SEVERANCE PAYMENT SLIP AND FALL

BY G. A. FINCH

 

I was fascinated with a 22 December 2016 Crain’s Chicago article “Feud explodes at one of the city’s most connected PR firms” by columnist Greg Hinz.  The story intersected two worlds in which I practice law and work: executive employment and governmental affairs.  Although not personally acquainted with the antagonists, Leslie M. Fox and Guy Chipparoni, from my own circles, I have some familiarity with their respective body of work and reputations.

Let’s set the stage. In September, 2014, Greg Hinz pens a short Crain’s piece , writing “Two of the more colorful figures in Chicago’s world of media and politics are getting hitched – professionally, that is…. Neither Mr. Chipparoni nor Ms. Fox is a shrinking-violet type.  But both are capable of doing first class work.  We’ll see how they do together.” The hint of skepticism of Mr. Hinz was prescient.Boxing_gloves

Fox had helped organize and raise funds for Chicago’s hosting the 1996 Democratic National Convention and 1994 World Cup Games (the latter event yours truly had a bit part at the creation).  Chipparoni had been a flack for Illinois Governor Jim Edgar and founded his own successful public relations firm, Res Publica Group, of which he later asked Fox to become a part.

In December 2016, Fox filed a law suit against Chipparoni personally and his firm alleging that Chipparoni breached an employment agreement by not providing her severance benefits after she invoked a “Good Reason” termination provision  “because during her employment there was a consistent, persistent and continuous diminution of Fox’s contractual duties, responsibilities, powers and authorities which … were to be those customarily associated with the position of Executive Vice-President.”Bossth

Two of the most serious allegations were A) that Chipparoni diminished her ability to prevent Chipparoni from appropriating opportunities and assets belonging to the firm and B) that Chipparoni treated the firm as his alter ego and did not maintain the firm as a separate legal entity.  These allegations lay the foundation for a claim of personal liability of Chipparoni. Ouch!

Fox also has a more common variety breach of employment contract allegation that Chipparoni disparaged her to others.  We do not know from the complaint what alleged disparaging remarks were made.  We can assume that Chipparoni will file an answer to Fox’s complaint denying making disparaging statements or otherwise breaching the contract and file affirmative defenses to her claims.

In my executive employment blog, I have written that employers usually underestimate the destructive power that an angry, committed terminated employee can have on the morale, reputation, and resources of their organizations.  What many employers fail to understand in their not being reasonable in their severance offer is that the terminated, aggrieved employee may present a sympathetic image to a judge or arbitrator or the court of public opinion.  Moreover, the peeved employee may dig up bones of alleged legal and regulatory liability of which the organization’s higher ups may not even be aware.   The organization may have unintentionally birthed a whistle-blower.   A boss may have not ever thought of liability for the firm, let alone, his own personal liability

An employer’s having and abiding by a non-disparagement employment contract provision should be basic practice.  From the employer side, the employer does not want a disgruntled former executive trashing the company thereby diminishing the brand, reputation, and good will of the company.  The executive certainly does not want the executive’s ability to work effectively at the executive’s job to be made more difficult or to find new employment to be precluded by negative comments being made about the executive during the executive’s employment or after the executive’s employment.  In the Res Publica case, Chipparoni’s alleged disparaging comments has produced a claim of breach of contract.  A further take away for employers is that an employer must not say or write anything that injures the reputation of the executive that could form the elements of a defamation claim.

As I have blogged previously, severance payments are pragmatic.  Employers ought to consider providing for severance payment and a neutral letter-of-reference in separation agreements where there is no employee misconduct. These provisions often generate goodwill from a departing employee, thereby reducing lawsuits, and the provisions can be used to bind an employee to confidentiality, non-disparagement, and non-compete obligations as well as release most claims against the employer.  Severance payments demonstrate humaneness and compassion on the part of the employer.

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Employment lawsuits are expensive and generate bad public relations for a company. As long as the severance compensation is not excessive, it really is a no-brainer in terms of a cost-benefit trade-off for an employer.

