Monday, December 15, 2008
As we discussed in our prior posts, found here and here, Jaynes' was convicted of violating Virginia's anti-spam statute after sending millions of spam emails through AOL's computer servers. The Virginia Supreme Court declared the anti-spam statute unconstitutional after initially finding the statute constitutional. The statute was unconstitutional, the Court ultimately found, because it potentially chilled the right to anonymous speech.
It will interesting to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court hears this case since spamming is so prevalent. According to the petition, AOL servers received over one billion spam emails every day at the time of Jaynes' actions. But, Virginia is one of the few if any states that forbid any type of spam -- not just commercial spam. So if the U.S. Court reinstates the Virginia anti-spam law, other states may quickly broaden their anti-spam laws.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Such claims often arise when an Employee makes plans to go to work for a competitor or form a competing company. They usually involve one of the following: (1) the departing Employee solicits other co-workers to join her at the new company; (2) the departing Employee solicits clients to follow her, thus guaranteeing immediate work and income; or (3) the Employee takes his employer’s confidential information without permission and uses it to benefit the new employer. Unless the Employee follows certain rules, such conduct may make him liable to the former employer for breach of the duty of loyalty or breach of fiduciary duty.
First, while an Employee may make plans to compete, he may not recruit his co-workers to join him while still employed if it leads to a mass resignation. Feddeman & Co. v. Langan Associates, 530 S.E.2d 668 (Va. 2000); Maryland Metals, supra; Riggs Investment Management Corp. v. Columbia Partners, LLC, 966 F. Supp. 1250 (D.D.C. 1997).
Second, the Employee may not solicit his employer’s customers to move their accounts to the new entity. Furash & Co. v. McClave, 130 F. Supp.2d 48 (D.D.C. 2001); PM Services, supra; Maryland Metals, supra; Feddeman, supra. Similarly, an individual, while still employed, may not divert to a competitor business opportunities presented to him if it is within the employer’s line of work, the employer can afford to take advantage of it and, after disclosure, the employer is interested in the opportunity. PM Services, supra.
Finally, the Employee may not use his employer’s confidential information to benefit the new employer or help it gain a competitive advantage. Furash & Co., supra; Riggs, supra; PM Services, supra; Maryland Metals, supra; Feddeman, supra. This preclusion continues after the Employee joins a new company. Bull v. Logetronics, Inc, 323 F. Supp. 115 (E.D.Va. 1971).
Of course, whether an Employee’s conduct rises to a level of breach of fiduciary duty is, in each case, very fact specific. These rules, however, seek to strike a balance between the need to protect vigorous competition and the strong policy that competition be conducted with honesty and fair dealing.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Government Contractor Hit with $10 Million in Punitive Damages for Discriminatory Contract Termination
The Court's September 22, 2008 opinion sets forth the evidence which the jury considered and ultimately believed in reaching the verdict. That evidence, the Court found, was sufficient to uphold the verdict. The opinion can be found here.
The plaintiffs were two related companies, World Wide Network Services, LLC and its subsidiary World Wide Network Services International (hereinafter "WWNS"). WWNS was certified as an "8(a)" small disadvantaged company. WWNS was awarded a subcontract with Defendant DynCorp International, LLC ("DynCorp") to assist DynCorp with its contracts with the U.S. Department of State in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the Court, "in the fall of 2005 the relationship between DynCorp and WWNS began to cool." Opinion at 7. "WWNS employees began to observe displays of racial animus towards WWNS in the form of derogatory comments . . . , as well as deliberate exclusion from planning meetings, failing to respond to e-mail requests for information and assistance . . . and failing to renew/provide WWNS employees with the proper security badges WWNS’s employees were required to have in order to perform their work and to access remote work sites. Additionally, DynCorp’s evaluations of WWNS's performance turned critical." Id.
In examining the discrimination claim filed pursuant to Section 1981, the Court maintained the burden-shifting analysis used in Title VII discrimination claims. It found that WWNS was required to show that it: "(1) is a member of a minority group; (2) was qualified to perform the obligations set forth in the subcontracts; (3) despite its qualifications and performance, it was terminated; and (4) after its termination, DynCorp retained another company from an unprotected class." Op. at 18. DynCorp would then have to "produce evidence that the plaintiff was rejected, or someone else was preferred, for a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason." Id. If those burdens were met, WWNS would have to show that DynCorp’s proffered reason was "mere pretext and that race based discrimination was the real reason" for DynCorp's actions. Id.
As to the tortuous interference with contract claim, the Court rejected DynCorp's argument that the jury's verdict was unsupported as a matter of law. DynCorp argued it did not tortiously interfere with WWNS's employment contracts because there was "no evidence that DynCorp intentionally induced any former WWNS employee to fail to provide 15 days notice of termination of their employment agreements with WWNS . . . ." Op. at 22-23. The Court found that the jury's finding was supported by the evidence of DynCorp's meeting with WWNS's employees to notify them that the subcontract "would be terminated August 11, 2006, and that as of July 26, 2006, all WWNS employees should report to DynCorp . . . ." Op. at 23. And, after receiving a letter from WWNS's counsel, DynCorp "convened another meeting . . . at which DynCorp recanted its statements . . . and notified WWNS personnel that they continued to be considered WWNS employees and would no longer work in support of the [subcontract] after August 11, 2006." "Thereafter, DynCorp began to make employment offers to select WWNS employees in Iraq in order to prevent a ‘disruption of service.'" Id.
