Posts tagged with "Bonus Payment"

California Court Does Not Compel FINRA Arbitration of Statutory Discrimination Claims

California Court Does Not Compel FINRA Arbitration of Statutory Discrimination Claims

John Simmons v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, et al, 2012 WL 1900110 (S.D. Cal. May 24, 2012)

In January 2008, John Simmons (“Simmons”) was offered employment by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC (“Morgan Stanley”) as the Executive Director and District Manager in the Global Wealth Management Department. The offer letter stated that Simmons would be entitled to a $1 million forgivable loan, relocation benefits and a stock award. Simmons accepted the employment offer by signing the Morgan Stanley offer letter. In February 2008, Simmons and Morgan Stanley entered into bonus agreement and a promissory note that each contained a clause agreeing to arbitrate disputes related to these instruments in accordance with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) rules. In March 2008, Simmons signed a Uniform Application for Securities Industry Registration or Transfer (“Form U-4”) which also contained an arbitration clause citing FINRA rules. In May 2009, Simmons and Morgan Stanley entered into a second bonus agreement and a second promissory note, each of which contained the same arbitration clauses as the previous instruments. In March 2011, Simmons’s employment with Morgan Stanley was terminated. In September 2011, Morgan Stanley initiated a Statement of Claim with FINRA seeking to arbitrate its claim against Simmons for violation of the bonus agreements and promissory notes.

In December 2011, Simmons initiated an action in California state court asserting statutory claims for discrimination pursuant to Cal. Govt.Code section 12940(a) and for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (“Title VII”). Simmons claimed that Morgan Stanley employees made disparaging remarks to him regarding his religious beliefs because he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Simmons also alleged that, despite his high level of performance, he was not paid in accordance with the terms of his employment agreement. Finally, the complaint also alleged that, in February 2011, shortly before his termination, Simmons informed his supervisor that he was aware of the fact that he was paid less than other co-workers who performed similar duties but who did not share his religious beliefs. Simmons’s complaint stated that these discrimination claims were “inextricably related” to Morgan Stanley’s allegations that he violated the two promissory notes because he was “illegally terminated before he was able to fully perform his obligations thereunder.” In addition to the two statutory discrimination claims, Simmons’s complaint also asserted non-statutory claims of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, fraud, and breach of contract.

Morgan Stanley removed the matter to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California and filed motions to compel arbitration and stay litigation. Simmons filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asserting that he should not be compelled to arbitrate the claims that Morgan Stanley filed with FINRA in September 2011. Simmons presented five distinct legal arguments for why he should not be compelled to arbitrate with Morgan Stanley. The federal court dedicated the most discussion to Simmons’s argument that the arbitration agreements which he allegedly entered into did not encompass his statutory discrimination claims.

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, embodies both a fundamental principle that arbitration is based in contract and a federal policy favoring arbitration. A written arbitration agreement “shall be valid, irrevocable and enforceable,” unless the arbitration agreement can be invalidated by a generally applicable contract defense, such as fraud, duress and unconsionability. 9 U.S.C. §2. Therefore, federal courts deciding motions to compel or stay arbitration examine (1) whether a valid arbitration agreement exists; and (2) whether the agreement encompasses the dispute at issue. Cox v. Ocean View Hotel Corp., 533 F.3d 1114, 1119 (9th Cir. 2008). Courts apply state contract law to determine whether an arbitration agreement exists and whether such agreement is enforceable. Only if both findings are affirmative can a federal court enforce an arbitration agreement in accordance with its terms.

