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Posts Tagged ‘Massachusetts’

Consent-to-Settle Clauses Under Review in Massachusetts

Posted on: September 30th, 2019

By: David Slocum

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the SJC), the state’s highest court, heard oral argument in a case which presents the question whether consent-to-settle clauses typical to most professional malpractice insurance policies should be deemed unenforceable as against public policy.

The case, Rawan v. Continental Casualty Co., places before the SJC an important issue of first impression in Massachusetts, the outcome of which will have significant implications for professional liability insurers and their insureds throughout the state.

The case arises out of an underlying engineering malpractice lawsuit in which plaintiff homeowners alleged the defendant professional engineer negligently designed their home.  The engineer was insured by Continental Casualty Co. (CNA) under a professional liability policy, which contained a standard consent-to-settle clause providing: “We [CNA] will not settle any claim without the informed consent of the first Named Insured.”

Consistent with its insured’s wishes, CNA made no settlement offer during the underlying engineering malpractice litigation.  At trial, the jury found the engineer was negligent and awarded $400,000 in damages.

Thereafter, in a separate follow-on lawsuit against CNA, the plaintiff homeowners alleged CNA had violated Massachusetts’ unfair settlement practices statute, Chapter 176D §3(9)(f), which requires insurers to effectuate a prompt, fair and equitable settlement when an insured’s liability has become reasonably clear.  Plaintiffs alleged CNA had failed to properly investigate and settle the plaintiffs’ claims against the engineer during the underlying litigation.

CNA moved for, and was granted, summary judgment in its favor on the grounds that its insured had not consented to settlement of the claims.  Thus, CNA argues, it was contractually bound under the consent-to-settle clause of the policy not to effectuate a settlement of the plaintiffs’ claims against the insured, irrespective of whether the insured’s liability had become reasonably clear.

In asking the SJC to overturn the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in CNA’s favor, the plaintiffs argue that such consent-to-settle clauses undermine the purpose of Chapter 176D by ceding settlement authority to insureds who potentially may unreasonably refuse to settle valid claims against them.  Plaintiffs contend that such clauses therefore should be deemed unenforceable as against public policy in Massachusetts.

CNA and a number of bar and professional associations, which have filed amicus briefs in its support, argue the grant of summary judgment in CNA’s favor should be affirmed because consent-to-settle clauses in noncompulsory professional liability insurance policies are compatible with insurers’ obligations under Chapter 176D.  They contend Chapter 176D’s purpose of preventing insurance company overreach is not implicated in such situations, and a professional insured’s important reputational interest also supports the enforceability of consent-to-settle clauses.

The SJC is expected to issue its decision in this important and closely-watched case later this term.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact David Slocum at dslocum[email protected].

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Saporous Naming Rights Protected

Posted on: September 10th, 2019

By: William Gildea

The Business Litigation Session of the Massachusetts Superior Court recently granted the prior owner of the registered trademark “Zuma” a preliminary injunction against a transferee’s decision to open a restaurant in Boston named “Zuma Boston.” B.B. Kitchen, Inc. v. Azumi, Ltd., 2019 Mass. Super. LEXIS, * 469 (Mass. Super. Ct. July 12, 2019 (Davis, J.). Plaintiff B.B. Kitchen, Inc. d/b/a Zuma Tex-Mex Grill (“Plaintiff”) sought to enforce a 2008 written settlement agreement (“Settlement Agreement”)with Defendant Azumi, Ltd. (“Defendant”). Plaintiff has operated a restaurant named “Zuma Tex-Mex Grill” in Faneuil Hall since 1989, while Defendant operates more than a dozen “Zuma” Japanese restaurants across the globe. Defendant recently opened a new restaurant “Zuma Boston” at the Four Seasons Hotel. After “Zuma Boston” opened, “Zuma Tex-Mex Grill” began experiencing “instances of actual confusion among members of the dining public” based off the name similarities.

The Settlement Agreement resolved “a prior dispute between the parties regarding their respective rights to use the ‘ZUMA’ mark in conjunction with the provision of restaurant services.” Plaintiff held the trademark for the ZUMA mark, but eventually reached the Settlement Agreement where the mark would pass to Defendant, except in the “Licensed Territory” which expressly included the six New England States.

Plaintiff asserted the Settlement Agreement prohibited Defendant from opening any restaurant with the “ZUMA” mark in New England. Plaintiff filed suit alleging Defendant’s opening of “Zuma Boston” violated the Settlement Agreement, further alleging claims for breach of contract and violation of G.L. ch. 93A, § 11. Plaintiff sought damages and injunctive relief, specifically a preliminary injunction preventing Defendant from operating “Zuma Boston” under that name.

