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Posts Tagged ‘Inc.’

The Supreme Court Weighs in on Arbitrability, But Questions Remain

Posted on: January 31st, 2019

By: Ted Peters

As reflected in a prior article, the United States Supreme Court recently agreed to take another look at the issue of arbitrability. In the case of Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., the Fifth Circuit concluded that the court, and not an arbitrator, had the power to decide the threshold issue of arbitrability. In its ruling, the circuit court embraced the “wholly groundless” argument, concluding that submission of the dispute to the arbitrator was unnecessary because the assertion of arbitrability was “wholly groundless.” This decision underscored the ongoing split of authority among the lower courts wherein some courts, but not all, recognize the “wholly groundless” exception. On appeal, the appellants sought to have the Supreme Court reject the exception as inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), the purpose of which is “to ensure that private agreements to arbitrate are enforced according to their terms.”

On January 8, 2019, newly appointed Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the court vacating and remanding the Firth Circuit’s decision. Writing for a unanimous court, Kavanaugh determined that the “wholly groundless” exception to the general rule that courts must enforce contracts that delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator is inconsistent with the FAA and Supreme Court precedent. Not surprisingly, the opinion revisited a number of prior cases in which the Court repeatedly held that the “agreement to arbitrate a gateway issue is simply an additional… agreement the party seeking arbitration asks the federal court to enforce, and the [FAA] operates on this additional arbitration agreement just as it does on any other.” (Opinion at p. 4, quoting Rent-A-Center, 561 U.S. 63, 70 (2010)). Kavanaugh noted that the Court had frequently rejected the argument that a claim of frivolity can derail the parties’ agreement to vest questions of arbitrability with an arbitrator and not a court. Citing Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564, 568 (1960), Kavanaugh stated: “A court has ‘no business weighing the merits of the grievance’ because the ‘agreement is to submit all grievances to arbitration, not merely those which the court will deem meritorious.’”

On January 15, 2019, the Court issued a ruling in yet another case involving arbitration, New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira. Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court. In an 8-0 decision (Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration or decision of the case), the high court affirmed the First Circuit’s determination that a court should determine whether the Federal Arbitration Act’s Section 1 exclusion for disputes involving the “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers applies before ordering arbitration. Unlike Henry Schein, which addressed the delegation of “gateway” questions of arbitrability, New Prime Inc. involved the judicial assessment of a statutorily based objection to arbitration.

But wait… there’s (one) more: Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, Dkt. No. 17-988. That case, argued on October 29, 2018, addresses whether the FAA forecloses a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements. An opinion is expected at any time.

Coming full circle, it is fairly clear that the high court seems to remain firm in its embrace of arbitration agreements without permitting judicial meddling, provided there is “clear and unmistakable evidence” that the parties affirmatively agree to delegate the decision of arbitrability to the arbitrator. (Henry Schein at p. 6, citing First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944). Yet, at the same time, the Justices appear receptive to judicial involvement as long as there is a reasonable statutory basis for it.

The takeaway? Parties to arbitration agreements should rest confident in their ability to affirmatively delegate disputes to arbitration provided that the statutory framework upon which arbitration is based leaves no basis for judicial tinkering. This may provide solace for some, but for many it leaves unanswered questions along with the risks and costs associated with uncertainty.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].

A Holly(cal) Jolly (Almost) Christmas

Posted on: December 28th, 2018

By: Zach Moura

In what is sure to be the beginning of a slew of cases litigating coverage for injuries caused by drones, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently issued an opinion denying coverage under an aircraft exclusion in the drone operator’s Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy. Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company v. Hollycal Production, Inc., et al., 5:18-cv-00768.

The accident at issue occurred when Hollycal Production (“Hollycal”) used a drone to photograph an event. The drone collided with one of the attendees, Darshan Kamboj, blinding her in one eye. Ms. Kamboj subsequently filed suit against Hollycal, its owner, and the Hollycal employee that operated the drone. Hollycal tendered the defense of the suit to Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company (“Philadelphia”) under the CGL policy on which Hollycal was an additional insured. Philadelphia agreed to defend Hollycal under a reservation of rights, and then filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a determination that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Hollycal for the Kamboj suit.

Philadelphia moved for summary judgment, in part on the basis that the Aircraft exclusion in the Policy excluded coverage in pertinent part for bodily injury or property damage “arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any aircraft, ‘auto’ or watercraft owned or operated by or rented or loaned to any insured.” Because “aircraft” was not a defined term in the policy, the Court looked to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition of the word, along with the definition included in 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. The Court concluded that a “drone … is an aircraft under the term’s ordinary and plain definition.” Accordingly, the Court found that the Kamboj suit was excluded from coverage and Philadelphia had no duty to defend or indemnify Hollycal.

Drone operators will need to carefully review their insurance and ensure that they have appropriate coverage in place for their drone operations. As this matter makes clear, and as reinforced by recent reports of a drone striking the nose of an Aeromexico plane, an October near-miss of a drone by a passenger plane near London Heathrow, and the shutdown of London Gatwick airport last week because of suspected drone activity, there is substantial exposure arising from drone operations. Without the right insurance, operators may be left disastrously exposed.