The Court also found that there was enough evidence to support the punitive damages award and the finding that DynCorp acted with malice:
"DynCorp’s malicious intent towards WWNS is illustrated in DynCorp's conduct during the time period leading up to and after it decided to terminate its relationship with WWNS. For example, WWNS introduced evidence at trial that [DynCorp] reached out to EDO Corporation [which was a competitor to WWNS] well before DynCorp notified WWNS of its decisions to terminate their contractual relationship. [DynCorp] hired EDO Corporation to evaluate WWNS's workmanship with the Codan Radios. [DynCorp] terminated EDO Corporation’s contract because assessments of the Codan Radio system had already been completed by another firm. However, [DynCorp] indicated in an e-mail to EDO Corporation that [it] would look for ways to work with EDO Corporation in the future. Less than one month later, and before notifying WWNS of the impending contract termination, Mr. Walsh contacted EDO Corporation and requested that the company begin planning to take over the Codan Radio network. Shortly thereafter, [DynCorp] and a representative from EDO Corporation met with [a] WWNS employee . . . . At the meeting [the WWNS employee] provided [DynCorp] and EDO Corporation with a list of WWNS employees he recommended DynCorp and EDO hire. [the WWNS employee] also provided resumes and confidential salary information to DynCorp via e-mail to DynCorp [a] employee . . . ." Op. at 57.
That conduct, the Court held, "demonstrates DynCorp"s intent to not only cease working with WWNS, but to destroy WWNS’s ability to continue to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan." Op. at 58.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of DynCorp for the following counts: tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, common law civil conspiracy, Virginia statutory conspiracy and a breach of contract counterclaim.
It is clear from the number of issues raised that the case was hotly contested. It is likely that the case will be appealed and the Fourth Circuit will revisit many of the District Court’s findings.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The plaintiff alleged that, while Executive Director, Feltman: (1) allowed FBC’s corporate charter in Washington, DC to lapse; (2) chartered the new trade association using the same name; (3) with the assistance of the new association’s attorney, Anthony Hawks, filed an application to register the mark “Employer’s Council on Flexible Compensation” (the FBC’s name prior to the lapse of its corporate charter) with the Patent and Trademark Office; (4) registered domain names using the acronym, “ecfc”; and (5) leased office space on the same street as plaintiff’s Washington offices with the same suite number. The FBC sued in Virginia, rather than in the District of Columbia.
The defendants sought to dismiss the case, challenging personal jurisdiction over Hawks, who was not licensed to practice law in Virginia, venue, and whether the Complaint stated a claim for relief. Several aspects of the opinion, denying the motion to dismiss, are significant to businesses and their owners, directors, officers and management. For full opinion, click here.
First, the defendants argued that the intra-corporate immunity doctrine barred the business conspiracy claim against them as they were all agents of the new trade association. Under that doctrine, because a corporation can only act through its agents, by law, it cannot conspire with those agents. This doctrine is frequently used by defendants as a bar to conspiracy claims.
In FBC, the court rejected that argument and noted that the intra-corporate immunity doctrine has a recognized exception: an employee or agent can conspire with the corporation where he or she has an “independent personal stake” in the outcome of the conspiracy. In FBC, the court found that both Feltman and Hawks were alleged to have had a personal stake in the success of the new co-defendant association, thereby satisfying the exception and allowing the case to proceed.
Second, the court rejected Feltman’s challenge to the breach of fiduciary duty claim. Feltman argued that he was exempt, under the terms of several Management Services Agreements by which he was retained by the FBC, from being sued for breach of fiduciary duty. The MSAs provided that “under no circumstances shall either party seek to hold liable the officers, directors, members, servants or agents of the other party in their personal and individual capacities on any claim or theory whatever arising under the performance, non-performance, breach, cancellation or termination of this agreement.” According to the court, however, such clauses are unenforceable “to the extent they  limit a party’s liability for gross negligence, recklessness or intentional torts.” Moore v. Waller, 930 A.2d 176, 179 (D.C. 2006). In the FBC case, the allegations that Feltman had attempted to steal the FBC’s identity were intentional in nature, thus rendering those restrictive clauses inapplicable.
Finally, Hawks challenged whether the court had personal jurisdiction over him given that he had not physically been present in Virginia with relation to the alleged acts. Significantly, the court held that Hawks had “transacted business in Virginia” by virtue of his filing a trademark application with the Patent and Trademark Office located in Alexandria. It rejected the argument that such a filing was exempt from challenge because petitioning the federal government can not be used as a basis for personal jurisdiction. In doing so, the court found that the “government contacts” principle had been modified to allow jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant if there were sufficient allegations to make out a prima facie case that the agency proceedings had been used to perpetrate a fraud. Because it was alleged that Hawks had sworn under oath that no other firm had the right to use the trademark, even though he knew it had been used by FBC for over 20 years, the filing fell within the exception to the “government contacts” rule and was a sufficient basis for personal jurisdiction. The court also found that these acts satisfied the Constitution’s due process requirements.
