, instead calling them independent contractors. The organizations argue that the arrangement allows drivers to determine when, where and for how long they work. Drivers enjoy the flexibility to work as little or as much as they wish.

LYFT%20Nissan-001.jpgHowever, classifying drivers as independent contractors means that the drivers are responsible for the costs of doing business. Gas and vehicle maintenance, for instance, are entirely at the expense of the driver. If the drivers were employees, then Lyft would be responsible for these costs.

Refusing to classify drivers as employees has further benefits for Lyft. They aren’t responsible for withholding taxes, providing insurance or meeting minimum wage standards. Lyft drivers argued that they should be afforded the protection of regular employees, especially since they could be deactivated from the service without prior knowledge or consent. The contention caused them to file a lawsuit in California.

That lawsuit has now settled before reaching the trial phase. Lyft will still not classify drivers as employees, but it will have to accord them greater consideration and protection. Among this consideration is providing notice when a driver will be deactivated from the service. Lyft is now required to provide a reason for the deactivation, such as poor ratings from customers. Drivers now have the ability to appeal a deactivation decision and may be able to reverse it.

As part of the settlement, Lyft is required to pay its drivers $12.25 million and offer some benefits that are more commonly associated with regular employees. However, the company’s business model remains intact.

It is a settlement that is being studied with great interest by Uber, which is the subject of a similar class action lawsuit that is due in court in June. At this point, it is not known whether Uber will seek a settlement or allow the case to go to trial.

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In a controversial response to a 2012 lawsuit, the private records of approximately 10 million public school students is about to be released to attorneys. The lawsuit was filed as a joint effort by the Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association and the statewide California Concerned Parents Association. Both groups cited concerns regarding the disposition of services to intellectually and physically disabled children as the basis for the lawsuit.

Blackboard%20%21%21%21%2053226367-001.jpgThe plaintiffs allege that they requested data from the California Department of Education on numerous occasions. They wanted to take a survey of the test scores and mental health assessments to prove that disabled students were not receiving the education and assistance that are guaranteed to them under federal law. Parents involved in the groups believed that students were being systematically deprived of these rights.

When the Department of Education denied requests, even though members of the student advocacy groups stated that they weren’t seeking specific information about individual students, a lawsuit was filed. Now, Judge Kimberly Mueller has ruled that data dating back to January 2008 should be released to lawyers for the plaintiffs. The data will include Social Security numbers, addresses and other sensitive information. According to the order, no more than 10 people will have access to the data which will be accessed and managed by a court-ordered individual. Once the survey has been conducted, the data must be either destroyed or returned to the Department of Education.

Parents who object to the release of their children’s information have until April 1 to file the paperwork. However, it seems that many school districts remain unaware of the order and accordingly are not able to get the word out to parents who might not want their children’s data to be shared. Complicating the problem is the large number of immigrant parents in the state who speak little or no English. The state’s Parent Teacher Association is considering asking for an injunction that would at least slow down the release of information so parents have a better opportunity to decide whether or not to allow their children’s information to be released.

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Various people connected to the University of Central Florida appear to be the victims of a cyber attack. The breach occurred over an extended period of time, but university officials made a public announcement about it on February 4, 2016. An estimated 63,000 Social Security numbers were stolen in the attack.

Hacked%2090366158-001.jpgAlumni and former student government leaders Anthony Furbush and Logan Berkowitz have filed a lawsuit against the school in Orlando. The suit alleges that UCF knew of the data breach as early as December of 2015, yet officials failed to provide notification until February of the following year. Moreover, the complaint states that UCF did not adequately protect sensitive information.

This attack on UCF is one more in an ongoing stream of cyber threats occurring in schools across the country. In the past year alone, multiple attacks on the University of Maryland, Penn State University, the University of Virginia and others demonstrate that hackers are becoming more adept at their craft as well as targeting educational institutions on an increasing basis.

The current incident at UCF is being investigated by a joint task force consisting of members of UCF’s own police unit along with the FBI. Reports suggest that while Social Security numbers were stolen, there is no evidence that the hackers obtained any kind of financial information.

