Articles Posted in Business Litigation

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The Delaware Court of Chancery recently denied a motion to dismiss a breach of contract suit brought by former shareholders of a corporation, who alleged that the corporation’s buyers had failed to fulfill their obligations under a merger contract. Himawon, et al. v. Cephalon, Inc., et al, C.A. No. 2018-0075-SG, mem. op. (Del. Chanc. Ct., Dec. 28, 2018). Since Delaware law tends to influence businesses around the country, the ruling could be relevant to California business disputes. The case presents interesting questions about the use of highly subjective language to define a party’s obligations in a contract. In this case, the buyers agreed to use “commercially reasonable efforts” to develop a valuable product owned by the corporation, id. at 2, and the plaintiffs allege that they failed to do so.

Although the plaintiffs in Himawon are shareholders of the corporation, it is not a shareholder derivative suit. Instead, it is a suit for breach of contract, based on a merger contract in which the plaintiffs agreed to sell their shares. In California, a plaintiff claiming breach of contract must prove six elements by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) a valid and enforceable contract existed between the parties; (2) the plaintiff performed their duties under the contract, or was excused from doing so; (3) all conditions necessary for the defendant to perform their duties under the contract had either occurred or been excused; (4) the defendant either failed to do something required by the contract, or did something prohibited by the contract; (5) the plaintiff suffered harm; and (6) the defendant’s breach substantially caused the plaintiff’s harm.

The corporation in Himawon owned the intellectual property rights to an antibody, which is a type of protein used to fight diseases. Antibodies are a natural part of the human immune system, but they are also used in medical and pharmaceutical research to develop new treatments. The court notes that “bringing antibodies to market” involves a “long, arduous, and risky” process due to “rigorous governmental oversight for risk and efficacy.” Id. The corporation entered into a merger agreement with another corporation, which reportedly tried to divide the risk among the parties. The buyer agreed to pay an initial sales price, followed by earn-outs paid to the former shareholders based on “certain milestones in the approval of the antibody to treat two different conditions.” Id. It agreed to use “commercially reasonable efforts” to attain these goals.
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Businesses involved in legal disputes may choose to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) instead of litigation. California and federal law encourage litigants to use ADR, in part to lessen the burden on the court system. Arbitration, mediation, and other types of ADR may offer advantages over litigation. For example, ADR may offer a faster resolution of a dispute, free from packed court schedules. Unlike litigation, ADR proceedings are not public record, and the parties are often barred from disclosing the details of an arbitration or mediation. Since the results of ADR proceedings are often binding on the parties, ADR practitioners must abide by legal standards that ensure fairness. A court in New York City recently granted a request to stay an arbitration proceeding, after one party alleged that a lack of racial diversity among available arbitrators rendered the proceeding unfair and discriminatory. Carter, et al v. Iconix Brand Group, Inc., et al, No. 655894/2018, petition (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty., Nov. 28, 2018). If you are facing a similar issue in California, contact a California intellectual property attorney without delay.

An arbitration proceeding resembles a courtroom trial. The parties present their cases, including witnesses and other evidence, to one or more arbitrators, and the arbitrator(s) render a decision. Statutes like the Federal Arbitration Act and the California Arbitration Act hold that agreements to arbitrate disputes are generally “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable.” 9 U.S.C. § 2, Cal. Civ. Pro. Code § 1281. If the parties have agreed in advance to binding arbitration, then state and federal law strictly limit courts’ authority to vacate or revise an arbitrator’s decision to specific situations, such as “corruption, fraud, or undue means.” 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(1), Cal. Civ. Pro. Code § 1286.2(a)(1).

The arbitration proceeding at issue in the Carter case arises from a rather lengthy series of intellectual property disputes between the plaintiff, a hip-hop artist and record producer, and the defendant, a clothing company. The plaintiff sold a clothing brand to the defendant in 2007, leading to several lawsuits and settlements involving trademark rights. A lawsuit filed by the defendant against the plaintiff in New York in 2017, for example, is still pending. The current arbitration is related to a settlement agreement between the parties from 2015. The defendant alleged breach of the 2015 agreement, and commenced a proceeding with the American Arbitration Association (AAA) in October 2018.
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When a company does business across state lines, it may need to consider questions about jurisdiction over various potential disputes. An extensive and complicated body of law addresses when and how courts may exercise personal jurisdiction over defendants. Many contracts include “choice of law” or “forum selection” provisions, which identify a specific state and county as the proper jurisdiction and venue for lawsuits. The Delaware Court of Chancery recently ruled on a dispute over a choice of law provision, in which the defendant argued that the plaintiffs’ consent to jurisdiction in Kentucky required them to bring their lawsuit there. The court disagreed, noting that the contract did not “contain clear language indicating that litigation will proceed exclusively in the designated forum.” In re Bay Hills Emerging Partners I, L.P., et al, C.A. No. 2018-0234-JRS, mem. op. at 13 (Del. Ct. Chanc., Jul. 2, 2018).

