Employment

Employers are now using a new strategy in an effort to keep their employees from leaving the company and working in a competitive enterprise. Traditionally, employers used restrictive covenant agreements, almost always built in to the employee’s written employment agreement. These covenants prohibit employees from engaging in competition with a former employer. Courts tend not to favor restrictive covenants because they impinge on the ability of a worker to earn a living – they are a restraint of trade.

To limit the scope of restrictive covenants, courts impose a reasonableness standard. Restrictions for a limited time, such as a year, and a small geographical area, such as a five mile radius, were favored. Long-term and broad covenants were not. The employee’s skill set and knowledge of the original employer’s enterprise are also key factors in assessing the business need for any restrictions. The more skill needed to do the work, the more knowledge an employee has of the employer’s business strategies, the more justifiable the non-compete clause becomes.

Why Employers Like the Employee Choice Doctrine

The strategy that employers are now using in some states, including Pennsylvania, is a little more artful. Employers are offering employees post-employment benefits such as stock options and deferred compensation with a condition – a catch. The catch is that the benefits are only available if the employee who leaves the company does not compete with the employer providing the benefits. The employee is given a choice to either accept the benefits and not compete, or compete, but forfeit the benefits and be subject to repayment, or "clawbacks” of benefits already paid. The choice has become known as the employee choice doctrine.

The employee choice option works better for the employer than the typical restrictive covenant because it enables the employer to shift the burden to the employee. In the classic non-compete case, the employer's remedy was to seek an injunction against the competing former employee ordering him or her to cease the competition. In employee choice cases, the employer can still seek an injunction. Better still, the employer can just terminate the benefits (the stock option or other post-employment benefit) thus shifting the burden to the employee to seek redress in the courts by demanding payment of the benefit.

In some states, like New York, there is no review of the employee choice option to assure that the choice offered to the former employee is reasonable. That is not the case in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania law currently does allow employees to craft employment benefits that are tied to non-competition, but the tie has to be reasonable. The cases in Pennsylvania are evolving. As with restrictive covenants, the more reasonable, meaning less strict, the choice is - the more likely Pennsylvania courts will uphold it.

Key Drafting Issues in Employee Choice Benefit Contracts

When drafting employee choice benefit provisions, employers should keep in mind the following points:

• The Employee must have a real choice. The choice between competing in the new position and forfeiting the benefit or not competing and keeping the benefit should be clear. In short, the employee should understand that there is a trade-off.

• The Employee has to leave voluntarily. The choice option is likely only valid if the employee controls the decision about leaving the current employer. Some courts reason that the employee choice doctrine is not really a choice if the employer fires the employee without cause. In such a circumstance, the employer has little or no legitimate business interest in enforcing the non-compete obligation.

• Consideration.  For the employee to be forced to make a choice between forfeiting assets and working with a competitor, the employer has to give the employee additional consideration over and above that which the employee would have been entitled to receive in the normal course of working for the employer, including severance or other payments normally paid upon termination.

Why Legal Counsel Can Help

Experienced business counsel understand the evolving nature of the employee choice doctrine.  In particular, they keep current with the Pennsylvania and federal court decisions so they can craft documents which have the best chance of surviving attack by employees who seek to avoid them by claiming that the choice is invalid as a restraint of trade.

Before drafting, and certainly before presenting an employee benefit with a forfeiture provision – employers should seek to have their business counsel review the language of the benefit contract.

Federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) prohibits, among other matters, a covered employer, from discriminating against an employee because of such individual’s sex.  Generally, a private employer with 15 or more employees, engaging in interstate commerce, is covered by Title VII.  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) passed in 1978, added discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” to this prohibition.

The PDA also provides that employers are required to treat  “women affected by  pregnancy… the same for all employment-related  purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work” .

In the recent case of Young v. UPS, the Supreme Court, in interpreting the provision above, announced a new test for analyzing pregnancy discrimination claims. The relevant facts of the case are as follows:

Plaintiff Young worked as a part-time driver for defendant United Parcel Service (UPS). Her duties included pickup and delivery of packages. While employed by UPS she became pregnant and was told by her doctor that she should not lift more than 20 pounds during her first 20 weeks of pregnancy and no more than 10 pounds thereafter. Drivers in Young’s position were required to lift up to 70 pounds. UPS therefore advised Young that she could not work while under a lifting restriction. As a result Young remained home without pay during most of her pregnancy and ultimately lost her employee medical coverage.

