Posts tagged with "preliminary injunction"

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)
Case Background

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 a 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.

Simmons’ Allegations

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.

Enforcing an Arbitration Agreement

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 unconscionability.  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.

Statutory Remedies

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.

Arbitration Provisions

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’s Decision

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.

Court Denies Injunction Against Former IBM Executive

By:  Joseph Maya, Esq.

Early in the morning of January 19, 2011, Mr. Visentin notified IBM that he was leaving the company to work for a major competitor- Hewlett-Packard.  Just one day later, he found himself the subject of a lawsuit.  On January 20, 2011, in an effort to enforce the parties’ noncompetition agreement, IBM filed suit against Mr. Visentin, a former executive, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets.

Case Background

On January 24, 2011, the Court issued a temporary restraining order, and scheduled the case for a preliminary injunction hearing.  Within five days of providing IBM with notice of his departure, Mr. Visentin was effectively without a job, precluded- at least temporarily- from engaging in his newly secured position.  This case demonstrates not only the force, speed and agility of a large corporation’s legal team, but perhaps more importantly, illustrates the effectiveness of a quickly orchestrated and well-executed legal defense.

Prior to his resignation, Mr. Visentin worked for IBM in various capacities for twenty-six years.  In 2006, he became a Global Vice President in the company’s Integrated Technology Services Group (ITS).  Then, in September, 2007, he became General Manager of the ITS business.  Responsible for providing its clients with various technology services, including services to improve data storage and recovery capabilities, protect networks from viruses, and implement data security systems, this segment generates approximately five thousand to nine thousand deals per quarter, and total revenue of $2.5 billion annually.

In December, 2008, Mr. Visentin was appointed to IBM’s Integration and Value Team, a leadership group that develops IBM’s corporate strategy.  Although there were technical aspects of Mr. Visentin’s various positions, after hearing four days of testimony, the Court found that he was a business manager, not a technical expert.

Non-Compete Agreements

As part of his employment with IBM, Mr. Visentin signed two noncompetition agreements, the first on July 16, 2008 and the second on July 29, 2009.  The July 29th agreement essentially provided that during his employment with IBM, and for 12 months thereafter, he would not directly or indirectly engage in or associate with any competitors of the company.  Mr. Visentin also agreed to a restrictive covenant precluding him from soliciting IBM clients for a period of one year, and IBM employees for a period of two years.

IBM’s first argument was that if Mr. Visentin were allowed to work for HP, IBM would be irreparably harmed because Mr. Visentin’s new position posed the risk that he would inevitably disclose confidential IBM information.  IBM argued that Mr. Visentin possessed a plethora of confidential information including strategic business and marketing plans, “strategic initiative,” new service offerings, acquisition plans, the operational finances of the ITS business, IBM’s competitive business and pricing strategies, the identity of new client targets, the identify of troubled clients, and IBM’s competitive strategies to attack HP.

Court Denies Injunction

In denying IBM’s application for an injunction, the Court first noted that a preliminary injunction is “an extraordinary and drastic remedy which should not be routinely granted.”  Med. Soc’y of State of N.Y. v. Toia, 560 F.2d 535, 538 (2nd Cir. 1977).  Indeed, to obtain a preliminary injunction, the moving party must demonstrate, first, that it will be irreparably harmed if an injunction is not granted, and, second, either a likelihood of success on the merits or sufficiently serious questions going to the merits to make them a fair ground for litigation, as well as a balance of the hardships tipping decidedly in its favor.  Lusk v. Vill. Of Cold Spring, 475 F.3d 480, 485 (2nd Cir. 2007).

To show that it will be irreparably harmed, a movant bears the burden of demonstrating that absent an injunction, it will suffer an injury that is neither remote nor speculative, but rather actual and imminent, and one that cannot be redressed through a monetary award. Payment Alliance Int’l, Inc. v. Ferreira, 530 F. Supp. 2d 477, 480 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Next, the Court explained that in New York, properly scoped noncompetition agreements are enforceable to protect an employer’s legitimate interests so long as they pose no undue hardship on the employee and do not militate against public policy.  BDO Seidman v. Hirshber, 712 N.E. 2d 1220, 1223 (N.Y. 1999).

The Court further explained that trade secrets and confidential information are considered legitimate interests; however, only that confidential information or those trade secrets that the employee misappropriates or will inevitably disclose are protectable.  Reed, Roberts Assocs., Inc. v. Strauman, 353 N.E. 2d 590, 593 (N.Y. 1976).

Court’s Ruling

In ruling in Mr. Visentin’s favor, the Court noted that his primary job at IBM was to be a general manager, explaining, “[a]lthough trade secrets may have lurked somewhere on the periphery, the real thrust of his position was to manage his teams to make them as efficient as possible.”  The Court relied on Mr. Visentin’s testimony that he had never taken a computer science course and considered himself a generalist.  Mr. Visentin testified, “I am not technical, I don’t know the details of offerings, I’m more of a general manager and I run a business.”