Forum selection is an important part of any contract that involves parties in different jurisdictions, especially when relevant laws significantly differ from one another. This includes conflicts between the laws of two or more states, and conflicts between federal and state law. The parties to a contract need to know which laws will apply. Courts have developed rules and procedures for determining which jurisdiction’s laws apply in a particular situation, but that procedure is never simple or easy. Agreeing in advance to jurisdiction and venue can save a great deal of headache in many situations.

The defendant in Bay Hills is the official administrator of the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s retirement system. Through investments, it became the sole limited partner in four Delaware-based limited partnerships (LPs). It executed limited partnership agreements (LPAs) that included provisions allowing it to remove general partners “for cause.” Bay Hills at 4. In May 2017, the defendant exercised this right as to the general partners of all four LPs. It later withdrew its notice of removal, but served a second notice of removal on all four general partners in February 2018.
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Cybersecurity and data privacy are vital issues that business owners need to understand. Many Northern California businesses rely on the availability of customer data for their business operations. State and federal cybersecurity and privacy laws require businesses to take various steps to safeguard certain types of customer information. Businesses that have an international presence must also abide by certain international treaties and the laws of some foreign countries. Since 2015, the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.) have attempted to develop a framework that allows U.S. companies to transmit customer information from Europe, while protecting European consumers’ privacy. They agreed on a framework known as the “EU-US Privacy Shield” in 2016. A recent ruling from an Irish court, however, could significantly alter the flow of information from European consumers to U.S. businesses.

The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, regulates the U.S. government’s use of information commonly known as “personally identifiable information” (PII). This includes names, addresses, Social Security and other identification numbers, and other information that can be used to identify a specific individual. The applicability of these protections to people outside the United States remains uncertain. Congress expanded the scope of the Privacy Act to include nationals of designated foreign countries in the Judicial Redress Act of 2015. Pub. L. 114-126, 130 Stat. 282 (Feb. 24, 2016). The White House, however, has directed federal agencies to “exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act.” Exec. Order 13768, 82 Fed. Reg. 8799, 8802 (Jan. 30, 2017).

The U.S. and the E.U. developed a framework known as the International Safe Harbor Privacy Principles to address the handling of PII by private companies across national borders. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in 2000 that these principles were consistent with the E.U.’s Data Protection Directive, Directive 95/46/EC, which was in force at the time. The rise of social media, however, led to a complaint in 2014 from an Austrian citizen who was concerned about PII held by the social media company Facebook at its subsidiary facility in Ireland. Rather than concerns about identity theft, the complainant alleged that information submitted to Facebook would be subject to surveillance by the U.S. government.
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The United States Constitution grants authority to the federal judiciary to hear “cases and controversies” arising under various circumstances. U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, cl. 1. If a plaintiff does not present a justiciable controversy, federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case. One part of this analysis involves determining whether a plaintiff has standing to sue. The U.S. Supreme Court has defined a general test to determine standing, which requires evidence of an “injury in fact,” a “causal connection” between this injury and the defendant’s alleged conduct, and a likelihood that a “favorable decision” would redress the injury. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). The court further addressed the “injury in fact” requirement in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), finding that the Ninth Circuit needed to consider both the “concrete” and the “particularized” aspects of the alleged injury. The Ninth Circuit, whose jurisdiction includes many California business disputes, cited Spokeo in two recent decisions finding that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue for alleged violations of a federal consumer protection statute. Bassett v. ABM Parking Services, Inc., 883 F. 3d 776 (9th Cir. 2018); Noble v. Nevada Checker Cab Corporation, No. 16-16573, slip op. (9th Cir., Mar. 9, 2018).

Both Bassett and Noble alleged violations of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) of 2003. This law amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., with various provisions granting consumers access to their own credit information and protecting against identity theft. Thanks to FACTA, consumers can receive a copy of their credit report from each of the major credit reporting agencies once a year, free of charge.