By Patricia C. Collins, Esquire, Reprinted with permission from the March 23, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2015 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

Recently, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in Mathis v. Christian Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., 13-3747 (March 12, 2015), examined the effect of factual findings in unemployment compensation proceedings in Pennsylvania on discrimination claims filed in federal court.  The conclusion?  The discrimination case is a “do over,” and nothing determined by the tribunal (including the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review and the Commonwealth Court) will collaterally estop either party, presumably, from taking a contrary position in the subsequent wrongful termination suit. 

 The facts are these:  Mr. Mathis was employed at Christian Heating and Air Conditioning (“Christian Heating”) for nearly two years.  During that time, Mr. Mathis had placed black tape over part of his identification badge.  The objectionable part of the card professed the company’s mission statement to, inter alia, run the business in a way that was “pleasing to the lord [sic]….”  Mr. Mathis’s supervisor and the owner of the business required him to remove the tape from the back of his badge.  Mr. Mathis refused to do so, and contended that he was terminated as a result. 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014 19:08

Restrictive Covenants: A Cautionary Tale

A recurring issue employers must address is the enforceability of restrictive covenants entered into with an employee. These restrictive covenants are typically non-disclosure (confidentiality), non-solicitation, and/or non-competition agreements.   The timing, form, and substance of these agreements will determine whether a court will find them valid. From a former employee’s perspective, the issue is basically the same but reversed: can the employee disregard a previously signed restrictive covenant without being liable for monetary damages to his former employer (and if newly employed at another company, keeping the second company out of litigation)?

Two cases recently decided by the Pennsylvania Superior Court provide guidance for employers and employees:

Fleisher v. Bergman, concerned an employee who was hired as a full-time employee. At the time of his hire, employee signed a restrictive covenant which was a confidentiality and non-competition agreement. The restrictive covenant provided that employee would not divulge any “Confidential Information” (e.g., customer lists, pricing policies, names of vendors) to other parties without the consent of employer; the Agreement further mandated that for a period of five years after termination of his employment, employee would not “. . . solicit or do business with any . . . entity . . . that was, within the three year period preceding the Employee’s termination, a Client or Prospect of Employer... ”

Reprinted by permission of Catalyst Center for Nonprofit Management.  Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

Childhood victimization and other abuses of our most vulnerable citizens unfortunately remain a much too prevalent and tragic issue of our times.  Particularly offensive is the possibility of physical or emotional abuse of those susceptible because of age, disability or circumstance while receiving services of a nonprofit. Safety efforts to protect the very people being served by a nonprofit, regardless of size, must be constantly monitored.

Even the smallest nonprofit should adopt safety-related policies based on nationally recommended guidelines developed by experts.  Such policies and guidelines help protect both the recipients of the nonprofit’s services and the integrity of the nonprofit’s programs.  Every nonprofit that serves children and youth has the obligation to exercise “reasonable due diligence” with regards to screening as part of its hiring and vetting programs for members of the nonprofit’s Board, staff and volunteers. Without such screening or gate-keeping vigilance, the very people the nonprofit is trying to serve are more likely to be unprotected and the reputation of the nonprofit (not to mention its fiscal health) are at unnecessary risk.

Monday, 14 April 2014 16:29

NO SEVERING OF SEVERANCE PAY FROM FICA

The U.S. Supreme Court finally rendered its decision in U.S. v. Quality Stores, Inc., 572 U.S. ____ (2014), on March 25, 2014, in a closely watched tax case.  The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and found that severance pay is to be considered wages, and therefore subject to Federal Insurance Contribution Act (“FICA”) taxes. 

This holding dashed the expectations created by the Sixth Circuit’s holding that severance pay was not subject to FICA taxes.  Many businesses had already filed refund claims based on the Sixth Circuit decision, and many more were in the process.  Those refund claims are now most likely going to be denied.

The taxpayer, Quality Stores, Inc., paid severance to hundreds of employees while undergoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.  In its originally filed payroll tax returns, the taxpayer paid roughly $1 million of FICA tax on those severance payments.  It later sought a refund of those payments while in bankruptcy, which then placed jurisdiction with the U.S Bankruptcy Court, rather than the U.S. Tax Court.   That jurisdictional position seemed to work in the taxpayer’s favor, as the Bankruptcy Court found in favor of the taxpayer, as did the Michigan District Court on review of the decision. 

Thursday, 12 December 2013 20:15

Plan B: Litigating Non-Solicitation Agreements

Plan B:  Litigating Non-Solicitation Provisions

By Patricia C. Collins, Esquire
Reprinted with permission from December 12, 2013 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c)
2013 ALM Media Propeties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

Increasingly, employers and their attorneys meet resistance when seeking to enforce covenants not to compete.  States such as Georgia and California continue to refuse to honor those restrictions. Even in states that recognize the validity of such agreements, Courts can restrict the geographic or temporal scope of the agreement, refuse to find sufficient irreparable harm to permit the entry of a temporary or preliminary injunction, or find other equitable grounds to refuse to enforce the covenant not to compete.  Employers do have a back-up plan, however.  Recent cases illustrate that the court will enforce agreements not to solicit customers and clients after termination.  These cases also illustrate that courts will look to the nature of the contacts with clients or employees to determine if there is a breach of a non-solicitation provision.

