Chipotle Provides Yet More Reminders of D&O and Food Safety Risks

chipotle food borne illness outbreaks

If the average food safety crisis or product recall forces companies to weather a storm, Chipotle has spent the past year trying to weather a category 4 hurricane. Now months into their recovery effort, it seems they are still seeing significant storm surges.
Last week, a group of Chipotle shareholders filed a federal lawsuit accusing executives of “failing to establish quality-control and emergency-response measures to prevent and then stop food-borne illnesses that sickened customers across the country and proved costly to the company,” the Denver Post reported. The suit accuses executives, the board of directors, and managers of unjust enrichment and seeks compensation from Chipotle’s co-CEOs, while also asking for corporate-governance reforms and changes to internal procedures to comply with laws and protect shareholders.

Sales remain significantly impacted by the series of six foodborne illness outbreaks last year. The company reported in July that same-store sales fell another 23.6% in Q2, marking the third straight quarter of declines for performance even lower than analysts had predicted. The company’s stock remains drastically impacted, currently trading at about $394 compared to a high of $749 before the outbreaks came to light a year ago.

In addition to the most recent shareholder lawsuit, the bad news for directors and officers specifically has also been further compounded recently. Shareholder lawsuits were filed earlier this year alleging the company had misled investors about its food safety measures, made “materially false and misleading statements,” and did not disclose that its “quality controls were not in compliance with applicable consumer and workplace safety regulations.” In June, a group of shareholders sued a number of top executives for allegedly violating their fiduciary responsibilities and engaging in insider trading. Relying on insider knowledge about insufficient food safety protocols, the suit alleges that the executives sold hundreds of thousands of shares in the first half of 2015 before the food poisoning scandal was made public.

Check out previous coverage of the Chipotle crisis in the Risk Management March cover story “Dia de la Crisis: The Chipotle Outbreaks Highlight Supply Chain Risks.”

Ill. Court: Non-Injured Plaintiffs Cannot Sue for Violations of Consumer and Workplace-Related Laws

In Maglio v. Advocate Health and Hosps. Corp., (Ill. App. Ct. June 2, 2015), the Illinois Appellate Court was asked to decide whether individuals have standing to bring suit for violations of consumer data protection laws where their personal data, while compromised, has not been used to harm the individuals. The Illinois Appellate Court, in holding that such individuals do not have standing, established that, at least in Illinois, plaintiffs who suffer no concrete harm, but instead allege only technical statutory violations, cannot sue for violations of consumer and, presumably, workplace-related laws.

The decision of the Illinois Appellate Court could have implications beyond Illinois. As we previously reported, the U.S. Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (U.S. Apr. 27, 2015). In the Spokeo matter, the U.S. Supreme Court will confront a nearly identical issue: Do individuals have standing to sue for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) even when they have not suffered any harm or injury? If the U.S. Supreme Court reasons in the same way that the Illinois Appellate Court did and answers this question “no,” the decision would likely discourage the current wave of consumer, workplace, and other class actions seeking millions in statutory damages.

Case Background

Advocate is a network of hospitals and doctors. On July 15, 2013, burglars stole four computers from Advocate’s administrative building that contained the personal information of about four million of Advocate’s patients. Advocate notified these patients of the theft on August 23, 2013.

Two sets of plaintiffs filed class actions against Advocate, claiming that Advocate violated two state consumer data protection laws by failing to maintain adequate procedures to protect the personal information of plaintiffs and putative class members and by failing to notify the plaintiffs and putative class about the breach in a timely matter. The plaintiffs also sued Advocate on theories of negligence and invasion of privacy.

Advocate moved to dismiss both class actions, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they had not suffered any injury as a result of their data being stolen. Both trial courts dismissed the class actions. The trial courts found that “[t]he increased risk that plaintiffs will be identity theft victims at some indeterminate point in the future . . . . did not constitute an injury sufficient to confer standing,” and that the plaintiffs’ “allegations concerning anxiety and emotional distress . . . . were insufficient to establish standing, where they were not based on an imminent threat.” The plaintiffs appealed.

Appellate Court’s Decision

The Appellate Court pointed out that, under Illinois law, a plaintiff only has standing if he or she has suffered “some injury in fact to a legally cognizable interest. [T]he claimed injury may be actual or threatened and it must be: (1) distinct and palpable; (2) fairly traceable to the defendant’s actions; and (3) substantially likely to be prevented or redressed by the grant of the requested relief.”

The Appellate Court then considered whether the plaintiffs had suffered a “distinct and palpable” injury under Illinois law. It found, in light of Chicago Teachers Union, Local 1 v. Bd. of Educ., – a case in which the Illinois Supreme Court held that physical education teachers did not have standing to challenge a statute allowing school districts to waive mandatory physical education requirements because the teachers were not “in immediate danger of sustaining a direct injury as a result of enforcement of the challenged statute that is distinct and palpable” – that the plaintiffs’ allegations of injury were speculative and the plaintiffs thus did not have standing to bring suit.

