Category: Employment Litigation – Defense

5TH ANNUAL EMPLOYMENT LAW INSTITUTE by Richard Friedman

Employer Best Practices for Conducting Sexual Harassment Investigations

A female mid-level employee walks into her employer’s Human Resources (“HR”) Department offices and states that she would like to file a sexual harassment complaint against a senior executive. The employee then lays out her story and describes her fears of retaliation from the executive. This situation can be very difficult for in-house counsel because they are presumably concerned about the well-being of all employees, promoting a suitable company culture, and providing a safe and positive environment which hopefully helps the company to thrive.

Given the seriousness of sexual harassment allegations, which has certainly been highlighted by the #MeToo Movement, it is obviously imperative that employers conduct thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of sexual harassment. In order to ensure a proper investigation occurs, employers should address the following issues, among others.

Who should conduct the investigation?

What is the proper scope?

How should the witness interview be conducted?

In what manner and to whom should the conclusions be communicated?

With proper procedures followed by capable HR personnel, in-house counsel, and/or outside counsel, employers can ensure that a fair investigation is conducted and reduce or eliminate the possibility of company liability for an improper investigation.

Who is an Appropriate Investigator?

Many employers utilize HR staff members or in-house counsel to conduct internal investigations due to their understanding of company policies and/or employment law. Although obviously cost-effective, this approach can eventually result in allegations of conflicts of interest because of the employment relationship between the employer and the employee-investigator. This is particularly true when a senior executive is the target of the investigation.

Employing outside counsel to conduct sexual harassment investigations is the safest way to proceed when the allegations are extremely serious and/or one or more senior executives are involved. Consideration should also be given to having outside counsel conduct an investigation when the complainant is a former employee to reduce or eliminate later allegations in the litigation that I believe is more likely to ensue under such circumstances that the investigation was flawed because the investigator was conflicted. Retaining outside counsel also allows in-house counsel and HR employees to focus on other meaningful workplace functions.

What is the Appropriate Scope of an Investigation?

Of course, the scope of the investigation depends on the nature of the complaint and may change as new facts come to light. That said, the investigator(s) must probe the credibility of the alleged harasser(s), victim, and witnesses and evaluate whether the company’s processes and practices for handling sexual harassment claims were followed. In addition, investigators should make recommendations if they believe (i) certain company processes or practices need to be revised, (ii) systemic problems exist, or (iii) an HR audit is warranted.

A preliminary investigation plan should include a description of known facts and specific issues to be explored, a list of possible witnesses as well as other individuals with relevant information, and known or possible documentary evidence. It should also contain a proposed timeline for completion of the investigation. Potentially relevant evidence includes records of prior complaints, witness interviews, personnel files, performance evaluations, compensation records, timekeeping records, emails and other electronically stored information, voicemails, audio/video recordings, employee notes and logs, and background checks. In determining the appropriate investigatory strategy, investigators should be mindful of the potentially disruptive and unnerving effect of a hard-nosed investigation into alleged employee misconduct.

How Should Witness Interviews Be Conducted?

At the outset of employee interviews, in-house or outside counsel must provide Upjohn warnings to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of employee interviews. In the landmark 1981 case Upjohn Co. v. United States, the United States Supreme Court found that a company’s attorney-client privilege protected communications between attorneys and a company’s employees regardless of their seniority and authority. The Court’s holding gave rise to the Upjohn Warning in which attorney investigators hired by a company inform employee interviewees that the attorney-client relationship exists only between the attorney and the employer. Failure to provide an Upjohn Warning has resulted in employee witnesses being afforded the right to claim the attorney-client privilege with respect to their communications with investigative counsel representing the company.

Another issue that sometimes arises is whether to allow employees being interviewed to have their personal counsel or another representative present. In order to protect the privacy rights of the persons involved, among other reasons, it is my view that employers should generally avoid allowing counsel or a representative to sit in on interviews. If it is permitted under unusual circumstances, employers should articulate guidelines in advance to prevent disruptions, questions, and responses made by an attorney on behalf of his or her client or a representative on behalf of his or her principal.

Although efforts should be made to ensure the confidentiality of information obtained from witness interviews, employers need to understand that relying on the propriety of an investigation as a defense in a litigation may eventually result in a waiver of the attorney-client privilege for that investigation.

Investigative Report

In many routine investigations, it is perfectly appropriate for in-house counsel or HR employees to speak separately with the complainant and the subject of the investigation, send separate confirmatory emails, and not prepare a formal report. However, if counsel believes that remedial or other actions may or will need to be taken, the target is a senior employee, and/or litigation is reasonably likely to ensue, a written report should be prepared absent extraordinary circumstances. When PowerPoint slides are used to make a presentation of the report, attendees, including Board members, should not be allowed to retain any slides because of possible litigation.

