The National Law Journal fills us in on the whopping $4.1 billion wrongful termination arbitration award against an employer that fired an executive without cause, which was recently upheld by a trial court:
NLJ: How did this award get so big?
MY: It got this way because the defendant, the employer, first of all, apparently had terminated a high-level employee without cause. He [the ousted executive] then sued, and the defendant, who at that time had a lawyer, moved to compel arbitration.
At that point, the defendant made some mistakes. It appears the defendant neglected to, or decided not to, participate in discovery and withheld financial information not only asked for in discovery requests but ordered by the arbitrator.
And what happened next is really the telling part: The [retired] judge set the hearing for the arbitration, and the defendant wrote a letter to the arbitrator saying, "I’m not going to show up." When there wasn’t any information forthcoming from the defendant, what the arbitrator did was look at what information was available about the financial situation of the company and applied adverse inferences against the defendant, essentially filling in the gaps in the story presuming it would come out in favor of the plaintiff. That was really where the numbers started to scale.
NLJ: What was special about this executive compensation agreement?
MY: This agreement said that the employee was going to be paid a commission structure of 5 percent of gross sales. What was significant about this one is that the agreement provided that if he is terminated without cause he is entitled to receive his commissions on an ongoing and permanent basis. …
One big factor was trying to figure out what those gross sales were going to be. Because the defendant didn’t provide any financial information, the arbitrator and plaintiffs didn’t have a lot to go with in trying to predict where the company was going to go. They looked at a letter the defendant sent to shareholders talking about revenue in one month being $535,000 and then talking about the expected growth rates of 20 percent or 10 percent per month. It’s not a realistic rate [that] the company really would grow 10 percent per month in perpetuity, but because the defendant didn’t come forward with any evidence, because they didn’t provide anything in discovery, these adverse inferences were then applied and the arbitrator essentially assumed that those figures were going to be correct. If you have a commission structure based on those kinds of growth numbers, you get up to the $1 billion pretty quickly. The punitive damage award was brought in at essentially triple the commission award.
And there you go. It seems like the defendant was destined to lose anyway, otherwise he or his lawyers would have been able to mount a defense initially.
The part that’s odd is how he didn’t seem to grasp the severe ramifications of the employment agreement, the same one he had used to entice the employee to work there in the first place. I can see the defendant not expecting a $4.1 billion award, but he had to expect a serious walloping from 5% of gross sales forever.
I’m betting the defendant could have reduced that award by far more than 90% if he had fought it. So we’ll say that 99.99% of success is showing up.