Fox wisely obtained an attorney to review and negotiate her employment contract that sets the terms of her separation from Res Publica.  Among other things, it enables her to fire her employer when good reason is shown, namely, the diminishment of her executive responsibilities and receive a severance payment; it provides for non-disparagement of her to protect her reputation; and it sets out clearly the basis of her compensation. It remains to be seen whether she can prove her breach of contract claim, but protracted litigation creates bad optics for Res Publica and Mr. Chipparoni even if they prevail in the lawsuit.  After all, public relations and governmental relations are about achieving positive outcomes or damage control.  Neither positive outcome nor damage control has occurred here.  In my law practice I have seen that this kind of dispute probably will settle  sooner rather than later.

 

Copyright © 2017 by G. A. Finch, All rights reserved.

 

NEVER START A JOB BEFORE EMPLOYMENT AGREEMENT IS SIGNED

BY G. A. FINCH

Too many times, a situation in which an executive starts a job with an unfinished employment agreement does not turn out well.  Not always the case, but often the case.  An executive does not want to be in the percentage of employees who get terminated without a back-on-the-marketcompleted, signed employment agreement.   The executive’s relying on the employer to do the right thing in terms of what the employee thinks the deal was, is not a good choice.

Obviously an executive has the most negotiating leverage when a company is seeking to hire the executive.  At the start of the relationship, there is good will between the employer and prospective employee and there are high, positive expectations on both sides.happy_lady

An executive is eager to demonstrate trust and enthusiasm by agreeing to start while an agreement is being finalized.  I know of executives who have quit their prior jobs, forsaken substantial benefits, and relocated to distant cities without a signed agreement.  Two scenarios usually are the case.  One scenario is that the executive and the employer are still hashing out contract terms after the executive has started employment.  Another scenario is the executive has started working and has never received a signed agreement – it falls through the cracks so to speak.

There is an old saying that “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  An employer’s shiny new executive now has blemishes and scratches upon closer inspection.  The sense of urgency has dissipated once the employer has gotten its prized employee.  It is human nature to value something less after it has been obtained.

Accordingly, an executive must never start a job without a completely finished, signed agreement in hand.  Moreover, whatever “final” employment agreement is tendered to him, the executive’s attorney must review it one last time to ensure that the final draft reflects the latest iteration of the negotiated contract terms.  Last minute language insertions or failure to include agreed-upon provisions can and do happen, sometimes carelessly and in good faith by the employer and sometimes by design.  An executive’s insistence upon having in hand an executed agreement prior to work commencement is prudent and makes common sense.  In order for the executive to be able to maintain a congenial relationship with his prospective colleagues or bosses, the executive’s attorney should take the responsibility for requiring a signed agreement.legal-document-2

An executive does not want to be in the more difficult position of proving up the terms of an unsigned, draft contract in a court of law than the easier position of proving up a final, signed contract.

 

 

INTERNAL REVENUE CODE SECTION 409A

 

BY G. A. FINCH

If your employment agreement has deferral of compensation provisions, you may very well see a section or paragraph captioned “Internal Revenue Code Section 409A” or simply “409A.”  Its official citation is 26 U.S. Code Section 409A – Inclusion in gross income of deferred compensation under nonqualified deferred compensation plans.

This section is too complex and tedious for most lay person executives to understand and figure out.  Your reading Section 409A of the IRS Code is certainly an instant cure for insomnia.080914_jmanscratchhead_tnb

At the outset, before you execute an employment agreement, your retaining an attorney is necessary to interpret and apply Section 409A to the various scenarios of deferral of compensation to ascertain whether such compensation adheres to Section 409A’s deferrals and distributions timing rules.

Failure to comply with the rules concerning deferred compensation has onerous consequences of 1) inclusion of such deferred compensation as gross income for the subject taxable year, 2) payment of the amount of interest on the underpayments, and 3) a penalty amount equal to 20% of the deferred compensation which is required to be included in gross income.IRS_tnb

Accordingly, employers often have a Section 409A provision in the employment agreement that allows the employer to adjust payments under the agreement to comply with Section 409A and allows the employer to disclaim any liability to the employee.