That appears to be small comfort to people like Furbush and Berkowitz, who are now more vulnerable to identity theft. UCF mailed out letters to everyone whose information may have been compromised in the breach and a call center has been established to field further questions and concerns.

With cyber attacks on university databases on the rise, this litigation against UCF may just be the tip of the iceberg. It seems clear that more colleges and universities will find themselves the target of a hacker, and that can easily lead to a lawsuit. This only highlights the imperative nature of protecting data, which in turn protects institutions and corporations from being sued.
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Jim Cooper, a member of the California Assembly, has proposed bill AB 1681. The bill is designed to outlaw the sale of encrypted smartphones beginning on January 1, 2017. Any retailer who sells an encrypted phone to a consumer after that date would be subject to a $2,500 fine for every violation of the act.

search%20cell%20phone%2061969338-001.jpgThis move to end unbreakable encryption on cell phones comes as a joint effort between law enforcement, politicians and victims of crimes. It seems that even when law enforcement gets a court order allowing them access to a suspect’s smartphone, they usually can’t get around the encryption software. This holds true for the manufacturers of the phone and the operating system. Executives from those manufacturers say that they have no means of successfully getting around typical smartphone safeguards.

Proponents of the bill are particularly concerned with stopping human trafficking. They argue that encrypted smartphones are used to carry out these crimes, yet police cannot use them for evidence because of encryption programs. Their hope is that pimps and other participants in human trafficking networks can be more easily caught and prosecuted when smartphone evidence is readily available.

Critics say that completely doing away with encryption is a mistake, not to mention a violation of fourth amendment rights. Encryption is what makes people feel secure when it comes to accessing or working with financial and other sensitive information on their cell phone. Without encryption, consumers would be more vulnerable to several varieties of identity theft and other violations.

Critics also note that selling fully unencrypted or easily decrypted phones is not necessarily a viable solution, especially since several encryption apps are readily available. It would not be difficult for a person to buy an unencrypted phone and then install encryption software that law enforcement and smartphone manufacturers may not be able to break, leaving police in the same predicament they occupy today.

Much debate is likely to ensue before the bill is voted on. Blanket solutions sometimes introduce more issues than they resolve, which may be the case with making encrypted smartphones illegal in California.

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Now is an excellent time for employers to assess their compensation policies. That’s because the New Year activated California’s Fair Pay Act. Analysts say it’s one of the country’s toughest equal pay laws, and the consequences are serious for companies that are found to be in violation.

Fair%20Pay%2070618813-001.jpgThe new legislation was signed in October 2015 by Governor Jerry Brown. It’s essentially an amendment to the state’s existing fair pay laws, which have been in place for several decades. Federal laws also ensure equal pay for workers regardless of gender or other characteristics. However, this new legislation puts more of the onus on employers to ensure that they are fairly paying employees.

Democratic state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced the bill earlier in 2015 in the wake of actress Patricia Arquette’s Oscar acceptance speech that called for an end to the gender pay gap. A key component of the new law is the requirement for employers to be able to prove that they are paying employees of both sexes the same compensation for “substantially similar work.” The law asks employers to look beyond titles, assessing actual duties performed and responsibilities assumed, when settling questions of pay. If disparities exist between the compensation for male and female workers who perform substantially similar work, then the employer must be able to articulate a non-gender based reason why the disparity exists.

Employers can use distinctions like seniority and merit to justify offering higher compensation to men when compared to women in a similar role. It is advisable for employers to assess and document such decisions in case questions or disputes arise at a later date. Similarly, the new law is forcing many employers to dig deep into company archives to assess the current salaries of employees and decide whether or not such disparities already exist.

While a full-scale, company-wide audit of employee compensation is neither easy nor inexpensive, it is far preferable to being made the subject of a class-action lawsuit. Employers may want to contact employment law attorneys to learn more about how to protect themselves in light of the new fair pay law.