The Appellate Court reasoned that this result was supported by federal case law on standing. It observed that, “[i]n federal courts, to show standing under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff must establish the existence of an injury that is: (1) concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; (2) fairly traceable to the challenged action; and (3) redressable by a favorable ruling.”  To meet the first requirement, “an ‘allegation of future injury may suffice if the threatened injury is ‘certainly impending,’ or there is a ‘substantial risk’ that the harm will occur.” (quoting Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, 2014). “Allegations of possible future injury are not sufficient,” nor is an “objectively-reasonable-likelihood” that the future injury will occur.

The Appellate Court went on to find that an increased risk of harm is not sufficient to confer standing. While agreeing that the Seventh Circuit appears to have held that an increased risk of harm can confer standing in Posciotta v. Old Nat’l Bank Corp., it found that the later-decided Clapper case compelled rejection of this position. (Citing Strautins v. Trustwave Holdings, Inc., (N.D. Ill. 2014).

Finally, the Appellate Court found that alleged “appreciable emotional injury” did not confer standing on the plaintiffs. Specifically, the Appellate Court found that, because the purported emotional injury did not flow from an “imminent, certainly impending, or substantial risk of harm,” it could not, on its own, confer standing.

Implications for Employers

This case is welcome news for Illinois employers, who can use this case to defeat consumer and workplace class actions based on technical violations of state laws without any resulting harm to consumers or employees. Outside of Illinois, if the U.S. Supreme Court interprets federal standing requirements as the Illinois Appellate Court did, employers could be handed a significant win in the Spokeomatter. If Spokeo is decided as Maglio, employers nationally should have a powerful tool to achieve dismissal of class action lawsuits based on technical violations of both federal and state consumer and worker protection laws. Stay tuned.

This column previously appeared on the Seyfarth Shaw LLP website.

How Not to Settle a Class Action

Settling a workplace class action is far more complicated than resolving other types of litigation. Yet, the fundamental building blocks of settling a case—an offer, acceptance of precise terms, and substantiation of the agreement—are equally as important in resolving a simple as well as a complex piece of litigation.

On Sept. 23, Judge Amy St. Eve of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Craftwood Lumber Co. v. Interline Brands, Inc., drove home this point. The court held that, despite creating a “term sheet” outlining certain terms of a purported class action settlement, the parties had not reached an enforceable settlement.

This ruling illustrates that although parties may be bound to a class settlement prior to the creation of the final agreement, which is what occurred in the Tenth Circuit decision of Miller v. Basic Research, LLC, covered here, that in order to be bound, the parties must have at least reached an agreement to the materials terms of the contract and exhibit the intent to be bound.

Although it is not an employment-related case, Judge St. Eve’s ruling in Craftwood Lumber ought to be required reading for any employer entering into settlement negotiations relative to a class action.

Background

Plaintiff, Craftwood Lumber, brought a putative class action alleging that the defendant, Interline Brands, Inc., violated the Telephone Consumer Protective Act of 1999, by sending at least 1,500 advertisements in at least 735,000 facsimile transmissions, some of which were received by the plaintiff. The parties attempted to settle the case through mediation. At the end of the one-day session, the parties and counsel hastily signed a one-page document titled “Term Sheet.”

In the following weeks the parties unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a written settlement agreement. The defendant brought a motion to enforce the settlement, and in support, it provided the court with a copy of the Term Sheet, arguing that the parties had entered into a settlement agreement. The plaintiff’s counsel objected, asserting that there was no agreement and that it was a violation of the confidentiality agreement to produce the Term Sheet to the Court.

The Court’s Opinion

Judge St. Eve held that the Term Sheet failed to include several terms that were material to the class action settlement. The most significant omission was the amount per claim—what the defendant would pay any class member for each fax recipient or each fax transmission. Additionally, the Term Sheet lacked any release terms and settlement class definition. The court reasoned that the provisions upon which the defendant was basing its assertion that an agreement had been reached were insufficient to reasonably imply the missing terms. Judge St. Eve determined that she was unwilling to select those terms from the wide range of potential possibilities. Ultimately, the court held that in addition to lacking materials terms, it was unclear whether the parties intended to be bound by the Term Sheet. On this basis, the court held that the parties did not enter in to an enforceable settlement agreement.

Implications for Employers

This ruling illustrates what can go awry in terms of documenting an enforceable class action settlement. In order to secure an enforceable settlement agreement, the parties must reach an agreement on the material terms and evidence an intent to be bound. Normally, this situation is not a problem, given that the parties normally will strive to achieve these ends in the settlement agreement. This translates into investing significant time and effort to craft a precise Term Sheet; covering all of the key terms of the settlement (such as the class definition, the class pay-out distribution formula, and myriad other bells and whistles that make up a Rule 23 class-wide settlement); and not leaving the settlement/mediation session unless and until all of these issues are covered and both parties express their intent to be bound. Simple, but critical.

This column previously appeared on the Seyfarth Shaw website.

Employers Anxiously Await Supreme Court’s Mach Mining Decision

As we previously blogged, most recently here, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to grant certiorari in Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC could be a game changer in EEOC-related litigation. In Mach Mining, the Seventh Circuit ruled that an alleged failure to conciliate is not an affirmative defense to the merits of an employment discrimination suit and that it will not scrutinize the EEOC’s pre-suit obligations, so long as the EEOC’s complaint pleads it has complied with all procedures required under Title VII, and the relevant documents are facially sufficient. By granting certiorari, the Supreme Court is set to weigh in during its next term relative to conflicting rulings amongst the circuit courts about judicial authority and standards for reviewing the EEOC’s pre-suit conduct.