In Corporate Technologies Inc. v. Harnett, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction against a former employee of Corporate Technologies Inc. and his new employer.  The preliminary injunction restricted the employee from doing business with certain customers of Corporate Technologies with whom he worked during his employment, and required the new employer to withdraw bids which the employee prepared during his employment with the new employer.  The First Circuit court noted that the district court was specifically applying the non-solicitation and not the non-compete provisions of the agreement.  Accordingly, both courts engaged in a discussion of the applicable requirements for the entry of a preliminary injunction (which are the same under Massachusetts and Pennsylvania law).  Notably, the First Circuit did not engage in a discussion of the reasonableness of the geographic or temporal scope of the agreement, or whether the employer had a “protectable interest” served by the non-solicitation provision.  The district court found that the employee breached the non-solicitation provisions of the agreement, and the First Circuit affirmed the grant of the preliminary injunction.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013 14:37

But He Asked Me First!

By William T. MacMinn, Esquire Reprinted with permission from August 13, 2013 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c)
2013 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

But He Asked Me First!

Is that a good defense to an alleged breach of a non-solicitation agreement?  In a recent decision a Pennsylvania trial court said that it was.

In Marino, Robinson & Associates, Inc. v. Robinson, 2013 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec LEXIS 18 (Jan 2013) Judge Wettick of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas entered summary judgment dismissing the case against Defendant who allegedly violated a non-solicitation clause.  Plaintiff acquired Defendant’s accounting practice.  The contract signed by the parties included clauses prohibiting Defendant from competing with the Plaintiff or soliciting any of her former clients.  The non-compete was not implicated in the case because, while the Defendant provided competing accounting services, she did so outside of the geographic limits imposed by the covenant.  However, she provided those services to several of her former clients, each of whom unilaterally approached her and asked her to continue on as their accountant. Plaintiff alleged that by providing services to these former clients, the Defendant violated the non-solicitation clause of the contract which prohibited Defendant from “Solicit(ing) in any manner any past clients … for a period of ten (10) years from closing”.  The Court, following cases decided in other states, agreed with the Defendant that she was not required to turn away former clients who, unsolicited, approached her to request that she provide services. The Court held that solicitation required conduct on the part of the Defendant designed to awaken or incite the desired action in the former client. Where, as in this case, the former client approached the Defendant unilaterally, the Defendant did not violate the non-solicitation clause.

A similar result obtained in Meyer-Chatfield v. Century Bus. Servicing, Inc., 732 F. Supp. 2d 514, 517-518 (E.D. Pa. 2010)  where the Court decided that the meaning of the word “solicit” was not ambiguous and applied the parole evidence rule to bar evidence regarding the meaning of the term.  In Meyer-Chatfield, Plaintiff’s Vice-President of Sales and Marketing left his employment with Plaintiff and accepted a similar position with Defendant.  An agreement, which included non-solicitation provisions, was negotiated between the parties.  Shortly thereafter the parties engaged in negotiations for the acquisition of Plaintiff by Defendant.  Those negotiations failed.  Subsequently (and after he was terminated by Plaintiff) one of Plaintiff’s sales persons accepted employment with Defendant and took with him other employees (who were part of his sales team) with the result that several significant customers of the Plaintiff eventually began doing business with Defendant. Plaintiff brought suit alleging violation of the non-solicit provisions in the solicitation of both the employees and the customers.

The language at issue prohibited the direct or indirect “…solicit(ation) of any of Plaintiff's employees, agents, representatives, strategic partnerships, [or] affiliations.” The contract did not define the word “solicit.”  The Court looked to the common meaning of the term, citing the Black's Law Dictionary definition:

"To appeal for something; to apply to for obtaining something; to ask earnestly; to ask for the purpose of receiving; to endeavor to obtain by asking or pleading; to entreat, implore, or importune; to make  petition to; to plead for; to try to obtain; and though the word implies a serious request, it requires no particular degree of importunity, entreaty, imploration, or supplication. To awake or incite to action by acts or conduct intended to and calculated to incite the act of giving. The term implies personal petition and importunity addressed to a particular individual to do some particular thing."

The Court also cited the Webster’s definition of the word: “to entreat, importune . . . to endeavor to obtain by asking or pleading . . . to urge.”