This case is a cautionary tale, not only as to the reach of Virginia’s long arm statute, but as to the significant limits on the intra-corporate immunity doctrine and the enforceability of contractual clauses that are designed to limit claims for breach of fiduciary duty.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
The Court's original 4-3 majority opinion, discussed in our prior blog entry, affirmed the criminal conviction of Jeremy Jaynes, who sent over 50,000 unsolicited email to AOL subscribers. Jaynes was found guilty in a jury trial and sentenced to nine years of imprisonment for violating Virginia Code section 18.2-152.3:1. See our prior blog post: http://unfairbusinesspractices.blogspot.com/2008/03/spammer-to-slammer-unfair-business-of.html. The withdrawn opinion can be found at this link: here.
The Court issued its new opinion after granting a petition for rehearing pursuant to Rule 5:39 of the Rules of Supreme Court of Virginia. That Rule provides that: "No petition for rehearing shall be allowed unless one of the justices who decided the case adversely to the applicant is of opinion that there is good cause for such rehearing."
The Court's new opinion declared that section 18.2-152.3:1 was unconstitutionally overbroad because it violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protections. Section 18.2-152.3:1 provides that "Any person who: 1. Uses a computer or computer network with the intent to falsify or forge electronic mail transmission information or other routing information in any manner in connection with the transmission of unsolicited bulk electronic mail through or into the computer network of an electronic mail service provider or its subscribers . . . is guilty . . . ."
The Court first explained the constitutional test: a successful First Amendment overbreath challenge "suffices to invalidate all enforcement of that law upon showing that the law punishes a substantial amount of protected free speech, judged in relation to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep." Op. at 10 (internal quotes omitted).
The Court expressed its concern that the statute chilled the protected right of anonymous speech:
[B]ecause e-mail transmission protocol requires entry of an IP address and domain name for the sender, the only way such a speaker can publish an anonymous e-mail is to enter a false IP address or domain name. Therefore, . . . registered IP addresses and domain names discoverable through searchable data bases and registration documents necessarily result in a surrender of the speaker’s anonymity. The right to engage in anonymous speech, particularly anonymous political or religious speech, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. By prohibiting false routing information in the dissemination of e-mails, Code [sec.] 18.2-152.3:1 infringes on that protected right.
Id. at 22 (internal quotations omitted). The Court also found that the statute was not narrowly drawn to further a compelling state interest. Id. at 23.
The Justices seemed to suggest that the Virginia legislature could redraft the statute to avoid constitutional infirmity: Sec. 18.2-152.3:1 "is not limited to instances of commercial or fraudulent transmission of e-mail, nor is it restricted to transmission of illegal or otherwise unprotected speech such as pornography or defamation speech. Therefore, . . . 18.2-152.3:1 is not narrowly tailored to protect the compelling interests advanced by the Commonwealth." Id. at 24.
Further, the statute "would prohibit all bulk e-mail containing anonymous political, religious, or other expressive speech. For example, were the Federalist Papers just being published today via e-mail, that transmission by Publius would violate the statute." Id. at 26.
The Court's concern about suppressing free speech tracked those expressed by the dissenting Justices to the Court's original opinion. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elizabeth Lacy wrote that the "current use of the Internet as the marketplace for expressing political ideas, views and positions emphasizes the need for insuring that use of this medium not be chilled by the threat of criminal prosecution. Those persons wishing to use this medium should have the same ability to express their views anonymously as did Thomas Paine during the founding of our country." Jaynes v. Commonwealth, 275 Va. 341, 367-68 (2008).
The new opinion also addressed the Commonwealth of Virginia's argument that 18.2-152.3:1 was in the "form of trespass and thus not entitled to First Amendment protection," noting that section "does not prohibit the unauthorized use of privately owned e-mail servers." Op. at 19. In this context, the Court drew a distinction between civil cases between private parties where "the courts have held that the unauthorized use of the Internet service providers' property constituted common law trespass and that a First Amendment claim could not be raised against the owner of private property." Id. at 20. Thus, this decision is not an open invitation to spammers or other types of businesses to engage in unfair business practices by wrongfully using another company's servers or other computer equipment.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Virginia Business Conspiracy Claim Dismissed Because Alleged Injury was to Individual’s Employment Interests and Not to Business Interests
In Mansfield v. Anesthesia Associates, Ltd., 2008 WL 1924029 (E.D.Va. 2008), published on April 28, 2008, the Court addressed a business conspiracy claim filed by Patrick Mansfield, M.D, who was a Board Certified anesthesiologist and an employee and shareholder of Anesthesia Associates, Ltd. Mansfield worked for Anesthesia Associates in Inova Alexandria Hospital ("Inova Hospital"). See http://www.williamsmullen.com/files/upload/ubp_blog060308.pdf .
On June 17, 2005, Mansfield was informed that an Inova Hospital employee had accused Mansfield of sexually harassment. On July 5, Mansfield met with the Chairman of Anesthesia Associates who handed Mansfield a letter from Inova Hospital that "claimed that [Mansfield] had been accused of sexual harassment by an employee of Inova, the charges had been investigated, and Inova had concluded that Plaintiff posed a threat to the safety and security of Inova staff." On the basis of this allegation, Anesthesia Associates eventually terminated Mansfield.