Takeaways

Of course, no single approach will suit all companies or all scenarios when sexual harassment allegations have been made so it is imperative for an employer to give careful consideration to what is appropriate given the particular circumstances. However, there are some universal guidelines I believe employers should follow when choosing an investigator. Employers should try to confirm that the investigator is:

  1. well-trained on proper investigation procedures;
  2. knowledgeable about employment and sexual harassment law and company policies;
  3. disinterested in the particular investigation even if an employee of the company at issue;
  4. a skilled interviewer who knows how to listen and when to probe to find relevant information; and
  5. has an acute eye for details since some may eventually prove to be important.

Investigators with these virtues, whether employed by the company or outside counsel, should be able to conduct competent investigations in even the most trying of circumstances. Finally, the form of any report should be governed by the employment status of the complainant(s), the nature of the allegations, and the seniority of the target(s) of the investigation.

Richard B. Friedman
Richard Friedman PLLC

830 Third Avenue, 5th Floor
New York, New York 10022
TEL: 212-600-9539
rfriedman@richardfriedmanlaw.com
www.richardfriedmanlaw.com
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Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 by Richard Friedman

Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016

In the Digital Information Age, where electronic data containing confidential information is so easily transferable, employers face a dilemma. On the one hand, they generally want to allow employees as much access to information as possible to promote efficient and uninterrupted workflow. On the other hand, there is always the risk that employees with access to highly sensitive information may misplace hard copies and/or flash drives containing such information or purposefully take key information to use on behalf of a competing future employer, for a business they have started or intend to start, or to damage the company because of a personal vendetta.  

Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 

To address this dilemma, the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA) was signed into law by President Obama on May 11, 2016, and became effective immediately. It provides for enhanced remedies for misappropriation of information deemed to be trade secrets and creates a number of new remedies for plaintiffs. The Act creates a federal civil cause of action for trade secret misappropriation for the first time and provides for the following remedies: injunctions; damages awards for economic loss arising from the misappropriation; and “in extraordinary circumstances” issuance of “an order providing for the seizure of property necessary to prevent the propagation or dissemination of the trade secret that is the subject of the action.” Further, if a court finds that the “trade secret is willfully and maliciously misappropriated,” it may “award exemplary damages” up to twice the amount of the damages awarded. 

Employers’ Responsibilities Under the Act 

In order to avail themselves of the Act’s remedies, trade secret owners must inform their employees that they will not be held liable for disclosures of information deemed to be trade secrets that “(A) [are] made (i) in confidence to a Federal, State, or local government official, either directly or indirectly, or to an attorney; and (ii) solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law; or (B) [are] made in a complaint or other document filed in a lawsuit or other proceeding, if such filing is made under seal.” Once employees are on such notice vis-a-vis a written policy in a company code of conduct or otherwise, employers may seek remedies under the DTSA. 

But the DTSA is not intended to blindly empower employers against employees. “If a claim…is made in bad faith, which may be established by circumstantial evidence,” or “a motion to terminate an injunction is made or opposed in bad faith,” a court can award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. In addition, if the court finds that the seizure order was “wrongful or excessive,” the defendant “has a cause of action against the applicant for the order under which such seizure was made….” 

The foregoing measures were included to protect individuals against wrongful claims. Needless to say, trade secret owners and their counsel must carefully evaluate possible claims under the DTSA before commencing legal action.

Richard B. Friedman
Richard Friedman PLLC
830 Third Avenue, 5th Floor
New York, New York 10022
TEL: 212-600-9539
FAX: 212-840-8560
rfriedman@richardfriedmanlaw.com
www.richardfriedmanlaw.com
www.richardfriedmanlaw.com/blog
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Non-compete Agreements Under New York Law by Richard Friedman

Non-compete Agreements Under New York Law

Many employers try to limit former employees’ actions at the conclusion of the employment relationship through restrictive covenants. A restrictive covenant is a contractual agreement restricting the post-employment activities of a former employee for a fixed period after the termination of an employment relationship in order to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests.

A. Protectable Interests

Non-compete agreements offer the widest range of protection for employers by limiting a prior employee’s ability to work for a competitor after the employment relationship ends. However, this type of restrictive covenant is often the most difficult to enforce and is generally disfavored in New York. New York courts will enforce non-compete provisions only to the extent necessary to protect an employer’s legitimate interests and where they are reasonable in time and geographic area. Such courts consider the protection of the following kinds of information to be legitimate protectable interests:

1) trade secrets;

2) confidential customer relationships; and

3) confidential customer information.

