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Posts Tagged ‘California’

Independent Contractor Or Employee?

Posted on: September 20th, 2018

By: Marshall Coyle

The California Supreme Court has established an “ABC test” that could make it extremely difficult for the state’s truckers to use independent contractors. In Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Charles Lee, (Case S222732, April 30, 2018) the Supreme Court endorsed what is called the three-pronged ABC test legal standard.

In Dynamex the lawsuit involved allegations by drivers that Dynamex, a nationwide package and document delivery company, had misclassified its delivery drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. The high state court affirmed the appeals court ruling that supported the workers, endorsing what is called the three-pronged ABC test legal standard.

To be classified as an independent contractor, the ABC test requires that: (A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work; (B) the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation or business of the same nature as the work performed.

The state Supreme Court said that in recent years federal and state regulatory agencies have declared that the misclassification of workers as independent contractors rather than employees is a serious problem that deprives federal and state governments billions of dollars in tax revenue and millions of workers of labor law protections.

“On the one hand, if a worker should properly be classified as an employee, the hiring business bears the responsibility of paying federal Social Security and payroll taxes, unemployment insurance taxes and state employment taxes, providing worker’s compensation insurance, and, most relevant for the present case, complying with numerous state and federal statutes and regulations governing the wages, hours and working conditions of employees,” the court wrote in its opinion.

“On the other hand, if a worker should properly be classified as an independent contractor, the business does not bear any of those costs or responsibilities, the worker obtains none of the numerous labor law benefits and the public may be required under applicable laws to assume additional financial burdens with respect to such workers and their families.”

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Marshall Coyle at [email protected].

Is “But-For” Causation In California Legal Malpractice Cases In Jeopardy?

Posted on: September 18th, 2018

By: Gretchen Carner & Brett Safford

California attorneys sued for fraud and intentional torts, as opposed to negligent legal malpractice, may be subjected to a different causation standard after the California Court of Appeal’s recent opinion in Knutson v. Foster (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1075.  The opinion has caused somewhat of a stir.  “But-for” causation and the “case-within-the-case” analysis are concepts used in virtually every lawsuit by a former client against his or her attorney.  It is axiomatic that a plaintiff, to establish a claim against his or her former attorney, must show that but for the conduct of the attorney, plaintiff would have achieved a better result.

Knutson modifies the causation analysis for certain claims against attorneys. Knutson held that the “but-for” standard should not be used when an attorney is sued by his or her former client for fraud and/or intentional breach of fiduciary duty. The Knutson court premised its reversal of the trial court on a supposed distinction between the “but-for” and substantial factor causation tests. In addition, the Knutson court appears to have abandoned the well-established “case-within-the-case analysis.”

In Knutson, Plaintiff Dagny Knutson filed a lawsuit against her former attorney Richard Foster for fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  Knutson’s claims against Foster arose from his handling of her claim for breach of oral contract against USA Swimming.

Knutson, an internationally ranked swimmer in high school, committed to Auburn University on a full athletic scholarship.  She selected Auburn because Paul Yetter, one of its swimming coaches, was considered an expert in the individual medley, Knutson’s specialty event.  However, in March 2010, the head coach of USA Swimming Mark Schubert told Knutson that Yetter was leaving Auburn and advised her to swim professionally instead of attending Auburn or another university.  Schubert then orally promised her that she would receive training at USA Swimming’s “Center for Excellence” in Fullerton, California as well as room, board, tuition, and a stipend.  The agreement was to last through 2016—after the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Notably, the oral agreement did not include “performance markers,” which Knutson would have to meet to retain her benefits.  Knutson accepted the offer and hired a sports agent.  However, only a few months after moving to Fullerton, USA Swimming terminated Schubert’s employment.

At the suggestion of her agent, Knutson hired attorney Foster after she stopped receiving money from USA Swimming.  Yet, Foster did not disclose to Knutson his close personal ties with high-level persons in the aquatics industry or that he had well-established relationships USA Swimming and other swimming organizations.  Foster also did not disclose that he represented Schubert in 2006, or that following Schubert’s termination from USA Swimming in 2010, he refused to represent Schubert in a wrongful termination action because “he did not want to have a negative relationship with USA Swimming in the future.”

Foster, on behalf of his client, Knutson, ultimately reached a settlement with USA Swimming.  The settlement agreement provided tuition from January to December 2012, but between 2013 and 2016, all payments were contingent upon “perform markers,” i.e., Knutson maintaining a top 25 ranking in the world or a top three ranking in the United States.