A typical provision can be lengthy paragraphs and include some language like the following:

 

“Anything in this Agreement to the contrary notwithstanding, the parties intend that   all payments and benefits under this Agreement comply with Section 409A of the Code and the regulations promulgated thereunder and, accordingly, to the maximum extent permitted by law, this Agreement shall be interpreted in a manner in compliance therewith.  To the extent that any provision hereof is modified in order to comply with Section 409A, such modification shall be made in good faith and shall, to the maximum extend reasonably possible, maintain the original intent and economic benefit to you  and the Employer of the applicable provision without violating the provisions of Section 409A.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Employer shall not be required to assume any increased economic burden in connection therewith.  Although the Employer intends to administer this Agreement so that it would be exempt or comply with the requirements of Code Section 409A, the Employer does not represent or warrant that this Agreement will be exempt from, or otherwise comply with, Code Section 409A or any other provision of applicable law.  Neither the Employer, its affiliates, nor their respective directors, officers, employees or advisers shall be liable to you (or any other individual claiming a benefit through you) for any tax, interest, or penalties you may owe as a result of compensation paid out pursuant hereto, and the Employer shall have no obligation to indemnify or otherwise protect you from the obligation to pay taxes pursuant to Code Section 409A.”

 

The point of this blog post is that your deferred compensation provisions could trigger 409A tax consequences and your employer, through its employment contract with you, is shifting the risk to you as employee.

TERMINATION FOR CAUSE: MORAL TURPITUDE

BY G. A. FINCH

Employment contracts may have a termination-for-cause provision.  This kind of provision may include the term “moral turpitude.”  The following are two different examples of a termination-for-cause definition clause containing moral turpitude:

  • Employee’s conviction of, or guilty plea or nolo contendere plea to, or confession of, a Class A-type felony or felony involving moral turpitude.
  • The Employee’s conviction of, or plea of guilty or nolo contendere to, (a) a felony (other than traffic violations), (b) a crime involving moral turpitude, or (c) a criminal act which adversely affects the business or reputation of Company, its parent or its subsidiaries.

These typical for-cause termination clauses that the use term “moral turpitude” do not define the concept.

The term turpitude means vile, depraved, shameful, or base.  It has a grave meaning, and even the sound of the word suggests a perverseness.  You add the word “moral” before “turpitude” and it suggests an egregiously bad act or conduct.  While we have a textbook definition of “moral turpitude” as being reprehensible conduct, what can it mean in practice?  Who knows?  However, an executive should care.

The term is too vague and subjective.  Crimes come in varying degrees of wrongdoing.   Felonies involve varying degrees of criminality.  Some are worse than others. In order to avoid arbitrary results and inconsistent employer or judicial application, we ought to discard this hidebound term altogether.  When representing executives or organizations seeking to enter into employment contracts, I discourage the use of this term.  I prefer an itemized list of causes for termination and plain language like the following clause:

  • Employee’s commission of any act (i) involving (A) misuse or misappropriation of money or other property of Corporation or (B) a felony or repeated use of drugs or intoxicants; or (ii) which disparages the business integrity of Corporation, its parent Corporation or subsidiaries or affiliates or their officer directors, employees or customers, and materially and adversely affects the business reputation of Corporation.

This clause makes it readily understandable, among other acts, what kind of crime would be cause for termination, i.e. a felony. In the moral turpitude clauses above, the term crime or felony is modified by the term “moral turpitude” and, consequently, makes the felony or crime more vague and difficult to determine its applicability.

The use of term moral turpitude is anachronistic and should be eliminated from employment contract termination-for-cause provisions.

Copyright © 2012 by G. A. Finch, All rights reserved.

 

PREVAILING PARTY’S LITIGATION EXPENSES

A not uncommon provision in employment agreements, separation agreements, or stand alone agreements containing restrictive covenants (e.g. non-competition and non-solicitation) is a “prevailing party” provision.  This kind of provision grants the prevailing party in any litigation over an agreement the right to be reimbursed its, his or her legal fees and costs.

A typical prevailing-party provision will read like the following: “If litigation arises under this Agreement between the Company and the Executive, the prevailing party in such litigation shall be entitled to recover its or his reasonable attorneys’ fees, court costs and out-of-pocket litigation expenses from the non-prevailing party.”