The Court also relied on the testimony of Mr. Visentin’s new manager at HP, who confirmed that Mr. Visentin’s generalist qualities were the driving factor behind his hiring.  Mr. Visentin’s future manager testified that he hired Mr. Visentin because, “he had good general IT services knowledge [and] broad experience,” and that Mr. Visentin struck him, “as a process-oriented thinker, a guy who could sort of connect the dots, if you will, of the overall responsibilities of the job.”  He also testified that Mr. Visentin’s job would not include involvement in technical services, but rather would be to “manage people.”

Court Does Not Find

Although IBM identified numerous types of information potentially in Mr. Visentin’s possession which it argued should be afforded protection, the court noted that much of the information is either applicable to all large corporations, in the public domain, or outdated, and, thus, does not constitute “trade secrets.”

The court also explained that simply showing Mr. Visentin had access to some confidential information does not sufficiently demonstrate irreparable harm.  IBM failed to provide specific examples of confidential or trade secret information that could actually be used to its detriment if Mr. Visentin were allowed to assume his new position at HP.  The Court further held that IBM failed to demonstrate Mr. Visentin’s position at HP would require him to disclose any confidential IBM information he might remember.

Contact Us

Attorney Joseph Maya is a Managing Partner of Maya Murphy, P.C. Litigation Department. He can be reached by telephone in the Firm’s Westport office at (203) 221-3100 or by e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

“Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine” Fails to Demonstrate Breach of Non-Disclosure and Non-Compete Agreements

EarthWeb, Inc. v. Schlack, 71 F. Supp. 2d 299
EarthWeb, Inc. v. Schlack, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 11446

Mr. Mark Schlack worked for EarthWeb, Inc. from October 19, 1998 to September 22, 1999 as the company’s Vice President of Worldwide Content where he had overall editorial responsibilities for the company’s website.  EarthWeb was started in 2004 and had 230 employees nationwide that provided online products and services to business professionals in the information technology (IT) industry.  The company and Mr. Schlack signed an employment agreement on October 13, 1998 that contained non disclosure and non compete clauses.

The restrictions prohibited Mr. Schlack from being an employee of a business entity that directly competed with EarthWeb for a period of twelve months after his termination.  The agreement provided consideration in the form of Mr. Schlack’s salary, performance-based bonus, and stock options.  Mr. Schlack tendered his resignation in September 1999 and informed his superiors at EarthWeb that he had accepted a position with ITworld.com, a subsidiary of IDG, another business connected to the IT industry.

EarthWeb Takes Action

EarthWeb sued Mr. Schlack in federal court and asked it to grant a preliminary injunction to prevent him from working for ITworld.com.  EarthWeb sued in order to protect its confidential information and trade secrets related to several components of its business operations: 1) strategic content planning, 2) licensing agreements and acquisitions, 3) advertising, and 4) technical knowledge.

The company argued that an injunction and the enforcement of the non-compete agreement were necessary to prevent disclosure of its trade secrets and confidential business information.  The federal court denied EarthWeb’s request and the company appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York, and Vermont).  At the appellate level, the court affirmed the district court’s decision and held that the denial of the injunction and enforcement was proper given the facts of the case.

How to Prove Irreparable Harm

The Second Circuit had previously held that a demonstration of irreparable harm is the “single most important prerequisite for the issuance of a preliminary injunction”.  Mamiya Co. v. Masel Supply Co., 719 F.2d 42, (1983).  Disclosure of trade secrets and confidential information has traditionally been sufficient to show irreparable harm so long as the harm is imminent.  The mere possibility of harm is insufficient and motions should be denied when the harm described in the complaint is remote and speculative.  This case did not involve actual theft or misappropriation of confidential information, only the possibility of future disclosure.

Mr. Schlack defended himself by asserting that the position awaiting him at ITworld.com was very different from his job at EarthWeb and that he would not have an occasion to divulge any of EarthWeb’s confidential information.  Additionally, he claimed that EarthWeb’s complaint overstated his responsibilities and he was nowhere close to being a senior executive with access to vast amounts of confidential information.

Shortcomings of EarthWeb’s Argument

EarthWeb had the burden to show that Mr. Schlack’s breach of the non-compete agreement would create irreparable harm.  The appellate court held that the company had failed to establish that an injunction was reasonably necessary to protect its business interests.  The company failed to produce any evidence that there was an imminent risk that Mr. Schlack would disclose EarthWeb’s confidential information while being employed at ITworld.com.

The court stated that EarthWeb had relied on the “Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine”; a theory the court rejected and commented should only be applied in the rarest of circumstances.  The doctrine heavily relies on speculation and “what ifs” to advance a request for injunctive relief for breach of a non-compete agreement.  This doctrine employed insufficient concrete evidence that there would be a disclosure of confidential information and both the district and appellate courts denied EarthWeb’s request for injunctive relief in the form of enforcing the restrictive covenant.

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment and corporate law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County.  If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.