The two Ninth Circuit cases alleged violations of FACTA provisions requiring the truncation of credit and debit card numbers, printing no “more than the last 5 digits of the card number or the expiration date,” on receipts provided to consumers at the point of sale. Id. at § 1681c(g). Willful noncompliance with these requirements can result in liability to an aggrieved consumer for damages of $100 to $1,000, as well as actual damages and attorney’s fees. Id. at § 1681n(a).
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Internet users are constantly creating new content. Sometimes, new content finds wide distribution on social media platforms—commonly known as “going viral”—and therefore gains commercial value for the creators. Trademark law can protect content creators’ exclusive rights to names, logos, and designs, and it allows them to license the use of the same to others. A jury in a California federal court recently found in favor of the owners of a trademark involving a cat, who has gained worldwide fame for her unique look. The trademark covers the cat’s likeness and her internet nickname, “Grumpy Cat.” The case involved a licensee who, according to the trademark owner, infringed the trademark by using the cat’s nickname and likeness in more ways than were allowed by the terms of the license. Grumpy Cat Limited v. Grenade Beverage LLC, No. 8:15-cv-02063, complaint (C.D. Cal., Dec. 11, 2015). After a five-day trial in January 2018, the jury awarded the trademark owner $710,001 in damages.

The federal Lanham Act defines a “trademark” as “any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof,” which a person is using or “has a bona fide intention to use” for business or commercial purposes. 15 U.S.C. § 1127. It prohibits the unauthorized use of a trademark in connection with the marketing, advertising, or sale of goods or services if it “is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive.” Id. at § 1114(1). It also prohibits unauthorized uses of a trademark that falsely designate the origin of goods or services, or that dilute the “distinctiveness” of a famous trademark. Id. at §§ 1125(a), (c).

License agreements allow individuals or businesses to use someone else’s trademark for commercial purposes, usually in exchange for a license fee or other compensation. Businesses may choose to do this in order to capitalize on a trademark’s popularity or goodwill. Trademark owners are responsible for monitoring not only compliance with the license agreement but also the quality of the goods and services that bear the trademark. Failing to do so is known as “naked licensing,” and it can result in the loss of trademark protection. Barcamerica Intern. v. Tyfield Importers, Inc., 289 F.3d 589, 596 (9th Cir. 2002).

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A wide range of regulatory agencies monitor business activities, investigate alleged violations, and bring civil actions against companies they believe have committed unlawful acts. Many businesses designate executives or managers as compliance officers, in the hopes of identifying and preventing regulatory violations before they become actionable. Companies in some industries create separate organizations to serve as watchdogs over their members. Self-regulatory organizations offer the benefit of keeping official regulators at something of a distance, but their reliability depends on vigorously fulfilling their purpose. One example is the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (ASRC), which has several divisions monitoring different aspects of the advertising business. One of these, the National Advertising Division (NAD), monitors national advertising campaigns to look for false or misleading claims and other deceptive practices. If it is unable to resolve a claim, it may refer the matter to a government agency. This recently happened with a company based in Northern California, which was accused of failing to disclose fees to consumers. The NAD referred the claims to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The ASRC was founded in 1971 as an alliance between two advertising trade organizations and the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). Originally known as the National Advertising Review Council (NARC), the organization changed its name to the ASRC in 2012. The NAD conducts investigations based on its own monitoring of truth and accuracy in advertising, and it also receives claims of false advertising from competitors and consumers. In addition to the NAD, the ASRC has divisions monitoring advertising directed at children and various forms of online advertising. The National Advertising Review Board hears appeals of decisions made by the other divisions.

The FTC is a federal agency charged with enforcing multiple statutes dealing with consumer protection. The agency was created by the FTC Act of 1914, 15 U.S.C. § 41 et seq., which contains many of the provisions the FTC enforces. The statute prohibits numerous anti-competitive, deceptive, fraudulent, and otherwise unfair business practices. This includes the dissemination of “any false advertisement…for the purpose of inducing…the purchase in or having an effect upon commerce, of food, drugs, devices, services, or cosmetics.” Id. at § 52(a). The FTC is authorized to seek injunctive relief preventing the further dissemination of allegedly false advertising, and to bring suit for damages. Liability under these provisions is limited to a “manufacturer, packer, distributor, or seller” of a good or service, instead of an advertising agency or broadcaster. Id. at § 54(b).

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California businesses that sell goods or services to the public have a duty to deal fairly with consumers and other businesses. Statutes like the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) and the Unfair Competition Law (UCL) prohibit a variety of deceptive or unfair practices and allow civil claims for damages by aggrieved businesses or consumers. A lawsuit filed late last year in a Northern California federal court alleges violations of the CLRA and the UCL by a major technology company. Harvey v. Apple, Inc., et al., No. 3:17-cv-07274, complaint (N.D. Cal., Dec. 21, 2017). The complaint, which includes class action allegations, claims that the defendant allowed one of its signature products to go to market with a known defect, failed to disclose this defect to consumers, and made misleading statements about the nature of the defect and possible solutions for problems caused by the defect. Lawsuits filed in other California federal courts and other states make similar allegations, and the court is reportedly considering consolidation of some or all of the complaints.