Causes of action premised on statutory rights are just as subject to contractual arbitration agreements as non-statutory common law claims. However, Congress may pass federal legislation that removes certain claims from the purview of the FAA. Precedent within the Ninth Circuit is that “a Title VII plaintiff may only be forced to forego her statutory remedies and arbitrate her claims if she has knowingly agreed to submit such disputes to arbitration.” Renteria v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 113 F.3d 1104, 1105-06 (9th Cir. 1997)(citing Prudential Ins. Co. of America v. Lai, 42 F.3d 1299, 1305 (9th Cir.1994)). Both the public policy of protecting victims of sexual discrimination and the Congressional intent motivating Title VII legislation required that there be a knowing waiver of statutory remedies for civil rights violations, including employment discrimination based on gender. Id. at 1108. An earlier case within the Ninth Circuit held that parallel state anti-discrimination laws were made part of the Title VII enforcement scheme. Lai, 42 F.3d at 1301 n.1. Because the agreements to arbitrate in the February 2008 and May 2009 promissory notes and bonus agreements did not explicitly state that Simmons waived his right to a jury trial on claims of statutory employment discrimination, the court refused to find that Simmons knowingly waived his statutory remedies on these claims. Therefore, the court concluded that these arbitration provisions did not encompass Simmons’s first claim for violation of Cal. Govt. Code section 12940(a) and his second claim for Title VII violation. However, the court determined that Simmons’s remaining non-statutory claims were encompassed by the existing arbitration agreements.

An arbitration provision may be challenged “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” 9 U.S.C. § 2. Under California law, a contract clause is unenforceable only if it is both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. Davis v. O’Melveny & Myers, 485 F.3d 1066, 1072 (9th Cir.2007) Procedural unconscionability analysis focuses on the oppression or surprise of a contract clause. The court found that the arbitration provisions at issue contain a minimal element of procedural unconscionability because they were standard FINRA agreements and clearly visible. Substantive unconscionability considers the effect of the contract clause, specifically whether the clause is so one-sided as to shock the conscience. Id. at 1075. The court found that the arbitration provisions were substantively unconscionable because the rules of FINRA may require Simmons to pay hearing session fees in excess of what he would pay in court. However, the single substantively unconscionable provision can be severed from the arbitration agreements; therefore, the court held that the arbitration agreements in the February 2008 and May 2009 promissory note and bonus agreements were enforceable once the unconscionable provision was severed.

The court granted Morgan Stanley’s motion to compel arbitration on Simmons’s non-statutory claims pursuant to the arbitration provisions set out in the February 2008 and May 2009 promissory note and bonus agreements. Likewise, pursuant to 9 U.S.C. § 3, the court granted Morgan Stanley’s motion to stay litigation on these claims pending arbitration. Because the court found that valid arbitration provisions exist, it denied Simmons’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

With respect to Simmons’s first two claims of employment discrimination under California and federal statutes, the court denied Morgan Stanley’s motions to compel arbitration and stay litigation. Simmons was permitted to litigate these claims in federal district court.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County, Connecticut at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Year End Employment Contract Bonus Payments in Connecticut: Enforceable Promises?

Employment Contracts in Connecticut: When is a promise to pay a year-end bonus enforceable against an employer?

Given the down turn in the economy, millions of employees recently lost their jobs at the end of last year. Many of those jobs were based upon a compensation structure including a base salary and a bonus to be paid at the end of the year, or early this year, as in now. If you are one of those individuals who recently lost your job, you are probably wondering whether you are entitled to the bonus you thought you were promised. The Connecticut Appellate Court recently answered this question in favor of employees.

Here are the facts of the case recently decided. An employee worked for a small Connecticut employer for several years. At the outset of the employment relationship, the employee agreed to accept a lower salary in consideration for the employer’s promise to pay a year-end bonus. This arrangement continued for several years. Eventually, the employee left the firm and the employer decided to pay only his base salary, but no year-end bonus. The employee sued.

In the lawsuit, the employee alleged breach of contract and wrongful withholding of wages. After trial the court entered judgment for the employee on the breach of contract count awarding damages.  In reviewing the case, the Connecticut Appellate Court found that the trial court properly looked at the employment contract, and parole evidence – circumstances outside of the employment contract – to determine the appropriate compensation, including a bonus payment, for the employee during the last year of his employment.  The Connecticut Appellate Court determined the parties entered into a written employment contract setting forth the criteria upon which annual compensation would be based and therefore, the employee had a viable claim to a bonus payment.