In the meantime, however, the show must go on! To that end, a recent decision out of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri highlights why the Supreme Court’s eventual ruling in Mach Mining is important. In EEOC v. New Prime, Inc., Judge Douglas Harpool granted, in part, the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment, finding that it satisfied its pre-suit investigation and conciliation obligation despite noting that the court was “underwhelmed by the EEOC’s attempt at conciliation.”

Background

In EEOC v. New Prime, a trucking company maintained a company-wide “same-sex training policy” which required all applicants who did not meet Prime’s experience requirements to receive over-the-road training by an instructor and/or trainer who is the same gender as the applicant unless there is some pre-existing relationship between the female applicant and male instructor/trainer. The effect of this policy was that when a female applicant was ready to be assigned to a trainer or instructor in order to receive the necessary “over the road” training, a female driver had to be available. However, based on the number of female drivers available to train, Prime would place female applicants on a “female waiting list” when drivers were not available. Prime implemented this policy after it was involved in a sexual harassment case brought by three female truck driver trainees.

A female job applicant brought a charge with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) and alleged that Prime told her that her application had been accepted, but she could not be hired because she was female and that no female trainers were available then or in the near future.

After the MCHR issued a Probable Cause finding, it transferred the case to the EEOC for further investigation. On April 1, 2010, the EEOC sent Prime a letter stating “the EEOC’s investigation of this charge is nation-wide in scope.” One year later the EEOC issued its Letter of Determination, which stated “[b]ased on the foregoing, there is reasonable cause to believe that Respondent has subjected Charging Party and a class of female trainees to unlawful discrimination by adopting a policy that denies female trainees training and employment opportunities that are not denied to similarly-situated male trainees.” On this same date, the EEOC sent its letter regarding conciliation that focused on relief not only for the party who brought the charge, but also “all identified and still-to-be identified victims.”

On June 7, 2011, Prime submitted its response to the conciliation proposal, which indicated that it was “not interested” in engaging in class-wide conciliation and would only negotiate concerning the individual who filed the EEOC charge. One week later the EEOC informed Prime that conciliation failed and subsequently brought suit in federal court.

The Decision

Both the EEOC and Prime argued that they were entitled to summary judgment on the merits as well as on several evidentiary (e.g. spoliation) and damage (punitive damages) issues. However, especially relevant with Mach Mining on the horizon is the fact that the EEOC decided to move for summary judgment on whether all conditions precedent to the filing of the lawsuit were met. Prime filed its own motion on this point, arguing that the EEOC failed to adequately investigate and conciliation the matter before filing suit.

The court acknowledged that the EEOC is obligated to conciliate in good faith, and that in order to satisfy the statutory requirement of good faith conciliation, the EEOC must “(1) outline to the employer the reasonable cause for its belief that the law has been violated; (2) offer an opportunity for voluntary compliance; and (3) respond in a reasonable and flexible manner to the reasonable attitudes of the employer.” Furthermore, the court held that whether the EEOC adequately fulfilled its obligation to conciliate is dependent upon the “reasonableness and responsiveness of the [EEOC’s] conduct under all the circumstances.”

With respect to its investigatory function, the court held that the EEOC’s initial letters put Prime on notice that it was investigating on behalf of “similarly situated individuals with regard to the same-sex training policy.” Furthermore, Prime was put on notice through the initial charge and the subsequent investigation that any females who were subject to the policy, or more specifically put on the waiting list, were part of the EEOC’s investigation. Since it held that “the EEOC’s scope of the investigation in this matter was clear – it pertained to the same-sex training policy implemented by Prime, including the female waiting list for potential applicants, trainees and potential employees,” the court held that the EEOC adequately investigated the matter with respect to its class-wide claims prior to filing suit.

With respect to conciliation, the court found that the EEOC met the “low hurdle of attempting a reasonable and responsive conciliation process” despite shutting down conciliation one week after Prime submitted its initial response to the EEOC. The court was “not persuaded that this is enough to prevent the case from meeting the requirements for the filing of the instant lawsuit” given that Prime expressed no interest in considering compensation for any women affected by the policy – which is something the EEOC informed Prime it sought as a result of the company-wide alleged discriminatory policy. Accordingly, the court granted the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment, finding that it satisfied all conditions precedent to filing this lawsuit.

Implication for Employers

As this case demonstrates, the eventual ruling by the Supreme Court in Mach Mining has the potential to be a game changer for any employer dealing with the EEOC. If federal courts cannot review its pre-lawsuit conciliation efforts, the EEOC, in effect, will have free reign to pay mere lip service to its conciliation obligations and approach any negotiations in a “take-it-or-leave-it” manner. We will continue to follow developments as the parties and amicus groups file their briefs, and keep our readers informed.

This blog previously appeared on the Seyfarth Shaw website on the EEOC Countdown blog here.