After learning of Foster’s conflicts of interest, Knutson sued Foster for fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  The jury found in favor of Knutson on both causes of action, but the trial court granted Foster’s motion for new trial on the grounds that Knudson “failed to adduce evidence of causation and that the jury’s award of damages was excessive.” The trial court also denied Foster’s motion on two other grounds.  Both Knutson and Foster filed notices of appeal.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the trial court erroneously applied the “but-for” test for causation instead of the “substantial factor” test.  The Court explained, “Here, the trial court recognized the different standards of causation between legal malpractice claims and fraud claims, but nevertheless erroneously applied the malpractice standard of causation to the fraudulent concealment claim.  Although the court referred to the substantial factor for causation, it used and applied the but for test.”  After identifying Foster’s alleged concealments and breaches of loyalty, the court then concluded that “[a] substantial factor in Knutson’s decision to enter into the settlement agreement was Foster’s fraudulent concealment of the foregoing facts” and breaches of his fiduciary “caused Knutson harm initially by failing to provide her with all the information needed to make an informed decision about entering into the settlement agreement with USA Swimming and failing to ensure that Knutson’s best interests were being protected by Foster during the negotiations.”

The Court’s analysis in Knutson is problematic because it blurs the relationship between the “but-for” test of causation applied in legal malpractice claims and the “substantial factor” test of causation applied in intentional tort claims.  The “but-for” test has long been the appropriate causation standard for legal malpractice claims.  As explained by the California Supreme Court in Viner v. Sweet (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1232, “In a litigation malpractice action, the plaintiff must establish that but for the alleged negligence of the defendant attorney, the plaintiff would have obtained a more favorable judgment or settlement in the action in which the malpractice allegedly occurred. The purpose of this requirement, which has been in use for more than 120 years, is to safeguard against speculative and conjectural claims.”  (Id. at p. 1241, emphasis added.)  “This method of presenting a legal malpractice lawsuit is commonly called a trial within a trial.” (Blanks v. Seyfarth Shaw LLP (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 336, 357.)  The “substantial factor” test requires that the “the plaintiff to establish ‘a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it was more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in the result.’ ” (Lysick v. Walcom (1968) 258 Cal.App.2d 136, 153, emphasis added.)

Knutson is a significant case because it not only contains a confusing analysis of the distinction between “but-for” causation and “substantial factor” causation, but it could also be read to dispose of the “case-within-the-case” analysis for claims against an attorney for fraud and/or intentional breach of fiduciary duty.  Review by the California Supreme Court is warranted to address the confusion Knutson creates.  Until then, it should be argued that Knutson is an outlier case which can be distinguished on its specific facts.  We will be keeping a close eye on this one.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Gretchen Carner at [email protected] or Brett Safford at [email protected].

Non-Disclosure Provisions – Who Is Bound?

Posted on: September 5th, 2018

By: Josh Ferguson

A California Appellate Court recently ruled that the non-disclosure and confidentiality terms of a settlement agreement bind only the parties, and not counsel, unless specifically stated otherwise.

The case involved Monster Energy Company suing Bruce Schecter and R. Rex Parris Law Firm for (1) breach of contract, (2) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, (3) unjust enrichment, and (4) promissory estoppel. Monster Energy Co. v. Schechter, No. E066267, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 711 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 13, 2018).   Those claims were based on Defendants disclosing terms of settlement to a news outlet in violation of the executed settlement agreement.  Monster pointed out that the plain terms of the settlement agreement bound the attorneys to the confidentiality provision. The Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fourth Appellate District acknowledged “ the confidentiality provisions of the settlement agreement did at least purport to bind the Attorneys.” The terms provided, “Plaintiffs and their counsel agree that they will keep completely confidential all of the terms and contents of this Settlement Agreement … .” They also stated, “Plaintiffs and their counsel of record … agree and covenant, absolutely and without limitation, to not publicly disclose” the provisions of the settlement agreement. Finally, the agreement said, “the Parties and their attorneys … hereby agree that neither shall make any statement about the Action … in the media … .”

However, the court ultimately opined that was not the issue.  They stated the issue is not one of contractual interpretation. A party cannot bind another to a contract simply by so reciting in a piece of paper.  No matter how clearly the contract provided that the Attorneys were bound, they could not actually be bound unless they manifested consent. In this case, that did not happen.