Subsequently, Mansfield filed his lawsuit against Anesthesia Associates and Inova Hospital in Virginia state court. The defendants removed the case to federal court. Mansfield alleged that "Defendants did purposely and maliciously interfere with the Plaintiff's Contract of Employment with Anesthesia Associates, Ltd and that the Plaintiff's loss of contract was the anticipated outcome, if not the expressed purpose of removing him from both the defendant Association and Inova Alexandria Hospital."
In examining Mansfield business conspiracy claim, the Court first repeated the standards for recovery: section "18.2-499 makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to conspire to 'willfully and maliciously injur[e] another in his reputation, trade, business or profession by any means whatever.' To recover in an action for conspiracy to harm a business, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a combination of two or more persons for the purpose of willfully and maliciously injuring the plaintiff in his business; and (2) resulting damage to the plaintiff.” Citations omitted.
The Court then analyzed whether the statutes could provide any relief to Mansfield:
Federal courts in Virginia have consistently held that the statutes are designed to provide relief against 'conspiracies resulting in business-related damages' and that a cause of action exists 'only when malicious conduct is directed at one's business, not one's person.' Courts have characterized the 'employment relation' as 'a personal right as opposed to a business interest' and have consequently placed employment interests outside the reach of [sections 18.2-499 and -500]. Similarly, an individual's 'professional reputation and stock ownership in his own company' have been found to be employment interests that fall outside the scope of the statutes. [Citations omittted.]The court also noted that the "Supreme Court of Virginia has also reached the conclusion that 'personal reputation' and 'interest in employment' are excluded from the scope of the statutes' coverage." Andrews v. Ring, 585 S.E.2d 780, 784 (Va. 2003).
The court rejected Mansfield argument that "his claim is not that he 'lost his job' but that 'he has lost the ability to pursue his profession,' and that injury to one's 'profession' is a recoverable injury under the statutes."
The Court also held that even if the statutes recognized the claimed injury, Mansfield conspiracy claim was deficient because his allegations were conclusory. Specifically, Mansfield failed to allege any agreement between Inova Hospital and Anesthesia Associates to injure him.
This case is a good illustration of the limits of the Virginia business conspiracy statutes because they are not designed to remedy every injury. Further, Courts are increasingly examining the factual allegations to ensure that an actual conspiracy has been plead.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
In WAKA, LLC v. Humphrey, 73 Va. Cir. 310 (2007) one of the LLC's members sued the other members individually for, inter alia, breach of fiduciary duty. The other members moved to dismiss the claim. The court, therefore, had to determine whether managers, members and member-managers of Virginia LLCs owed fiduciary duties to each other. The LLC's Articles of Organization and Operating Agreement were silent as to the issue. Turning to the Virginia Code, the court found it silent as well. But when the court compared the provisions of the Virginia LLC Act with those of the Partnership Act, it found distinct differences. Most significantly, the Partnership Act contains express provisions relating to fiduciary duties owed to the partnership and other partners. The LLC Act does not. In addition, the LLC Act permits members to transact business with the LLC in the same way as non-members, compared to the Partnership Act which prohibits a partner from dealing with the partnership where the partner's interest is adverse to that of the entity.
Based upon these distinctions, the court held that the absence of statutory language creating fiduciary duties in the LLC context was intentional. Thus, members of an LLC do not owe fiduciary duties to each other, even if one is a member-manager. The only duties are owed by the member-manager to the LLC as an entity. To create such fiduciary duties, however, the LLC Act permits the members to include such provisions in the articles of organization or the operating agreement.
In the second case, Remora Investments, LLC v Orr, 2007 Va. Cir. LEXIS 198, the court considered whether an LLC member could bring a direct action against the manager of that LLC for breach of fiduciary duty. In its analysis, the court reviewed prior decisions of the Virginia Supreme Court which held that a member of an LLC owed a fiduciary duty to the LLC itself, Flippo v. CSC Assocs., http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1002183.pdf (2001), and that a minority shareholder in a closely held corporation could not bring an action against corporate officers or directors for breach of fiduciary duty in an individual, as opposed to derivative capacity. Simmons v. Miller, http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1000785.pdf (2001). The court also relied upon WAKA, LLC v. Humphrey, supra.
Noting that the LLC in Remora was manager-managed as opposed to member-managed, the court found that the Virginia Code did not differentiate among managers and member-managers with regard to duties owed to the LLC. And, the Operating Agreement did not provide that any fiduciary duties were owed by the manager to the members themselves. Accordingly, the court concluded that a claim for breach of fiduciary duty could only be maintained against another member or manager of an LLC in a derivative capacity.
These cases are cautionary tales for those in business who do not appreciate all of the distinctions between LLCs and partnerships. It is not unusual for disputes to arise between partners or members of LLCs. Those disputes sometimes result in unfair business practice type claims being asserted against other partners/members. In the absence of careful drafting of the organizational documents, however, in the LLC context, members may find the fiduciary duties they expect to protect them, non-existent.
Monday, March 24, 2008
To read our view of what constitutes an unfair business practice see http://unfairbusinesspractices.blogspot.com/2007/12/what-is-unfair-business-practice_31.html#links.
