Frayed Yarn: Business Court Grants Summary Judgment Against Former CEO on Severance Claims

The Business Court granted summary judgment last week to a company and dismissed claims brought by its former CEO for breach of a severance agreement, fraud, and unfair and deceptive trade practices.

In McKinnon v. CV Industries, Inc., the defendant (CVI) owned a number of subsidiaries which manufactured, among other things, high-end residential furniture (Century) and mid- to high-end jacquard fabric (Valdese Weavers).  Plaintiff was an employee of the defendant or its subsidiaries for over twenty years, including five years as CVI's president and CEO.  In 2000, Plaintiff went to work for Mastercraft, a direct competitor of Valdese Weavers.

Plaintiff and Defendant entered into a severance agreement to modify certain incentive plans and benefit agreements.  Under that agreement, Plaintiff would not qualify for certain benefits (the "shadow equity plan") until he stopped directly competing with Valdese Weavers.  In addition, those benefits would not accrue if the company's ESOP stock price on the December 31 immediately preceding Plaintiff's cessation of competition was less than the ESOP stock price on December 31, 1999.

At some point in 2001 or 2002, Plaintiff stopped working for Mastercraft and started working for another company.  The stock price at that point was below the 1999 price, which would eliminate any benefits.  Plaintiff, however, contended that he continued to compete through 2007, at the end of which the stock price would have triggered benefits.

Judge Tennille granted summary judgment on each of Plaintiff's claims.  First, on Plaintiff's damages and specific performance claims for breach of contract, the Court held that Plaintiff's post-2001 employer (Basofil) was not a competitor of CVI.  On resigning from Mastercraft, Plaintiff entered into another noncompete agreement, one that expressly permitted Plaintiff to work for a company in Basofil's field -- supporting the conclusion that Basofil was not a competitor of Mastercraft or Mastercraft's competitors, i.e. CVI.  Plaintiff likewise admitted that his noncompete agreement with Basofil would not have prevented him from working for CVI.  Thus, competition with CVI was terminated on a date on which Plaintiff was ineligible for benefits under his CVI severance agreement.

Second, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's fraud claim, holding that he showed at best an unfulfilled promise, but failed to produce evidence that CVI intended at the time it signed the severance agreement that it would never perform.  CVI's intent to perform was demonstrated by its performance under other portions of the agreement and by the fact that it carried the disputed benefits as a liability on its books until 2002.

Third, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's unfair and deceptive trade practices claim.  The Court, again enforcing the "in or affecting commerce" limitation of the reach of N.C.G.S. § 75-1.1, cited its decision in Schlieper v. Johnson that "“[m]ost disputes between employers and employees are internal to the business organization and simply do not have an effect on commerce in the way required by section 75-1.1."  In this case, "the payment (or lack thereof) of these employment benefits would not be a practice that impacts commerce or the marketplace, nor would it be part of the day-to-day activities for which CVI was organized."

Full Order and Opinion

 

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