For example, in Ticor Title Ins. Co. v. Cohen, 173 F.3d 63, 71 (2d Cir. 1999), the court noted that an employer has sufficient interest in retaining its current customers to support a covenant not to compete where the employee’s relationship with the customers is such that there is a substantial risk that the employee may be able to divert all or part of the business.

B. Temporal and Geographic Restrictions

New York courts have repeatedly held that temporal restrictions of six months or less are reasonable. See Ticor Title Ins. Co. v. Cohen, 173 F.3d at 70 (2d Cir. 1999); Natsource LLC, 151 F.Supp.2d at 470-71 (three-month non-compete). However, courts have also enforced non-competes of three years or more, usually where geography is limited. In Novendstern v. Mount Kisco Med. Grp., 177 A.D.2d 623, 576 N.Y.S.2d 329 (1991), the court found that a covenant restricting a physician from competing with his previous employer was enforceable because the prohibition on the physician’s practicing in his specialties for three years was in a limited geographic area.

To determine whether a non-compete provision is reasonable in geographic scope, courts in New York examine the particular facts and circumstances of each case. For example, in Natsource LLC v. Paribello, 151 F.Supp.2d 465, 471-72 (S.D.N.Y.2001), the court was willing to enforce very broad geographic restrictions on employees where the “nature of the business requires that the restriction be unlimited in geographic scope,” so long as the duration of those restrictions was short. (Emphasis added). However, in Pure Power Boot Camp, Inc. v. Warrior Fitness Boot Camp, LLC, 813 F. Supp. 2d 489 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), the court held that the non-compete provision in a fitness center operator’s employment agreement with prior employees, which prohibited employees from working at a competitor center anywhere in world for ten years following employment at center, was unenforceable since it was unreasonable in terms of duration and geographic scope.

C. Consideration

New York courts have also examined whether there was sufficient consideration, whether the agreement was incidental to the sale of a business, and whether an employee was preparing to compete to determine if a non-compete was reasonable. Such courts have found that future employment constitutes sufficient consideration to support a covenant not to compete. See Poller v. BioScrip, Inc., 974 F. Supp. 2d 204 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (holding that “the fact that a restrictive covenant agreement is a condition of future employment does not automatically render such an agreement coercive and unenforceable”). Similarly, in Ikon Office Solutions v. Leichtnam, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1469, *1, 2003 WL 251954 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2003), the court found that the non-compete covenant was enforceable because the employee was an at-will employee who received continued employment as consideration. Moreover, financial benefits and an employee’s receipt of intangibles such as knowledge, skill, or professional status, are also sufficient consideration to support a non-compete provision under New York law. See Arthur Young & Co. v. Galasso, 142 Misc. 2d 738, 741 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. County 1989).

D. Selling a Business and Preparing to Compete

New York courts are most likely to enforce non-compete agreements that are incidental to the sale of business. See Mohawk Maint. Co. v. Kessler, 52 N.Y.2d 276 (1981) (stating that courts give covenants not to compete made in connection with the sale of a business and its accompanying goodwill “full effect when they are not unduly burdensome”).

New York courts have held that an employee preparing to compete violates a non-compete provision where affirmative steps have been taken that would give the individual a head start on competing once the restricted period ends. For example, in World Auto Parts, Inc. v. Labenski, 217 A.D.2d 940 (4th Dep’t 1995), the court found that conduct such as making personal loans to the principal owners of competitors and divulging to competitors price information acquired while working with the former employer constituted preparatory behavior that violated the non-compete agreement. However, in some instances, employees may prepare to compete prior to their departure provided that they do not use their employers’ time, facilities or proprietary secrets to do so. See Stork H & E Turbo Blading, Inc. v. Berry, 932 N.Y.S.2d 763 (2011).

Of course, we are available to assist in drafting, negotiating, and, if necessary, litigating non-compete and other restrictive covenant agreements. Some of the negotiated and litigated employment-related matters that our lawyers have handled in recent years have involved fiduciary duty claims, allegations of possible officer and/or employee misconduct, the faithless servant doctrine, wrongful discharge claims, confidentiality provisions in employment and severance agreements, trade secrets, and related matters.  One of Richard Friedman’s most noteworthy trial victories in the New York County Commercial Division, on whose Advisory Committee he serves with the nine judges of that court as one of about fifteen judicially appointed private practitioners, is the subject of a feature American Lawyer article that is available upon request via email at rfriedman@richardfriedmanlaw.com.

Richard B. Friedman
Richard Friedman PLLC
830 Third Avenue, 5th Floor
New York, New York 10022
TEL: 212-600-9539
FAX: 212-840-8560
rfriedman@richardfriedmanlaw.com
www.richardfriedmanlaw.com
www.richardfriedmanlaw.com/blog
Connect with me on Linkedin