The Court found the written employment contract only set forth the timing and basis for calculating the amount of annual compensation. The written employment contract did not set forth the expression of the parties intent as to the timing, form and amount of payment, which are essential terms to an employment contract. The trial court concluded that the employer had agreed by either words or deeds pursuant to the compensation clause in the contract to pay a bonus to the employee for that portion of the year the plaintiff was employed with the employer. The Appellate Court further found that even though the employer and the employee were indefinite as to the amount of the bonus, this did not render the bonus promise unenforceable. The employer’s promise of a yearly bonus was supported by the consideration of the employee accepting a lower salary throughout the year.

The Appellate Court also reversed the trial court and found that the claim for wrongful withholding of wages should not have been dismissed. The Court determined that under the employment agreement the bonus could have been classified as wages under Connecticut Labor Law.

If you have any questions regarding this article, or would like to discuss an employment contract, severance package, non-competition agreement, non-solicit agreement, or any other issue related to your employment, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. at JMaya@Mayalaw.com or (203) 221-3100.

 

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Federal Court Does Not Vacate FINRA Arbitration Award Denying ERISA Claims

Stephen P. Finkelstein v. UBS Global Asset Management (US) Inc. and UBS Securities LLC, 2011 WL 3586437 (S.D.N.Y. Aug 9, 2011)

In a case before the Southern District of New York, Stephen P. Finkelstein (“Finkelstein”) filed a petition to vacate part of a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) Arbitration Award dated October 20, 2010, pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 10. UBS Global Asset Management (US), Inc., and UBS Securities LLC, (collectively “UBS”) filed a cross-motion to confirm the arbitration award pursuant to the FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 9. The court denied Finkelstein’s motion to vacate and granted UBS’s motion to confirm the arbitration award in their favor.

The underlying dispute is based on UBS’s denial of Finkelstein’s claim for a special payment under the UBS severance pay plan, which is governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1132. Finkelstein began his employment with UBS in 2002. In April 2006, he was internally transferred to a hedge fund as a portfolio manager responsible for a variety of subprime securities. Within a year of his transfer, the hedge fund suspended his trading authority due to losses of over $300 million in his positions. A few months later, UBS closed the hedge fund based on its overall losses; hedge fund employees were either offered new jobs or terminated. Finkelstein was terminated without cause in August 2007.

The UBS separation program contained a provision offering a special payment to employees who were terminated on or after October 1, but before the date on which bonuses are usually paid. As part of the closure of the hedge fund, UBS adopted a supplemental program that amended the special payment provision to provide eligible employees with a special payment at the discretion of the hedge fund’s management, even though these employees were not terminated on or after October 1. The written eligibility requirements of the supplemental program specified dates of employment and involuntary termination; the hedge fund’s management exercised its discretion to define the formula for calculating the amount of the special payment and to exclude employees who were responsible for substantial losses at the time of the hedge fund’s closure. Therefore, despite having satisfied the written eligibility requirements of supplemental program, Finkelstein was offered a separation package that did not include a special payment.

Pursuant to the separation program’s grievance procedures, Finkelstein submitted a claim for benefits demanding a special payment that was equivalent to 25-percent of his 2006 bonus, which was in accordance with the formula determined by the hedge fund management. Although he acknowledged the losses on his 2007 trading book, Finkelstein attempted to explain that greater than half the losing positions were purchased by his partner without his consent and that the remainder of the losses could be recovered over time. The severance committee denied Finkelstein’s claim, stating that the hedge fund’s management had appropriately exercised its discretion in denying him a special payment. Finkelstein requested a review of the severance committee’s denial of his claim, and was again denied his demand for a special payment.

In December 2008, Finkelstein filed a Statement of Claim with FINRA seeking an award of the special payment. FINRA appointed a panel of three arbitrators to hear the matter and, in October 2010, entered an award in favor of UBS without any explanation or rationale.