The Court found Plaintiff had satisfied all requirements entitling it to a preliminary injunction against Defendant. Plaintiff demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits on its claim that Defendant breached the Settlement Agreement. The Court found that Defendant “expressly agreed in… the Settlement Agreement to ‘refrain from opening any restaurant incorporating the term ZUMA or any mark confusingly similar thereto as part of a trade name, trademark, or service mark within the Licensed Territory” which included Massachusetts.

The Court further found Plaintiff would suffer irreparable harm based off the evidence that the name similarities created “significant actual confusion among dining customers, financial institutions, and others.” Finally, the Court found the balance of harm weighed in Plaintiff’s favor as it is a small single location business while conversely, Defendant is an international operation with approximately $200,000,000 in annual revenue.

This decision reflects the importance of businesses doing due diligence prior to absorbing the high costs of opening a new business such as a restaurant. This decision further demonstrates a 10-year-old agreement can impact an organization’s rights. Counsel advising a new business should be wary of old agreements that may impact the rights of organizations they represent and the costs of opening in a new locale, including future litigation costs in connection with failing to abide by old agreements.

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

In Attorney Malpractice Suit Alleging “Negligent Settlement,” Massachusetts Appeals Court Holds No Expert Testimony Is Needed to Show “Fair Settlement Value” of the Underlying Claim

Posted on: July 10th, 2019

By: Ben Dunlap

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently addressed the requirements for expert testimony in an attorney malpractice suit, concluding lack of an expert opinion on “fair settlement value” was not fatal to the plaintiff’s case.

Marston v. Orlando, 95 Mass. App. Ct. 526 (2019) arose from injuries sustained by a worker on an offshore light tower. The injured worker retained counsel to pursue a workers’ compensation claim and also federal law claims against his employer and other parties. His attorneys negotiated a $7,500 lump-sum workers’ compensation settlement and a $200,000 settlement of the federal claims.

Following the settlement, the injured worker’s conservator brought an attorney malpractice action against the attorneys, alleging the settlement was inadequate in light of the severe injuries sustained, and that the attorneys “pressured” their client to accept an inadequate settlement to “disguise” their negligent handling of the case. Among other issues, the plaintiff contended the attorneys took certain positions in the workers’ compensation case that may have precluded recovery in the federal claims.  The plaintiff proffered expert testimony regarding the requisite standard of care applicable to an attorney practicing in Massachusetts but no expert testimony on the issue of what a “fair settlement value” would have been in the underlying case.  The trial court dismissed the case on the eve of trial, ruling the plaintiff was required to show the settlement was “unreasonable” and failed to do so because he lacked expert testimony regarding the “fair settlement value” of the claim.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued, among other things, that the trial judge misapplied the law as to the requirement for expert testimony.  The Appeals Court, revisiting the standards set forth in Fishman v. Brooks, 396 Mass. 643 (1986), agreed with the plaintiff and vacated the trial court’s dismissal, concluding that “[t]he absence of an expert opinion on fair settlement value was not fatal to the conservator’s legal malpractice case.”

The Appeals Court explained there are two ways to establish attorney malpractice based on a “negligent settlement.” One method rests on proving the “case within the case.”  Using this method, the plaintiff must show first that the attorneys breached the standard of care in their settlement of the underlying claims, and second, that if the claims had not been settled, the client would have recovered more than he received in the negligently-obtained settlement.  As in most jurisdictions, Massachusetts law requires expert testimony to prove the attorneys breached the standard of care (except where a breach is “obvious”), but using the “case within the case” method, an expert is not needed to prove what a fair settlement would have been. Instead, a jury could determine what the plaintiff would have recovered in the absence of a settlement – with or without expert testimony.

The second method of proving attorney malpractice relies on the “fair settlement value” of the underlying case. To prevail using this method, a plaintiff shows that absent the attorney’s negligence, he would have obtained a more favorable settlement. The damages are the difference between the settlement obtained and what the fair settlement value would have been in the absence of any malpractice.  This method requires an expert to show what the fair settlement value would have been.

Because the plaintiff in Marston sought to prove malpractice using the first method – the “case within the case,” he was not required to present expert testimony to show the “fair settlement value.”

The Appeals Court’s decision brings into focus two distinct methods for proving an attorney malpractice case under Massachusetts law and clarifies the differing requirements for expert testimony with each method. It also highlights an issue that in many other jurisdictions is unsettled. Although most jurisdictions recognize some form of the “case within the case” method for proving an attorney malpractice claim, the treatment of the “fair settlement value” method varies widely. Some, like California, New Jersey, and New York, permit the use of the “fair settlement value” method but caution against damages that are too “speculative,” suggesting expert testimony may be needed establish the claim. Others, like Pennsylvania and Georgia, generally disfavor claims for “negligent settlement,” regardless of the theory pursued. Florida law permits recovery for “negligent settlement” but appears to favor the “case within the case” method of proof. The Marston case is a significant addition to this developing area of the law.