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

OSHA Developments Favorable for Employers

Posted on: October 24th, 2018

By: Amy Bender

Two recent OSHA developments signal good news for employers.

The first relates to the scope of OSHA inspections of an employer’s workplace. In a recent federal court case, after an employee of a poultry processing plant was injured at work, the employer reported the incident to OSHA as required. It also provided 3 years of its injury and illness (“OSHA 300”) logs and permitted OSHA to inspect the particular hazards relating to the injury. OSHA then sought a warrant to inspect the employer’s entire facility based on this information as well as the fact that poultry processing plants were included in OSHA’s Regional Emphasis Program, which had identified hazards of particular concern to that industry. After the warrant was issued, the employer objected. The court agreed with the employer and quashed the warrant, finding a lack of reasonable suspicion to support such a broad inspection and a lack of evidence that OSHA selected the employer for inspection applying neutral criteria. Although the permissible scope of an OSHA inspection will depend on the individual circumstances of each situation, this case can give employers some comfort that OSHA’s authority is not unfettered. The case may be read here: USA v. Mar-Jac Poultry, Inc., Case No. 16-17745  (11th Cir. Oct. 9, 2018).

The other development relates to OSHA’s stance on post-accident drug testing and workplace safety programs. As we previously reported here, OSHA published a final rule in 2016 prohibiting mandatory, across-the-board post-accident drug testing as being discriminatory against employees based on their injury or illness reporting and limited testing to situations where employee drug use was a likely factor in the incident. The final rule also required employers to develop employee injury and illness reporting requirements that meet certain criteria, including informing employees of their right to make such reports without fear of retaliation. The final rule left employers scrambling to revamp their long-standing and well-meaning policies and procedures relating to workplace safety. Fortunately, OSHA now has issued a memorandum clarifying that it does not prohibit workplace safety incentive programs or post-incident drug testing. Such programs are impermissible only to the extent they are intended to penalize employees for reporting a workplace injury or illness. The memorandum provides additional guidance on what will be considered acceptable reporting policies and drug-testing procedures. The memorandum is available here.

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

Cal. Supreme Court Says Attorneys May Not Get Paid If They Have A Flawed “Blanket” Conflict of Interest Waiver

Posted on: September 13th, 2018

By: Greg Fayard

The California Supreme Court has weighed in on the vital importance of conflict of interest waivers. A flawed one could deprive attorneys of their fees.

On August 30, 2018, the Supreme Court analyzed the validity of a conflict of interest waiver in a law firm’s retainer agreement for a high stakes case.  In Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP v. J-M Manufacturing Co., Inc. (2018) 2018 Cal. LEXIS 6399, J-M Manufacturing Company, Inc. (J-M) retained California law firm Sheppard Mullin to represent it in a large federal lawsuit where J-M was sued for over $1 billion in damages. Sheppard Mullin’s agreement had a general conflict waiver, where J-M waived any and all conflicts of interest. It turns out, however, that Sheppard Mullin had, and was, representing one of J-M’s adversaries in the federal case—specifically the South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District (South Tahoe), but in unrelated employment matters. That prior and concurrent representation was not specified in the conflict waiver that J-M agreed to.

South Tahoe learned of the conflict, and successfully moved to disqualify Sheppard Mullin. Unfortunately, Sheppard Mullin had already billed 10,000 hours in the huge federal action, to the tune of some $3 million in fees, with over $1 million unpaid by J-M. Sheppard Mullin then sued J-M for its unpaid fees. J-M cross-complained, seeking to disgorge its fees it paid to Sheppard Mullin and to not have to pay the additional fees owed. The law firm’s retainer agreement had an arbitration clause, which Sheppard Mullin successfully invoked. The arbitrators ruled in favor of Sheppard Mullin, allowing the law firm to keep its earned fees, but also requiring J-M to pay Sheppard Mullin the over $1 million it still owed. The arbitrators described Sheppard Mullin’s flawed conflict waiver as a minor and it did not warrant disgorgement of all the fees J-M had paid. J-M claimed the flawed conflict waiver was an ethical breach by Sheppard Mullin that rendered the whole contract illegal and unenforceable, in violation of public policy (to protect the public from unethical attorney conduct). The trial court disagreed and affirmed the arbitrators’ ruling. J-M appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding the entire agreement was illegal, and Sheppard Mullin was not entitled to any of its $3 million in fees, including the millions J-M already paid the firm. Sheppard Mullin petitioned the Supreme Court, which granted review and issued a 41-page opinion and dissent.

The Supreme Court held that the whole Sheppard Mullin-J-M contract was unenforceable because the flawed conflict waiver violated public policy. The Supreme Court held that at the time it represented J-M, Sheppard Mullin represented an adverse party in that case, which the firm knew about but did not tell J-M. Hence, the general conflict waiver J-M agreed to was not “informed.” Sheppard Mullin’s representation of J-M’s adversary (South Tahoe), was a “present reality” and not a “future possibility” and should have been specifically disclosed. Hence, the Supreme Court vacated Sheppard Mullin’s attorneys’ fee award. Sheppard Mullin was therefore not entitled to the over $1 million in unpaid fees.