Finkelstein filed a petition in federal district court to vacate the arbitration award on the following three grounds: (a) the arbitration panel decision was in “manifest disregard” of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1145; (b) the arbitration award was procured through the fraudulent concealment of material information by UBS; and (c) the arbitrators refused to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy.

Vacating an arbitration award on the basis of manifest disregard of the law requires the challenging party to demonstrate that the arbitrators clearly defied the law either by rejecting precedent or pronouncing a decision that strains credulity. See Stolt–Nielsen SA v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 548 F.3d 85, 92–93 (2d Cir.2008), reversed on other grounds, 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010). However, even if the arbitrators do not explain the reasons for their decision, the court will uphold the arbitration award “if a justifiable ground for the decision can be inferred from the record.” Id. at 97. In his petition, Finkelstein contended that the FINRA arbitration panel manifestly disregarded ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1145, on four different grounds. The most significant basis for his contention was that the arbitration panel should have rejected UBS’s unwritten, oral modification of the ERISA severance pay plan to exclude employees responsible for substantial losses from special payment eligibility. Both the ERISA statute, 29 U.S.C § 1102(a)(1), and recent case law within the Second Circuit require that all amendments to employee benefit plans be in writing. However, the written documents of the hedge fund supplemental program expressly conferred the hedge fund management with certain discretionary powers; therefore, the court determined that it was not erroneous for the arbitration panel to conclude that the unwritten rule excluding employees who incurred substantially losses was a permissible exercise of this discretionary authority, rather than an oral modification of the supplemental program. Because the ERISA provision on oral modifications cited by Finkelstein was inapplicable, the arbitration panel had colorable justification to conclude that it was not violated. Consequently, the court determined that Finkelstein failed to demonstrate manifest disregard of ERISA on these grounds. The court also found that each of the remaining challenged panel determinations was supported by a colorable justification. Therefore, the court concluded that the arbitration award could not be vacated for manifest disregard of the ERISA statute.

Vacating an arbitration award on the basis of fraud under the FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(1), requires the challenging party to produce clear and convincing evidence that there was fraud that could not have been discovered during the arbitration process and that such fraud is materially related to the award. Chimera Capital, L.P. v. Nisselson (In re MarketXT Holdings, Corp.), 428 B.R. 579, 590 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc. v. McCollough. 967 F.2d 1401, 1404 (9th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). Finkelstein alleged that UBS concealed material information relevant to the dispute. However, the court determined that UBS could not have fraudulently concealed information that they had no obligation to disclose, and also determined that UBS did voluntarily disclose the challenged information in an accurate manner. Therefore, the court concluded that the arbitration award could not be vacated on the basis of fraud under the FAA.

Vacating an arbitration award on the basis of refusing to hear evidence pertinent to the dispute, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3), has been interpreted by courts to mean that an arbitration award will not be opened to evidentiary review except “where fundamental fairness is violated.” Tempo Shain Corp. v. Bertek, Inc., 120 F.3d 16, 20 (2d Cir.1997) (quoting Bell Aerospace Co. Div. of Textron v. Local 516, 500 F.2d 921, 923 (1974)). The arbitration panel denied Finkelstein’s request for production of evidence concerning the value of any parallel investments held by the UBS Investment Bank. He contended this evidence was highly relevant because it would have negated UBS’s assertion that his trading activities sustained substantial losses. It was within the arbitration panel’s broad discretion to determine that the requested materials would have been irrelevant and/or unduly burdensome for UBS to produce. The court determined that the arbitration panel’s refusal to compel UBS to produce this evidence did not deny Finkelstein a “fundamentally fair” hearing because the scope of inquiry afforded him was sufficient to provide him with a reasonable opportunity to be heard and to enable the arbitration panel to make an informed decision. Therefore, the court concluded that the arbitration award could not be vacated on the basis of refusing to hear evidence.

The court denied Finkelstein’s petition to vacate the FINRA arbitration award, and entered judgment to confirm the arbitration award in UBS’s favor.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County, Connecticut at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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