The CLRA prohibits a wide range of deceptive practices involving the sale of goods or services to consumers. The deceptive practices alleged in Harvey include “representing that goods…have…characteristics,…uses, benefits, or quantities that they do not have”; “representing that [they]…are of a particular standard, quality, or grade,…if they are of another”; and “advertising [them] with intent not to sell them as advertised.” Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1770(a)(5), (7), (9). Damages under the CLRA may include injunctive relief, actual damages, punitive damages, and restitution. Id. at § 1780.

The UCL also establishes broad prohibitions on unfair or deceptive business practices under various provisions of state law, but its coverage is not limited to consumers. California law states that a person is liable for damages that result from “willfully deceiv[ing] another with intent to induce him to alter his position to his injury or risk.” Id. at § 1709. “Deceit” includes acts like “the suppression of a fact, by one who is bound to disclose it.” Id. at § 1710(3). An act of deceit that is intended “to defraud the public” can potentially result in liability to every person “who is actually misled by the deceit.” Id. at § 1711. An individual can file suit for violations of the UCL if the alleged unfair act has caused them to “suffer[] injury in fact and…los[e] money or property.” Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17203, 17204.

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A plaintiff must establish that the court in which they are filing suit has jurisdiction over their claims. Questions of jurisdiction can quickly become complicated, especially when a lawsuit cites multiple sources of law. The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) gives foreign citizens the right to file suit in U.S. district courts for certain tort claims. U.S. courts have allowed claims against individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering whether the ATS allows claims against foreign corporations in Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC. While the case is not likely to have much effect on California business litigation, it offers a useful look at how U.S. courts can exercise jurisdiction over international business disputes.

The Judiciary Act of 1789, one of Congress’ very first laws, created the ATS. The statute gives federal district courts jurisdiction over “causes where an alien sues for a tort only in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” 1 Stat. 77 (1789), 28 U.S.C. § 1350. It does not define “alien.” Federal law defines that term elsewhere as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(3). The term “law of nations” refers to international law, which mostly consists of treaties, conventions, and other agreements.

The ATS was largely forgotten until 1980, when the Second Circuit ruled on a claim by the parents of a teenager who had been “kidnapped and tortured to death” in 1976 by the defendant, who was the “Inspector General of Police in Asuncion, Paraguay” at the time. Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, 630 F.2d 876, 878 (2d Cir. 1980). After the defendant moved to New York in 1978, the plaintiffs filed suit against him under the ATS for violations of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and other sources of international law. The Second Circuit affirmed the verdict in favor of the plaintiff, which included a damages award of $10.4 million.

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In order to sustain a California consumer lawsuit, a plaintiff must be able to demonstrate that they have standing to sue. “Standing” refers to the legal capacity to bring a claim in a particular capacity. Statutes that permit civil lawsuits to recover damages for violations often establish criteria for standing, and the courts have identified general rules for determining whether a plaintiff has standing, including the requirement of an “injury-in-fact.” See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992). A case arising in California under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) resulted in a question about the “injury-in-fact” requirement. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the plaintiff had established standing, Robins v. Spokeo, Inc. (“Spokeo I”), 742 F.3d 409 (9th Cir. 2014), but the Supreme Court vacated this ruling and remanded the case. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (“Spokeo II”), 578 U.S. ___ (2016). Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit again ruled in the plaintiff’s favor. Robins v. Spokeo, Inc. (“Spokeo II”), 867 F.3d 1108 (9th Cir. 2017).

The FCRA regulates the collection, use, and distribution of consumer information related to matters like “credit worthiness,…character, general reputation, [and] personal characteristics.” 15 U.S.C. § 1681a(d)(1). This type of information regularly appears in credit reports, which are used not only in credit and lease applications but also by potential employers. The statute requires “consumer reporting agencies” (CRAs), defined as businesses that collect consumer information and package it in reports for a fee, to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” of the reports they produce. Id. at § 1681e(b). It allows consumers to seek damages in court for violations, with additional penalties for willful or knowing noncompliance. Id. at §§ 1681n, 1681o.

The defendant in Spokeo “operates a website that provides users with information about other individuals.” Spokeo I, 742 F.3d at 410. This may include contact information, economic and work history, and other personal details. The plaintiff filed suit under the FCRA for allegedly failing to confirm the accuracy of the information provided about him by the website. The district court dismissed the lawsuit for lack of standing, finding that he had failed to demonstrate an injury-in-fact. He had not, according to the court, alleged that the information on the website had actually caused him an injury, but instead that the presence of allegedly inaccurate information only created the risk of future harm.