The issue before the Court was whether the word “solicit” was ambiguous permitting parole evidence of its meaning.  In holding that it was not, the Court reviewed Akron Pest Control v. Radar Exterminating Co., Inc. 216 Ga. App. 495, 455 S.E.2d 601 (Ga. App. 1995), in which the Court held that an agreement “not to solicit, either directly or indirectly, any current or past customers” requires more than “[m]erely accepting business [to] constitute a solicitation of that business.” A party is not required to turn away uninvited contacts of former customers. The Court also cited Maintenance Co. v. West, 39 Cal. 2d 198, 246 P.2d 11 (Cal. 1952) in which it was held that neither the act of informing former customers of one’s change of employment, nor the discussion of business upon the invitation of the former customer constitutes solicitation.  Finding no ambiguity, the Court prohibited testimony regarding the parties’ understanding of the term. 

It seems clear that the Court will apply the ordinary meaning of the word “solicit” which has been repeatedly found to require some overt act of entreaty on the part of the former employee designed to induce the former customer to action.  Responding to an uninvited inquiry from a former customer, even where that inquiry is for the purpose of discussing business, and where that inquiry ultimately results in doing business with that former customer, will not be sufficient to support a finding of a breach of a non-solicitation agreement. Of course, doing business with a former customer may well violate the provisions of a non-compete clause and, in such cases, the Courts have not been reluctant to enforce such provisions.  Although research has found no cases directly on point, the reasoning of the cases suggests that advertisements or social media posts informing the general public or one’s social media circle of new employment circumstances would also not constitute the type of targeted action required to support a finding that a non-solicitation agreement has been breached.

Monday, 01 July 2013 14:47

The Perils of Equity-Based Compensation

Employers frequently want to attract new, super-talented management to an existing Company, or potentially worse, have already promised to give one or more trusted and loyal current employees equity as part of their compensation package as soon as the time is right.  Unfortunately, this is easier said than safely done. 

Clearly, equity can be a powerful, seemingly low-cost form of compensation and motivation.  Having your most valued employees vested in something beyond their pay check certainly seems like a fine idea.  If the Company does well, the employee shares in that growth in the form of annual distributions or a buy-out upon death, disability, retirement or other termination of employment.  So, what do I have against such an idea?

Monday, 06 May 2013 14:08

Rules Applicable to Summer Internships

With summer just around the corner, employers are inundated with requests by students for summer internships. If your company offers such opportunities, taking a few moments to review the applicable regulations will help assure that the program complies with the law.

It goes without saying that a paid intern is an employee and subject to all applicable state and federal employment laws including those pertaining to minimum wage and overtime. Even if the internship is unpaid, failure to follow Department of Labor guidelines could lead to legal liability under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Department of Labor Guidelines

The Fair Labor Standards Act (the FLSA) provides, of course, that individuals in an employment relationship must be paid for services performed. When is an unpaid intern an employee? According to guidelines published by the Department of Labor, if the following factors are met, there is no employment relationship and the intern need not be paid:

The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of this intern;

The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If all of these factors are met, the Department of Labor will conclude that an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA. In such circumstances, minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern.

Different rules apply for governmental agencies and non-profit organizations. Internships offered by governmental agencies, private non-profit food banks and non-profit organizations providing religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian services are generally permissible so long as the intern volunteers his or her time freely and without anticipation of compensation.

A permissible unpaid internship will include some or all of these features:

  1. It is structured around a classroom experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations;
  2. Academic credit is offered by a sponsoring institution;
  3. The internship provides the intern with skills that can be used in multiple employment settings as opposed to specific training in the employer’s operations;
  4. The intern does not perform the routine work of the employer;
  5. The employer is not dependent upon the work of the intern;
  6. Job shadowing opportunities that allow an intern to learn certain functions under the close and constant supervision of regular employees, but the intern performs no or minimal work.
  7. The internship is of a fixed duration established at the outset of the internship.

Factors which indicate an employment relationship (and trigger the requirement to pay wages) include:

  1. The intern is engaged in the operations of the employer;
  2. The intern is performing productive work such as, for example, filing, clerical work or assisting customers;
  3. The employer uses interns in lieu of hiring additional employees or offering more hours to existing employees;
  4. The intern receives the same level of supervision as other employees;
  5. The intern is offered employment to begin immediately upon the conclusion of the internship, effectively transforming the “internship” into a trial period of employment.

Summer internships, paid or unpaid, provide valuable experience to students. Employers need only exercise some caution is structuring the internship to avoid running afoul of DOL regulations. The DOL Fact Sheet on summer internships is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

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