So too is the relevance of the criminal prosecution of Congressman William J. Jefferson (D-LA) integral to this blog's purpose. The attached opinion analyzes the Congressman's argument that the indictment alleging his participation in several bribery schemes was invalid because the Grand Jury proceeding offended the U.S. Constitution's Speech and Debate Clause, protecting the Congressman's legislative activities. See http://www.williamsmullen.com/files/upload/20March2008_Clayton_vaed_uscourts_govp.pdf.
"The indictment alleges that beginning in or about January 2001, [Congressman Jefferson] used his office to advance the business interests of various individuals and corporations in return for money and other things of value paid either directly to defendant or via 'nominee companies,' that is, companies ostensibly controlled by one of defendant’s family members but in fact controlled by defendant himself. More specifically, the indictment alleges seven bribery schemes . . . ."
For example, "the indictment alleges that defendant solicited bribes from Vernon Jackson, president of iGate, Incorporated (iGate), a Louisville, Kentucky-based telecommunications firm, to promote iGate's telecommunications technology in certain African countries. In return for payments of money and iGate shares to the ANJ Group, L.L.C. (ANJ), a Louisiana limited liability company ostensibly controlled and managed by defendant's spouse, Andrea Jefferson, defendant allegedly sent letters on official letterhead, conducted official travel, and met with foreign government officials to promote the use of iGate’s technology."
For another of the bribery schemes, the "indictment alleges that defendant solicited bribes from Netlink Digital Television (Netlink), a Nigerian corporation that was pursuing a telecommunications venture in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. In return for a share of revenue, stocks, and fees from Netlink, defendant allegedly performed various official acts including meeting with Nigerian government officials to promote Netlink's business."
It is important to emphasis that Congressman Jefferson has only been accused of the crimes – not convicted. He has defended himself, in part, by claiming that the indictment should be dismissed because the "indictment was returned on the basis of information privileged by the Speech or Debate Clause, U.S. Const. Art I, § 6, cl. 1."
As the Court explained: "The Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause has a distinguished pedigree, and the principle it embodies has roots that long predate the Constitution. It states, with elegant simplicity, that:
'[F]or any Speech or Debate in either House, [Members of Congress] shall not
be questioned in any other Place.'
By its plain terms, the Clause confers absolute immunity on Members of Congress for their legislative activities. The importance of this immunity is manifest. As Justice Joseph Story recognized in his famous Commentaries on the Constitution, this is a 'great and vital privilege . . . without which all other [congressional] privileges would be comparatively unimportant, or ineffectual.' Similarly, the Supreme Court later noted that the purpose of the Speech or Debate Clause, and of similar clauses that then appeared in every state’s constitution, is 'to support the rights of the people, by enabling their representatives to execute the functions of their office without fear of prosecutions, civil or criminal.'"
Moreover, "It is also worth nothing that the Speech or Debate Clause protects Members of Congress 'not only from the consequences of litigation's results but also from the burden of defending themselves' regarding their legislative activities."
But, "the privilege applies only to those activities integral to a Member's legislative function, i.e. activities that are integral to the Member's participation in the drafting, consideration, debate, and passage or defeat of legislation. And because the scope of the Speech or Debate Clause is limited to legislative activities, it follows that the privilege does not extend to a Member's nonlegislative actions."
"Because the Clause's protection does not extend beyond the legislative sphere, it follows that the Clause does not confer immunity on a Member for the Member's criminal conduct, including conspiracy, solicitation of bribes, wire fraud, violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, money laundering, obstruction of justice, or racketeering."
After reviewing the transcript of the Grand Jury proceedings, the Court concluded that the proceeding did not violate the Speech and Debate Clause and a dismissal of the indictment was not required.
In Washington, D.C., the forces of big money and powerful politics constantly intersect. And, it is important that these cross-currents are legally navigated by business persons and politicians alike.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
The conviction of a spammer was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court in an opinion published on February 29, 2008. The case is styled Jaynes v. Commonwealth. This case is an example of unfair business practices that are so nefarious as to invite criminal prosecution.
Criminal liability was based on Virginia Code Ann. Sec. 18.2-152.3:1 which provides:
An interesting aspect of the case was the Court holding that Virginia has jurisdiction to criminally prosecute the spammer who was located in North Carolina, but sent the spam emails through AOL servers located in Virginia. The Court held, in part, that jurisdiction was proper because '[b]y selecting AOL subscribers as his e-mail recipients, Jaynes knew and intended that his e-mails would utilize AOL servers because he clearly intended to send to users whose e-mails ended in '@aol.com.' The evidence established that the AOL servers are located in Virginia, and that the location of AOL's servers was information easily accessible to the general public.
A. Any person who: 1. Uses a computer or computer network with the intent to
falsify or forge electronic mail transmission information or other routing
information in any manner in connection with the transmission of unsolicited
bulk electronic mail through or into the computer network of an electronic mail
service provider or its subscribers . . . is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
B. A person is guilty of a Class 6 felony if he commits a violation of subsection A
and: 1. The volume of UBE transmitted exceeded 10,000 attempted recipients in
any 24-hour period, 100,000 attempted recipients in any 30-day time period, or
one million attempted recipients in any one-year time period. . .