The prevailing-party provision serves as a disincentive for an individual employee to assert his legal rights or to take a risk of violating an agreement.  From the outset, the employer ordinarily would have more financial resources to litigate, and this added provision of saddling the non-prevailing party with all the litigation costs has a chilling effect on the employee’s seeking vindication of his rights.  From the employer’s standpoint, this is precisely the sobering reminder that an employer wants to send to its ex-employees who may choose to test the validity of the employer’s restrictive covenants, especially non-compete clauses.

In any event, the prevailing-party provision is one that must not be overlooked by either the employee or the employer.

EXECUTIVE EMPLOYEE’S RIGHT TO TERMINATE EMPLOYMENT

BY G. A. FINCH

Executive employment agreements will ordinarily have termination of employment provisions.  Executives will assume the termination provisions go one way, i.e. that the employer is always doing the terminating.  What about the executive terminating his own employment?

Termination for Good Reason

The sophisticated executive or professional will negotiate a provision that allows him to terminate his employment for “Good Reason” and still receive certain compensation and benefits from his employer.  The provisions for termination for good reason by the executive can range from a few sentences to several paragraphs.

Categories of Good Reason

The employment agreement should define “Good Reason.”  Such definition may include an event where the assignment to the executive of any duties inconsistent in any material respect with the executive’s position, duties, responsibilities or status with the company as of the date of his employment agreement, or if a change in control has occurred, immediately prior to such change in control.  It may include a change in the executive’s reporting responsibilities, titles or offices with the company.  It may include any failure to re-elect the executive to any position with the company held by the executive.  It may include a reduction of the executive’s rate of annual base salary.  It may include any demand that the executive be based anywhere other than at the facility where the executive is currently located.  It may include travel on company business to an extent substantially more burdensome than the ordinary travel requirements of the executive.   It may include the failure of the company to continue in effect any employee benefit plan or compensation plan in which the executive is enrolled.  It may include the failure of the company to continue to provide executive and executive’s dependents medical, dental, disability, and life insurance benefits.  It may include failure of the company to provide the executive with paid vacation.  It could include failure to reimburse promptly the executive for any reasonable employment expenses.

Negotiating Termination Clause

The list could go on and on about the various events that could be deemed a Good Reason for an executive to terminate the employment agreement.  Like anything else, it is a matter for negotiations.

The more star power an executive has, coupled with his lack of need to take the position will increase his leverage to negotiate his right to terminate with resulting substantial compensation and benefits.

It is a wise executive who controls the circumstances of his employment.  An executive employee’s right to fire his employer  is a huge step in that direction.

THE SILENT EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT PROVISION: THE IMPLIED COVENANT OF GOOD FAITH AND FAIR DEALING

Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious: An employment agreement is a contract that is subject to basic contract principles, interpretation and construction.   

Good Faith and Fair Dealing Required

We will often see in employment agreement express covenants not to compete and not to solicit.  What is not express in contracts, but implied in the law in many states, is the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing.  For example, Illinois law reads a duty of good faith and fair dealing into all contracts.  The duty is implied in every contract.  Employment agreements are no exception.

What does “good faith” and “fair dealing mean?”  The idea is that whatever contractual discretion a party has, the party must exercise such discretion reasonably and not capriciously or arbitrarily.  Good faith is not taking an opportunistic advantage that was not contemplated by the parties when they entered into their agreement.

Not Playing Nicely

An act of bad faith could be where an employer with some discretion under a for-cause termination provision terminates an employee arbitrarily or capriciously for allegedly disreputable behavior. Or it could be where an employer terminates an employee to avoid a payment deadline for stock vesting or bonus payment.  An employee example could be where an employee makes his employment contingent on his spouse finding a similar job in the new locale as the employee but the employee and his spouse purposely fail to obtain a new job because the employee has a change of heart and does not want to move.

In short, it is a matter of fair, honest and sincere course of dealing where the parties have some discretion.

Bullet Proof Your Agreement by Expressing Yourself

Courts cannot use this implied covenant to override an express term of an agreement.  Nor does this implied covenant ordinarily create a separate cause of action.  The courts use the covenant as an aid to interpretation and construction.  A well drafted, comprehensive agreement should not fall victim to this covenant.

Without express disavowal in the employment agreement, the implied covenant exists.   Accordingly, one party, who believes the other party is engaging in sharp practices by exploiting gaps in their employment agreement, may try to invoke the covenant.