The settlement agreement identified the “Parties” as the Fourniers and Monster. The Attorneys then signed under the words, “Approved as to form and content.”  The signature block identified them as “Attorneys for [the Fournier] Plaintiff[s].” The court went on to say that “The only reasonable construction of this wording is that they were signing solely in the capacity of attorneys who had reviewed the settlement agreement and had given their clients their professional approval to sign it. In our experience, this is the wording that the legal community customarily uses for this purpose.”

The moral of the story is that if you want to bind someone to a provision, you need to get them to explicitly agree to same and require their execution.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Josh Ferguson at [email protected].

California Attacks Arbitration Agreements …. Yet Again!

Posted on: August 24th, 2018

By: Dave Daniels

On August 22, 2018, the California Senate voted to approve AB 3080, a bill prompted by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. Nominally, the bill is intended to combat the use of mandatory arbitration agreements and confidentiality clauses to prevent the public disclosure of workplace sexual harassment, a practice vigorously opposed by the #MeToo movement. As written, however, AB 3080 goes much further, imposing a ban on mandatory arbitration agreements for all claims of employment discrimination, retaliation, and harassment, as well as wage and hour claims.

The bill is currently on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, awaiting his signature or veto. If signed, the new law would apply to any employment contracts “entered into, modified, or extended” on or after January 1, 2019, and would make several sweeping changes to the California employment law landscape:

Ban on Mandatory Arbitration Agreements

Arbitration agreements are ubiquitous in employment contracts and provide for a low-cost, efficient means of resolving employment disputes.

AB 3080 would put a stop to this by adding Section 432.6 to the Labor Code, which would prohibit any person from requiring an applicant or employee, “as a condition of employment, continued employment, the receipt of any employment-related benefit, or as a condition of entering into a contractual agreement,” “to waive any right, forum, or procedure” for claimed violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) or the California Labor Code.

In other words, if AB 3080 is signed, it will be unlawful—indeed a misdemeanor—for an employer to require its employees to enter into mandatory arbitration agreements for any claims covered by FEHA (i.e., discrimination, retaliation, harassment) or the Labor Code (i.e., wage and hour claims).

While the bill only applies to mandatory arbitration agreements, Section 432.6(c) makes clear that employers will not be able to sidestep the new prohibitions by using opt-out clauses or otherwise requiring an employee to “take any affirmative action to preserve their rights.”  Moreover, Section 432.6(b) prohibits employers from threatening, terminating, retaliating against, or discriminating against any employee or applicant who refuses to voluntarily sign an arbitration agreement.

Finally, because these new provisions appear in the Labor Code, violations could subject employers to civil penalties under the California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act, also known as PAGA.

Elimination of Settlement Agreements

Because AB 3080 prohibits any person from requiring an applicant or employee “to waive any right, forum or procedure” “as a condition of entering into a contractual agreement,” it arguably also eliminates or curtails employers’ ability to enter into settlement and general release agreements with their employees for FEHA and Labor Code claims.  Given that the vast majority of these types of claims are settled, the full extent of AB 3080’s impact remains uncertain.

Ban on Confidentiality Agreements for Sexual Harassment

AB 3080 would also add Section 432.4 to the Labor Code, which would bar any person from prohibiting an applicant, employee, or independent contractor, “as a condition of employment, continued employment, the receipt of any employment-related benefit, or as a condition of entering into a contractual agreement,” from “disclosing to any person an instance of sexual harassment that the employee or independent contractor suffers, witnesses, or discovers in the workplace or in the performance of the contract.”

In short, employers will no longer be able to impose confidentiality obligations on their employees or independent contractors with respect to claims of sexual harassment.

Individual Liability

Importantly, AB 3080 applies to any “person” who commits any of the above-noted violations, not just an employer.  An earlier version of the bill was restricted to “an employer,” but was subsequently amended to replace “an employer” with “a person,” signaling the Legislature’s intent to impose individual liability for violations.

What Employers Should Know Now

For the moment, as it awaits Governor Brown’s signature, AB 3080 is still not the law.  In 2015, Governor Brown vetoed a similar bill, AB 465, which would have outlawed the use of mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment.  In his veto message, Governor Brown noted that there is significant debate about whether arbitration is less fair to employees, and explained that he was “not prepared to take the far-reaching step proposed by this bill.”  Remember, however, that Governor Brown’s term ends in January 2019, and a re-introduced version of the bill could find a more sympathetic audience in his successor.

Even if Governor Brown signs the bill, there will be immediate legal challenges arguing that the bill is unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act, which the United States Supreme Court has steadfastly enforced, most recently in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis. AB 3080 is just the latest in a long history of California’s antagonism towards arbitration agreements, both in the employment context and beyond.

