The Business Litigators
The Business Litigators
The Business Litigators
The Business Litigators
Patrick Austermuehle and Andrew Murphy were selected by Super Lawyers as Rising Stars
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The bait and switch tactic of selling goods and services is a trick as old as time, but it’s not always legal. If a customer signs a contract agreeing to pay a particular price for something, it is expected that the price will not change for the duration of the contract, unless both parties agree to the change in writing. That change can happen, either as an amendment to the contract, or as part of a new contract.

According to a federal class action consumer lawsuit that was recently filed in California, Comcast allegedly lured new cable customers with promises of low rates, which they then jacked up without warning or gaining consent from their customers. The fees in question are: the “Broadcast TV Fee,” which allegedly went from $1.50/month in 2014 to $6.50/month in 2016; and the “Regional Sports Fee,” which allegedly went from $1/month in 2015 to $4.50 in 2016.

When customers complained to Comcast, they were allegedly told by company representatives that the fees were government-related taxes or fees over which the company said it had no control – an assertion the plaintiffs claim is a blatant lie.

Comcast asked the court to dismiss all the claims put forth by the plaintiffs, saying its online order submission process was not enough to constitute a legally-binding contract. On the other hand, the Subscriber Agreement and Minimum Term Agreement were binding contracts in which the customers had allegedly agreed to pay Comcast’s fees.

Judge Vince Chhabria, of the U.S. District Court of Northern California, rejected Comcast’s motion to dismiss, saying that, by submitting their order, Comcast customers were agreeing to pay Comcast’s advertised prices, in addition to government-related taxes and fees. Chhabria denied Comcast’s assertion that consumers agreed to its higher fees in the Subscriber Agreement. As far as the Minimum Term Agreement was concerned, the plaintiffs allege they never saw it when submitting their order, in which case they cannot be bound by its terms. Chhabria said the plaintiffs had plausibly asserted that they never saw the agreement, although determining it in fact will have to be left to the more in-depth analysis of a summary judgment. Continue reading

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Disputes are a normal part of any relationship: be it business, personal or professional.  When business mixes with family, disputes would seem an unavoidable part of the deal.  For such a reason, litigation would be a route that most would want to avoid due to cost, time and the tensions placed on parties involved.  In general, most suits settle prior to trial and a majority of these via mediation.  Judges also recommend that parties settle prior to trial.

As we have discussed on our previous blog posts, Mediation is a way to appoint a neutral third party, often a retired judge or attorney with a vast amount of experience, who will resolve the dispute between both parties utilizing a problem-solving approach.  These sessions are confidential and a way for parties to explore and resolve issues.

For privacy reasons, and for a quicker resolution method, it would appear that such measures are more viable if a dispute was to occur within a family owned business.  Such cases may involve the ownership or management of a family-owned business are at issue, settlement agreements also can include provisions requiring, for example, transfers of shares, changes to corporate governance processes, or changes to a family member’s employment or other involvement with the company. Even if the parties begin to litigate their disputes, but then proceed to mediation, a judge will typically enforce a settlement agreement reached by the parties through mediation. Continue reading

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Persons convicted of federal financial crimes who are ordered to pay restitution cannot expect their retirement funds to be off-limits to the government.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a defendant who committed mail fraud could be required to pay court-ordered restitution out of his retirement account because it was not protected as earned income. (United States v. Rafi Sayyed, No. 16‐2858 (7th Cir. 2017))

Rafi S. pled guilty to federal mail fraud for receiving kickbacks from contractors as an executive for the American Hospital Association. He was ordered to pay $940,000 in restitution to AHA pursuant to the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act. In post-conviction proceedings, the federal government sought to enforce the judgment by accessing some $327,000 in non-exempt funds that Rafi held in two retirement accounts.

Rafi objected on the grounds that the funds were exempt “earnings” subject to the 25-percent garnishment cap of the Consumer Credit Protection Act. The district court found that because Rafi, who was 48 at the time, had the right to withdraw all his funds at will, the funds were not “earnings” exempted under CCPA. Continue reading

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The world of big-money executive bonuses is one that most of us can only dream of, but it was the subject of a recent opinion by the Illinois Appellate Court. The First District held that under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, ABN Amro Inc. could not deny a former executive a $2-million bonus simply because he had no written compensation agreement. (Robert D. Schultze v. ABN Amro, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 162140)

Robert S. had held various executive positions with ABN subsidiary LaSalle Bank since 1983. He earned his salary and bonuses under an oral employment agreement. If Robert and his team met certain performance goals, he could expect to receive a multiple of his salary as a bonus.

In 2007, ABN promoted Robert to managing director and chief operating officer of Global Markets North America Division. He was then asked to manage the $21-billion sale of LaSalle to Bank of America and the $93-billion sale of ABN to Royal Bank of Scotland and two other banks, as executive lead of the ABN North America Transition Leadership Team.

Based on the bonuses paid to his predecessors in the COO job combined with his significant added responsibilities, he expected a bonus of $2-$5 million for 2008. When he learned in March 2009 that his 2008 bonus was only $200,000, he objected as the amount was not in proportion to the responsibilities he had assumed, and was much lower than his recent annual bonuses. Continue reading

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It’s hard to see how a children’s clothing store could be a competitor for a brand that sells high-end men’s and women’s clothing. But that’s allegedly what Trunk Club told a former employee who wanted to go to work for Mac & Mia, which Trunk Club said would be in violations of the non-compete agreement she had signed with them.