But what about the millions of dollars J-M already paid Sheppard Mullin? Should those fees be disgorged? Could Sheppard Mullin keep those fees based on a quantum meruit theory? The Supreme Court held that quantum meruit was not before the court, as it did not have a robust-enough factual record on the fees J-M already paid, and remanded to the trial court. The Supreme Court provided guidance to the trial court on the quantum meruit analysis. Attorneys may be entitled to quantum meruit fees even under the cloud of an unwaived or improperly waived conflict of interest, which is a case-specific inquiry that focuses on whether the flawed conflict waiver was willful, whether any value had been provided to the client, and the amount of harm to the client. The Court held that there is no categorical rule barring quantum meruit fees when an unwaived or improperly waived conflict of interest exists. It depends on the circumstances.

Specifically: “When a law firm seeks fees in quantum meruit that it is unable to recover under the contract because it has breached an ethical duty to its client, the burden of proof on these or other factors lies with the firm. To be entitled to a measure of recovery, the firm must show that the violation was neither willful nor egregious, and it must show that its conduct was not so potentially damaging to the client as to warrant a complete denial of compensation. And before the trial court may award compensation, it must be satisfied that the award does not undermine incentives for compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct. For this reason, at least absent exceptional circumstances, the contractual fee will not serve as an appropriate measure of quantum meruit recovery. . .  Although the law firm may be entitled to some compensation for its work, its ethical breach will ordinarily require it to relinquish some or all of the profits for which it negotiated.” (Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP v. J-M Manufacturing Co., Inc., 2018 Cal. LEXIS 6399, *56.)

The trial court, therefore, should decide if such legal fees should be completely or partially forfeited.

The lesson here is straightforward and applies to all jurisdictions, not just California: conflict of interest waivers are very important. They should be as clear and specific as possible so that the client knows exactly what it is waiving. Blanket, general, waivers can be insufficient, creating the risk of attorneys losing millions of dollars in legal fees.

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

Don’t Get Bitten… Are You In Compliance With DOL’s COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice?

Posted on: August 21st, 2018

By: Pamela Everett

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida has certified a class action suit against Marriott International, Inc. for allegations that it failed to provide required notices of eligible terminated employees’ right to continued health care coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA).  The law suit was filed by Alina Vazquez, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, who alleges violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), as amended by COBRA.  The Plaintiff asserted that after her termination as a covered employee and participant in Marriott’s health plan she was not provided with adequate notice of her rights to continued coverage under COBRA thus causing her to fail to enroll and incur excessive medical bills.

Marriott’s  plan provided medical benefits to employees and their beneficiaries, and is an employee welfare benefit plan within the meaning of 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1) and a group health plan within the meaning of 29 U.S.C. § 1167(1).  COBRA requires the plan sponsor of each group health plan normally employing more than 20 employees on a typical business day during the preceding year to provide each qualified beneficiary who would lose coverage under the plan as a result of a qualifying event to elect, within the election period, continuation coverage under the plan.  This notice must be in accordance with the regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Labor. To facilitate compliance with these notice obligations, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) has issued a Model COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice which is included in the Appendix to 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4.

Plaintiff alleged that, “Marriott authored and disseminated a notice that was not appropriately completed, deviating from the model form in violation of COBRA’s requirements, which failed to provide Plaintiff notice of all required coverage information and hindered Plaintiff’s ability to obtain continuation coverage”.  The  Model Notice also requires that notice shall be written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant.   Specifically, in her suit the Plaintiff asserted that Marriott’s Notice violated the following requirements:

a. The Notice violates 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4(b)(4)(i) because it fails to provide the name, address and telephone number of the party responsible under the plan for the administration of continuation coverage benefits. Nowhere in the notice provided to Plaintiff is any party or entity clearly and unambiguously identified as the Plan Administrator.

b. The Notice violates 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4(b)(4)(iv) because it fails to provide all required explanatory information. There is no explanation that a legal guardian may elect continuation coverage on behalf of a minor child, or a minor child who may later become a qualified beneficiary.

c. The Notice violates 29 C.F.R. § 2590.606-4(b)(4)(vi) because it fails to provide an explanation of the consequences of failing to elect or waiving continuation coverage, including an explanation that a qualified beneficiary’s decision whether to elect continuation coverage will affect the future rights of qualified beneficiaries to portability of group health coverage, guaranteed access to individual health coverage, and special enrollment under part 7 of title I of the Act, with a reference to where a qualified beneficiary may obtain additional information about such rights; and a description of the plan’s procedures for revoking a waiver of the right to continuation coverage before the date by which the election must be made.”

In her certification of the class, U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven also rejected Marriott’s argument that Vazquez’s claims were not typical because Vazquez could not understand English, could not  have understood the notice once it had been translated and could not afford COBRA continuation coverage.  Currently there is no requirement that the Notice be provided in any language other than English.  Perhaps this suit will change that requirement in a manner similar to some of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

Most importantly, this case highlights the importance of ensuring that your company complies with DOL regulations, and to the extent practicable, utilizes the forms provided.

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