The Court rejected the spammer's claim that he had standing to assert a First Amendment defense to argue that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad on behalf of an "unknown individual’s potentially protected speech." Opinion at 12. Similarly, it rejected the spammer’s argument that the statute was void for vagueness. The Opinion invited three dissenting Justices, who disagreed with the Court’s standing analysis.
The court did not address how this unfair business practice might be treated for any civil claims that may be filed.
The scope of the spammer's activity and the number of emails in his possession were extraordinary, and it is worth reading extended excerpts from the Court's factual summary.
"From his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Jaynes used several computers, routers and servers to send over 10,000 e-mails within a 24-hour period to subscribers of America Online, Inc. (AOL) on each of three separate occasions. On July 16, 2003, Jaynes sent 12,197 pieces of unsolicited e-mail with falsified routing and transmission information onto AOL's proprietary network. On July 19, 2003, he sent 24,172, and on July 26, 2003, he sent 19,104. None of the recipients of the e-mails had requested any communication from Jaynes. He intentionally falsified the header information and sender domain names before transmitting the e-mails to the recipients, causing the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to convey false information to every recipient about Jaynes’ identity as the sender. However, investigators used a sophisticated database search to identify Jaynes as the sender of the e-mails."
"During trial, evidence demonstrated that Jaynes knew that all of the more than 50,000 recipients of his unsolicited e-mails were subscribers to AOL, in part, because the e-mail addresses of all recipients ended in ' @aol.com ' and came from discs stolen from AOL. Jaynes' e-mails advertised one of three products: (1) a FedEx refund claims product, (2) a 'Penny Stock Picker,' and (3) a 'History Eraser' product. To purchase one of these products, potential buyers would click on a hyperlink within the e-mail, which redirected them outside the e-mail, where they could consummate the purchase. Jaynes operated his enterprise through several companies which were not registered to do business in North Carolina, and evidence was introduced as to billing and payment activities for these companies, including evidence that registration fees were paid to AOL with credit cards held by fictitious account holders."
"While executing a search of Jaynes' home, police discovered a cache of compact discs (CDs) containing over 176 million full e-mail addresses and 1.3 billion e-mail user names. The search also led to the confiscation of a storage disc which contained AOL e-mail address information and other personal and private account information for millions of AOL subscribers. Police also discovered multiple storage discs which contained 107 million AOL e-mail addresses. Richard Rubenstein, manager of technical security investigations at AOL, testified that the discs recovered at Jaynes’ home "contained proprietary information" of 'pretty near all' AOL account customers. The AOL user information had been stolen from AOL by a former employee and was in Jaynes' possession."
"AOL, which houses all of its e-mail servers in Virginia, was directly affected by Jaynes' spam e-mail attack. Brian Sullivan, the senior technical director for mail operations at AOL, testified that bulk e-mail 'tends to create a lot of confusion' for AOL customers and that AOL receives '7 to 10 million complaints per day' regarding spam e-mails. Sullivan also described the impact of spam e-mails, explaining that '[i]f someone’s mailbox is full because they got a truckload of spam and there’s no more room, a message coming from Grandma is returned back to the sender. We can’t take it at that point.'"
"Jaynes' enterprises were apparently quite successful. Although not introduced as evidence during the guilt stage of the trial, counsel for the Commonwealth informed the Court following the jury verdict against Jaynes and during the discussion of bond for Jaynes that Jaynes' '[p]ersonal financing statement list[s] assets at $17 million and a net worth of $24 million,' and his income from all of his businesses exceeded $1 million in 2001, 2002 and 2003."
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
When informed of the improper withdrawal, Bank of America froze Grieb's personal account. About four months later, Hill contacted Piedmont's former corporate attorney, Ralph Eugene Maine, Jr. ("Maine"), who was also Grieb's personal attorney, to inquire about the propriety of the withdrawal.
Schlegel brought a Virginia statutory business conspiracy claim against Bank of America, alleging that Ewald's request from Maine was unlawful, the bank acted improperly, and Maine acted unlawfully in responding to Ewald's request. The court granted Bank of America's motion to dismiss, finding that Schlegel failed to allege a concerted action between the bank, bank officials, and Maine.
The court first set forth the meaning of "concerted action" as contained in Sec. 18.2-499, requiring proof that someone "'combined, associated, agreed, mutually undertook, or concerted together' with someone else in the injurious conduct." "This means that a plaintiff must prove that the defendants combined together to effect a preconceived plan and unity of design and purpose."
The court dismissed the conspiracy claim because the plaintiff "essentially bases his conclusion that there must have been a conspiracy on a 'but for' argument: 'Ewald would have been unable to continue the freeze of funds had Maine not provided him with the information he did, and Maine individually has no way of effecting bank policy in his client's (Grieb's) favor. Thus it became a mutual undertaking because it had to, neither alone able to achieve the result desired, which they did when their efforts were combined.'" "In other words, plaintiff argues that but for Ewald's actions and Maine's actions, he would not have been injured."
In rejecting the plaintiff's argument, the court reasoned: "But to read a 'but for' test of 'conspiracy' and 'concerted action' into Virginia's civil conspiracy statute would mean that two people acting independently would be civilly liable any time their independent acts resulted in a harm to a person's reputation, trade, business or profession, regardless of whether the two people actually came to an agreement (whether explicit or implicit) regarding the purpose of their actions. Such a reading would be far too expansive."