A subsidiary of Nordstrom’s, Trunk Club is a personal styling service for men and women, while Mac & Mia uses personal stylists to help sell children’s clothing. Molly Dowell worked as a personal stylist at Trunk Club for about six months before leaving, citing concerns about the future of the company. Nordstrom’s recently reduced Trunk Club’s value to half of what the clothing giant paid for the personal styling company, saying it had not been performing as well as Nordstrom’s had hoped it would. That, combined with the recent departure of Trunk Club’s CEO, suggests Dowell’s concerns for the company may have been well-founded. Continue reading

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Online reviews can have a powerful effect on a business these days. Before trying a new product or service, the first thing most people do is check online for reviews other customers have posted about the company and/or their products/services. Websites like Yelp were invented for that very purpose, but reviews have spread to other places online, including Google and social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

In addition to showing users individual reviews, they generally also display an average rating out of five stars at the top, and just a few one- or two-star reviews is all it takes to have a significant effect on a company’s overall ranking.

Because you’re never going to please everyone, companies have started retaliating against these negative reviews by putting “gag” clauses in their contracts with their customers. These are generally included in the Terms of Service, which most people accept without reading. Our time is limited and few people see the point in reading through a lengthy contract every time they go to buy something or view a website (in some cases, companies state that simply using a site counts as agreeing to their terms of service).

But companies have been enforcing these “gag rules,” whether customers were aware of them or not. Some of them charge a fine for each negative review. At least one company sued a couple for an exorbitant $1 million for posting a one-star review. That case was dismissed, but even such outlandish cases require people to spend the time and money to defend themselves in court – or take down their reviews. Continue reading

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In an age where people are paying and utilizing services online, a certain standard which is regulated by law and expected by clientele needs to be met.  That is why when a man from Illinois has decided to sue an online service for paying monthly fees for a service which he is claiming had multiple inactive or dead profile accounts.

In the complaint which is filed in a Federal Court, the service repeatedly asked him pay between $9.99 and $19.99 per month to connect with users who “liked” his profile after the creation of a free account, upon which, he immediately began receiving messages from other users who had supposedly liked his profile. To learn the identities of those who had liked his account, however, the plaintiff was prompted to pay for a premium, or “A-List,” service. The plaintiff alleges that right after the payment of $44.99, he knew something was amiss. Shortly thereafter, upon reviewing the profiles of individuals whose identities were previously hidden, the plaintiff allegedly discovered that most if not all of these people were associated with inactive or ‘dead’ accounts, making interaction or dating impossible.

It is alleged that the actions constitute a breach of contract and violate both the Illinois Dating Referral Services Act and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act with potential to seek class-action status. Continue reading

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Shortly after having paid a total of more than $300 million in fines and settlement payments for allegedly opening fake accounts for its customers without their knowledge or consent, Wells Fargo is once again back in the spotlight for allegations of fraud.

This time the allegations are in regards to the bank’s auto lending business, which allegedly signed up and charged customers for car insurance they may or may not have needed or been made aware of. According to the class action lawsuit, most of the approximately 570,000 customers involved were not looking for a car loan from Wells Fargo, but got one anyway after they had chosen an automobile.

Wells Fargo required borrowers to maintain comprehensive car insurance, like almost any other auto loan company. Unlike other auto loan companies, Wells Fargo allegedly bought insurance for its customers who did not have comprehensive insurance, then charged them for it. Wells Fargo even admitted to buying insurance for customers who already had coverage.

National General has also been named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as it is the company from which Wells Fargo purchased insurance on behalf of the customers it deemed were underinsured (whether they were or not). The bank then charged their customers for that insurance, regardless of whether those customers could afford the insurance Wells Fargo had bought for them.

Many of the customers who were forced to pay for auto insurance they could not afford fell behind on their payments, to the point where some were forced to default on their loans, resulting in the repossession of their vehicles. Continue reading

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Producers are often viewed by the public as greedy opportunists who do little more than mooch off their artists, who are perceived as being ones who do the “real work.” But Quincy Jones, who produced some of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits, is now saying he was cheated out of millions of dollars he says the pop star’s estate owes him.

This is coming from a man who has already made millions off music and videos created by the music icon. Attorneys for Jackson’s estate tried to paint Jones as just another money grabber out for all he can get, but Jones and his attorneys painted a different picture. They accused the Jackson estate of deliberately misinterpreting the language of the contracts to avoid paying Jones his share of the profits. Continue reading

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Can a former employee breach a nonsolicitation agreement by posting his new job on his Facebook page or inviting former colleagues to connect with him on LinkedIn? It turns out that it depends on the nature of the communication. An Illinois appellate court recently considered the role social media plays in the world of corporate non-compete agreements.

Gregory G. was a branch sales manager in the Warwick, Rhode Island, office of Bankers Life, an Illinois company that sells insurance and financial products to seniors. In 2006 Gregory signed a non-compete agreement that barred him from soliciting any employee or client of that office for two years after his employment ended. Gregory left Bankers Life in 2015 and later joined its competitor, American Senior Benefits LLC, as a senior vice president.

In a breach of contract complaint, Bankers Life alleged that Gregory attempted to recruit employees from its Warwick office by sending LinkedIn invitations to three former co-workers, who would be able to see a job posting for his new employer on his LinkedIn profile page. Continue reading