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

About Accounting Malpractice

Posted on: July 9th, 2019

By: Eric Martignetti

Today, Massachusetts’ highest court did away with an important defense for an accountant who faces a claim of accounting malpractice brought by a client who has committed fraud. In Chelsea Housing Authority v. Michael E. McLaughlin et al., the Supreme Judicial Court held that Mass. Gen. Laws c. 112, § 87A ¾ pre-empts the common law doctrine of in pari delcito. Accordingly, as the SJC held, “where a plaintiff sues an accountant for negligently failing to detect the fraudulent conduct of the plaintiff, the plaintiff may recover damages from the accountant, but only for the percentage of fault attributed to the accountant (as compared to the fault of all others whose fraudulent conduct contributed to causing the plaintiff’s damages).”

After a lengthy examination of the legislative history of § 87A ¾, the SJC concluded that “the Legislature sought to remedy… not only the potential unfairness to accountants of joint and several liability, but also the need to hold accountants accountable for negligently failing to detect and reveal financial fraud committed by their client and its officers.”

Before today’s decision, in pari delicto was a powerful defense because it generally prevented an accountant from being held liable for accounting malpractice where a client committed fraud and was at least “in equal fault” with the accountant. After today’s decision, however, the in pari delicto defense is no longer available to an accountant where a client has committed fraud.

Importantly, because § 87A ¾ applies to all individuals or firms licensed to practice pubic accountancy in Massachusetts, accountants performing any level of services—whether compilation, review, or audit—face potential liability where a client has committed fraud. Although an accountant’s liability is limited to “the percentage of [its] fault in contributing to the plaintiff’s damages,” its liability cannot be eliminated altogether by in pari delicto.

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

Employers Beware: Payroll Mistakes Are Costly and Self-Audits Will Help Minimize Risk

Posted on: July 1st, 2019

By: Janet Barringer

A six-figure fine recently imposed on an employer by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office for wage & hour violation is an eye-opener for a few reasons. First, the financial penalty underscores employers must regularly examine their payroll systems to ensure all employees are coded with the correct rate of pay. Second, employers must communicate with their payroll providers on a regular basis to ensure all employees are coded with the correct rate of pay in compliance with all federal and state wage & hour laws. Third, errors by a payroll company are not necessarily defenses to the employer for inaccurate pay. Regularly conducting a self-audit is an important measure for the employer to help eliminate the risk of a wage & hour violation. A summary of the circumstances leading to one employer’s recent six-figure fine for wage & hour violation is as follows.

On May 23, 2019, Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (the Commonwealth) imposed a fine of $250,000 on Eversource Energy Service Co. (“Eversource”) after concluding the company violated Massachusetts’ Wage & Hour Law. The Commonwealth determined Eversource underpaid approximately 3,000 of its workers. The Commonwealth’s investigation revealed Eversource paid many workers the incorrect rates for hourly, overtime, Sunday, nighttime, and emergency work. Eversource failed to enter codes for the differing rates in its payroll system, resulting in errors in processing the various hour and pay rates. Eversource discovered issues with its payroll system prior to the start of the Commonwealth’s investigation and had already undertaken efforts to fully compensate its employees when the investigation began. Such corrective measures did not absolve Eversource of liability.

Moreover, as a result of the Commonwealth’s investigation, Eversource conducted a comprehensive self-audit to determine the amount of underpayment, the number of employees impacted and whether wages remained outstanding. The audit revealed Eversource underpaid workers at least $828,000 from June to December 2016. The company paid back all amounts owed and allowed workers overpaid as a result of the payroll system errors to keep those funds. Eversource also agreed to pay the $250,000 fine to resolve the Commonwealth’s investigation.

Eversource’s implemented what turned out to be a faulty payroll system in 2016. The company claimed complexities of the software’s coding system caused errors in assigning rates of pay. Though Eversource made efforts to swiftly compensate employees incorrectly paid and cooperated with the Commonwealth’s investigation, Eversource nonetheless incurred a hefty fine. Moving forward, Eversource will work with its payroll technology provider to prevent this issue from reoccurring.

The recent investigation of Eversource and resulting financial penalty reveal employers must regularly examine their payroll systems to ensure all employees are coded with the correct rate of pay.  Even if employees are coded incorrectly due to an error on the part of the payroll provider, the employer is not necessarily shielded from liability. Accordingly, employers must communicate with their payroll providers on a regular basis in order to remain compliant with all federal and state wage & hour laws. Conducting regular self-audits should help the employer eliminate wage and hour violations.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Janet Barringer in the National Labor & Employment Practice Section at [email protected].