Notwithstanding the hurdles that AB 3080 faces, employers should now begin reviewing their arbitration agreements and practices in light of these potential changes.  In particular, employers will want to think about best approaches to take during the period after the bill is signed and legal challenges work their way through the courts.

If you have any questions regarding the state of arbitration agreements in the Golden State, please feel free to contact Dave Daniels in our Sacramento office at 916-472-3301 or [email protected].

The California State Bar’s New Rule Follows a National Trend of Disciplining Attorneys for Discrimination

Posted on: August 24th, 2018

By: Paige Pembrook

The newly revised California Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys, set to take effect November 1, 2018, include a tougher approach to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in legal practice that exposes attorneys to State Bar discipline even where there has been no prior court determination of any wrongful conduct. The new rule is part of a national trend prohibiting discrimination as attorney misconduct.

Current Rule 2-400 that applies through October 2018 prohibits discrimination and harassment in connection with the management or operation of a law practice. Once a court determines that an attorney has committed unlawful discrimination and/or harassment, the State Bar can investigate and impose discipline. Given that no discipline appears to have been imposed under the current rule in the thirty years since its enactment in 1989, the new rule has teeth to allow for greater enforcement.

New Rule 8.4.1 replaces and fundamentally changes the current rule to expand attorneys’ exposure to State Bar discipline for discriminatory conduct. First, Rule 8.4.1 expands the scope of wrongful conduct to explicitly prohibit retaliation as well as discrimination and harassment. Second, Rule 8.4.1 prohibits all such conduct in connection with the representation of a client, the termination or refusal to accept the representation of any client, and law firm operations, whereas the current rule only prohibits conduct in connection with the management or operation of a law practice. Finally, Rule 8.4.1 eliminates the current requirement that there be a prior adjudication by a court that unlawful discrimination occurred before the State Bar can commence an investigation or impose discipline on an attorney for such discrimination.

The elimination of the requirement of a court adjudication of wrongdoing prior to State Bar investigation and discipline is the most drastic and contested change in the rule. Essentially, the State Bar Court becomes a forum of first resort for alleged victims of discriminatory, harassing, or retaliatory conduct by attorneys, despite the State Bar Court having limited resources and due process protections. Concern over the elimination of the prior adjudication requirement led to a new self-reporting requirement for attorneys who receive notice of disciplinary charges for violating Rule 8.4.1. It requires such attorneys to provide the disciplinary charges to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the U.S. Department of Justice, or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, allowing the agencies to become involved and institute parallel administrative or judicial proceedings stemming from the same conduct. Attorneys must also report such parallel proceedings to the State Bar, allowing it to step aside so that the appropriate court or agency can adjudicate the matter.

In sum, the new rule is harsh. The comments to the new rule make clear that it permits the imposition of discipline for conduct that would not necessarily result in an award or remedy in a civil proceeding. Any person (including but not limited to prospective, former, and current employees, clients, and opposing counsel) can file complaints alleging discrimination with the State Bar that trigger investigations and discipline up to and including disbarment. Disciplinary charges may also trigger reporting requirements to government agencies that may lead to further investigations and proceedings.  Discipline for misconduct can also serve as evidence in a legal malpractice claim, demonstrating that an attorney fell below the standard of care. For example, if an attorney’s harassment of a firm employee resulted in that employee missing critical deadlines that impacted the outcome of a client’s matter, State Bar discipline based on that harassment may be evidence in a malpractice action against the attorney.

Although California has had a rule prohibiting discrimination since 1989, the reinforced new Rule 8.4.1 is part of a national trend prohibiting discrimination in the practice of law. In 2016, the ABA approved Model Rule 8.4(g) that makes it professional misconduct to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination. Twenty states already have provisions in their attorney conduct rules addressing the subject of Model Rule 8.4 in some manner or adopting a version of Model Rule 8.4, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, to name a few.

California’s new Rule 8.4.1 is one of the strongest prohibitions and goes far beyond the ABA’s Model Rule 8.4 in policing discriminatory misconduct by attorneys. However, other states are likely to follow the ABA and California’s lead in increasing the State Bar’s powers to discipline attorneys for discrimination, retaliation, and harassment. Accordingly, all attorneys should be wary that conduct that was previously considered a professional discourtesy may be actionable misconduct that will lead to discipline, and any resulting discipline may provide evidence of attorney malpractice.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paige Pembrook at [email protected].