"[P]laintiff here has merely alleged that Ewald independently acted improperly, Maine independently acted improperly, and the Bank officials independently acted improperly, all to plaintiff's detriment. Ergo, he says, those three must have acted in concert. Plaintiff simply has not alleged any facts that would allow the court to infer that Maine and the Bank acted together. His claim must therefore be dismissed."
This opinion reinforces the point that not every collection of bad acts give rise to a business conspiracy claim. And, courts closely examine the allegations to determine whether to even allow plaintiff discovery to investigate the facts.
For a discussion of the elements of a Virginia statutory business conspiracy claim see http://unfairbusinesspractices.blogspot.com/2008/01/elements-of-business-conspiracy.html#links
Friday, March 7, 2008
The Court granted the injunction based on the non-competition provision that provided that: "[d]uring the Term of the Agreement and for a period of two (2) years after termination thereof for any reason, or for no reason at all, Licensee shall not, without the express written consent of the Licensor, individually or on behalf of any other person, corporation, firm or other entity, solicit or encourage any employee, agent or contractor or Licensor or its affiliates, solicit the business of any client, customer or other licensee of Licensor or solicit or encourage any client, customer, licensee or vendor to terminate his, her or its relationship or affiliation with the Company." Opinion at 3.
The court applied the four factor test for determining whether to grant an injunction as set forth in Blackwelder Furniture Co. v. Seilig Mfg. Co., 550 F.2d 189 (4th Cir. 1977), which weighs: (1) the likelihood of irreputable harm to the plaintiff in the event the preliminary injunction is denied; (2) the likelihood of harm to the defendant if the request is granted; (3) the likelihood the petitioner will succeed on the merits; and (4) the public interest.
In applying Blackwelder test, the Court determined that "the hardships weigh in favor of granting relief to the petitioners." Therefore, "a lesser showing of success on the merits is required." And, as to the likelihood of success on the merits, the Court found "a causal reading of the publications would suggest clients, customers or other licensors of 'Game Day' magazine might reasonably expect to be confused with a contact from 'Inside Sport' magazine." It thus entered the requested injunction. An argument can be made, however, that the scope of the noncompetition clause is overly broad because it purports to be binding on "'. . . Licensee, and its affiliates, officers, shareholders, owners, members, directors, agents and employees . . .'"
The Court denied the injunctive relief request as to a much broader provision in the licensing agreement, which sought to prevent Sports Group during the period specified from publishing the Inside Sport magazine. That provision limited the Sports Group's ability to compete with TCC Sports "in the Commonwealth of Virginia or in any other state of the United States or in any country in the world where licensor engages in business, or proposes to engage in business on the date of the termination of the agreement." As the Court pointed out, granting the injunction would put Sports Group out of business. The Court was not prepared to do so when the relative harm/benefit analysis was "in equipoise," and there was a "scant record" as to whether the petitioners were likely to succeed at trial.
The court’s ruling is clearly aimed at separating TCC Sports justifiable pre-trial interests (e.g. not having its clients solicited by Sports Group) from those interests that may be difficult to prove at trial, such as preventing all of Sports Group’s officers, shareholders, and employees, etc. from establishing an arguably competitive magazine.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
For the plaintiff’s lawyer representing the victim employer, electronic data may be the source of the most important evidence in the case. So where do you look?
First, start with the client’s IT system. But, before any search methods are employed, engage a forensics expert to make a bit map image of the server or any hard drives that might contain relevant evidence. In addition, take the last set of full backup tapes, if they exist, out of rotation. That way, no discoverable electronic data should be lost that could later serve as a basis for a spoliation (unlawful destruction) motion.
Then, examine the renegade employees’ emails, user files and electronic faxes. Most jurisdictions do not protect employees’ communications using work computers from review by their employer. From this information, you may find evidence that supports your claim against the departed employees, but it may also reveal evidence of concerted action by other individuals who are still employed by your client.
Once a lawsuit is filed, serve comprehensive document requests that require the production of documents from the individual defendant’s personal computers and PDAs in electronic form. It is important to negotiate a protocol for the form of production with opposing counsel in advance or seek approval of one from the court. Make certain that the metadata for all documents and emails is produced. It will provide details of when documents were created, modified, last accessed and by whom. Again, emails may hold the key to the identities of others who may be involved. Cell phone records are another fertile ground for evidence of complicity.
Twenty first century litigation is almost wholly dependent upon electronic evidence. If you are still chasing the paper, you will likely miss 90% of potentially relevant evidence. Working closely with a competent forensic expert will help you identify other potential sources of electronic data that can assist in evaluating your case early, before costs escalate and can possibly enable you to find that smoking gun that will lead to an early settlement of the litigation.
Friday, February 22, 2008
D.C. Circuit Bars Air Force From Disclosing Contractor’s Pricing Information in Response to FOIA Request
In 2003, an unsuccessful bidder filed a FOIA request with the Air Force seeking a copy of the contract awarded to CCC which contained line-item pricing information. CCC objected on the basis that the line-item rates constituted trade secrets. The Air Force rejected CCC's contention and issued a decision letter indicating its intention to release the information. CCC filed a "reverse" Freedom of Information suit seeking to prevent the Air Force from releasing the information. It prevailed at the district court level, but the Air Force appealed.
On appeal, the D.C. Circuit noted that Exemption 4 of FOIA protects from disclosure "matters that are … trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4). Commercial or financial information is "confidential" if it is obtained from a person involuntarily and its disclosure would either "impair the Government's ability to obtain necessary information in the future; or .. cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the person from whom the information was obtained." The court held that line-item pricing meets this test.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Coastal filed seemingly every unfair business practice claim against Brunckhorst for the latter party's decision to terminate their twenty-three year oral "at-will" contractual relationship allegedly based on Coastal's problems with product integrity. Even though an at-will contract "may be terminated by either party at any time, with or without cause," Coastal argued the termination was actionable because it had been assured at the outset that it would have exclusive distribution rights as long as it "(1) promoted the Boar’s Head brand and, (2) built brand identification." Id. at 3. Brunckhorst allegedly terminated Coastal despite Coastal’s alleged compliance with those terms.
Coastal further alleged that after it was terminated and began distributing a rival's brand's products, Brunckhorst "threatened certain retailers that, if they bought [the rival’s] products from Coastal, they would not be able to purchase Boar’s Head products . . . ." Id. at 8.
Coastal filed the following claims against Brunckhorst: actual and constructive fraud, tortious interference with contract and with business expectancy, business conspiracy, breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unjust enrichment. The court dismissed each of these counts.
Underlying the Court's decision, was its conclusion that Brunckhorst was legally permitted to terminate its distributor relationship with Coastal. And, as our blog previously discussed, fraud or any other tort must arise out of a duty beyond one arising out of a contract duty. See http://unfairbusinesspractices.blogspot.com/2008/02/when-is-breach-of-contract-unfair.html. Illustrative of the court's reasoning, it found that Brunckhorst's alleged threat to retailers "fails to rise to the level of improper interference," although "perhaps unsavory" because "Brunckhorst’s tactics . . . were within its legal rights." And, "this is the essence of competition in a free market society." Id. at 8. Using the same logic, the Court dismissed Coastal's business conspiracy claim.
This case is another warning to litigants to pay careful attention to the nature of the improper/unlawful action when considering a tortious unfair business practice claim.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Maryland Court Finds No Duty to Mitigate Damages When An Enforceable Liquidated Damages Provision Exists
That question was presented to the Court of Appeals of Maryland in Barrie School v. Andrew Patch, et al., 401 Md. 497, 933 A.2d 382 (2007), found at http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2007/12a06.pdf. There, the Court held that when a contract contains an enforceable liquidated damage, the non-breaching party has no obligation to mitigate his damages. As we mentioned in our prior blog entry, http://unfairbusinesspractices.blogspot.com/2008/02/when-is-breach-of-contract-unfair.html, parties should consider negotiating a liquidated damages provision to avoid having to prove complicated damage questions. Liquidated damages are defined as a "specific sum stipulated to and agreed upon by the parties at the time they entered into a contract, to be paid to compensate for injuries in the event of a breach of that contract." Id. at 507, 933 A.2d at 388.
Before addressing the duty to mitigate issue, the Court first examined the rules pertaining to liquidated damages. The Court embraced a three-part test to determine whether a contract clause constitutes a liquidated damages provision: "First, such a clause must provide in clear and unambiguous terms for a certain sum. Secondly, the liquidated damages must reasonably be compensation for the damages anticipated by the breach. Thirdly, liquidated damage clauses are by their nature mandatory binding agreements before the fact which may not be altered to correspond to actual damages determined after the fact." Id. at 509, 933 A.2d at 389 (internal citation omitted).
In addition, a liquidated damages provision may not be "grossly excessive and out of all proportion to the damages that might reasonably have been expected to result from such breach of the contract." Id. at 509, 933 A.2d at 389-90 (internal citations and quotations omitted). And, the Court adopoted the following analysis: "a liquidated damages provision will be held to vioate public policy, and hence will not be enforced, when it is intended to punish, or has the effect of punishing, a party for breaching the contract, or when there is a large disparity between the amount payable under the provision and the actual damages likely to be caused by a breach, so that it in effect seeks to coerce performance of the underlying agreement by penalizing nonperformance and making a breach prohibitively and unreasonably costly." Id. at 510, 933 A.2d at 390 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
The Court then used a two-part test to determine whether a liquidated damages provision should be treated as an enforceable penalty: "First, the clause must provide a fair estimate of potential damages at the time the parties entered into the contract." Id. at 510, 933 A.2d at 390. "Second, the damages must have been incapable of estimation, or very difficult to estimate, at the time of contracting." Id. Using that test, the Court held that the school's one-year tuition liquidated damage provision was "enforceable because [the damages] were neither grossly excessive nor out of proportion of those which might have been expected at the time of contracting." Id. at 512, 933 A.2d at 391.
After determining that the provision was enforceable, the Court held that the non-breaching party has no duty to mitigate its actual damages "[b]ecause mitigation of damages is [only] part of a post-breach calculation of actual damages...." Id. at 514-15, 933 A.2d at 392-93. And, such an analysis would "blunt" the purpose of having a liquidated damages provision. Id.