New Technologies Will Present New “Walking Quorum” Challenges for Governmental Bodies

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A “walking quorum” is a series of gatherings among separate groups of members of a governmental body, each less than quorum size, who agree, tacitly or explicitly, to act uniformly in sufficient number to reach a quorum. Recognizing that a walking quorum may produce a predetermined outcome and deprive the public the opportunity to observe the decision making process, Wisconsin courts have long warned public officials that any attempt to circumvent a public meeting through use of a walking quorum is subject to prosecution under the Open Meetings Act. See e.g., State ex rel. Newspapers v. Showers, 135 Wis.2d 77, 398 N.W. N.W.2d 154 (1987).

In State ex rel. Zecchino v. Dane County (February 27, 2018), the Court of Appeals (District IV) considered an Open Meetings Act claim based on a series of email messages between Dane County Board Supervisor Paul Rusk and no more than eight of his fellow supervisors prior to a controversial vote on the renewal of a billboard lease. The plaintiffs argued that the emails suggested the effort to assemble a walking quorum in violation of the Open Meetings Act, such that he should be allowed discovery to ascertain the full extent of informal communications.

The Court of Appeals dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. The Court first determined that the emails Zecchino already had did not indicate a “tacit agreement” between the defendants to vote against the lease. One of the emails dealt with a scheduling matter, while others asked supervisors for their opinion or expressed Rusk’s personal position. The Court also found that because the quorum of the Board on the day of the vote was eighteen, Rusk’s communications with eight supervisors could not establish a walking quorum. The court confronted the walking quorum prohibition in the context of email messages. Applying the walking quorum concept in light of newer technologies will raise new issues for Wisconsin governmental bodies. Today, members of governmental bodies can communicate using a wide variety of real-time communications platforms. Along with email, public officials can chat through tweets, Gchat, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Viber, Skype, HipChat, FireChat, Cryptocat, What’s App, and, of course, text messaging. Stafford Rosenbaum LLP’s Municipal Law team works with governmental bodies to navigate the challenges that new technologies present in complying with the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.

U.S. Supreme Court Decides Bankruptcy Case in Favor of Trustees’ Avoidance Powers

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The Supreme Court unanimously decided a bankruptcy issue that had the circuit courts across the country split. The Court weighed in favor of trustees’ ability to avoid debtors’ pre-petition transfers. Merit Mgmt. Grp., LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc. (Feb. 27 2018). Specifically, the Court analyzed an exception to trustees’ avoidance powers carved out in the bankruptcy code for transfers made by or to entities such as financial institutions in connection with a securities contract.  The Court’s interpretation is favorable to bankruptcy trustees because it limits the ability of transferees to invoke the “safe harbor” provision in 11 U.S.C. § 546(e).

Background

In 2003, Valley View Downs LP and Bedford Downs Management Corporation both sought licenses to operate a horse racetrack in Pennsylvania. The state had only one racetrack license left. Bedford Downs agreed to withdraw its license application if Valley View purchased Bedford Downs for $55 million. Valley View agreed. Upon attaining the license in 2007, Valley View obtained loans to fund the purchase from a variety of financial institutions, including Credit Suisse. Credit Suisse wired funds to Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania, the escrow agent.  Citizens Bank then wired the appropriate share of the purchase price to each of the Bedford Downs’ shareholders, including Merit Management Group (which had a 30% interest).

Although Valley View secured the racetrack license, it was unable to obtain a gaming license to operate slot machines. Valley View soon thereafter filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. During the course of the bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee sued Merit Management, seeking to avoid the transfer of funds it had received for Bedford Downs’ shares prior to the bankruptcy filing—that is, the trustee sought to force Merit Management to return its share of the purchase price. Merit Management argued that the safe harbor provision in § 546(e) applied and prevented the trustee from avoiding the transfer.

Section 546(e) prohibits trustees from avoiding “settlement” payments “made by or to” a “financial institution” in connection with a securities contract. As a result, Merit Management argued that the § 546(e) “safe harbor” applied because the payments for the purchase of securities were not made directly from Valley to it, but rather including intervening payments made by or to two separate financial institutions: Credit Suisse and Citizens Bank. In contrast, the trustee argued that the § 546(e) “safe harbor” did not apply because the relevant transfer was the payment made in conjunction with the overarching transaction between Valley View and Merit Management.

Court Decision

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Merit Management’s argument. Relying on the plain text of § 546(e), the Court explained that the pertinent transfer for purposes of the safe harbor in § 546(e) was the same transfer that the trustee sought to avoid (undo). Here, the trustee sought to reverse the Valley View–to–Merit Management transfer because it was constructively fraudulent. Under bankruptcy law, a transaction is constructively fraudulent if the transferor (1) receives less than reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer, and (2) is insolvent on the date of the transfer. 11 U.S.C. § 548(a)(1)(B). The Court held that the component parts of the transfer—Credit Suisse’s and Citizens Bank’s involvement—were “simply irrelevant to the analysis under § 546(e),” and that “[t]he focus must remain on the transfer the trustee sought to avoid.”

This decision limits the applicability of § 546(e) because transferees may invoke it only with respect to the overarching transfer the trustee seeks to avoid.  The Merit case means that intermittent transfers made by financial institutions who are “mere conduits” are no more than a component part of the overarching transfer and therefore do not provide a “safe harbor” in defense of a trustee’s avoidance action in connection with securities, commodities, and forward contracts.

Seventh Circuit Predicts That Wisconsin Will Adopt Learned Intermediary Doctrine

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The Seventh Circuit recently addressed an open issue under Wisconsin products liability law—do manufacturers of prescription drugs or medical devices satisfy their duty to warn of product risks by informing prescribing physicians (rather than the patients themselves) of those risks?  In In re: Zimmer, NextGen Knee Implant Products Liability Litigation, No. 16-3957 (7th Cir. Mar. 8, 2018), the federal appeals court predicted that the Wisconsin Supreme Court likely would answer “yes” to that question by adopting the “learned intermediary doctrine.”

At issue in this case was a knee implant manufactured by Zimmer NexGen Flex, an entity that has been subject to numerous complaints from patients alleging that their implants are subject to premature loosening.  The claimant in this particular case, Theodore Joas, is a patient who had knee-replacement surgery in Eau Claire in 2008 and filed suit against Zimmer after beginning to feel pain in his new knee in 2011.

Due to the number of similar claims against Zimmer, all litigation involving the Zimmer knee implants, including Mr. Joas’ lawsuit, were transferred to a multidistrict proceeding pending in the Northern District of Illinois.  The judge in the multidistrict proceeding subsequently selected Mr. Joas’ suit as a bellwether—a test case—and scheduled his claim to move forward.

Prior to trial, Zimmer moved for summary judgment on all of Mr. Joas’ claims.  Zimmer argued that the testimony of Joas’ only medical expert must be excluded as unreliable. The doctor’s report applied a differential etiology method that identified the most likely cause of Joas’ injury by eliminating other potential causes. But the medical expert could not affirmatively prove a specific cause for the loosening. The judge excluded the doctor’s opinion under the Daubert standard as lacking any discernable basis for concluding which potential causes were reasonable.  The judge then granted Zimmer’s summary judgment motion, holding that, absent expert medical testimony, the factual record did not support Joas’ causation theories.  Slip. op. at pp. 3-4.

Rather than challenge the Daubert ruling, Joas argued on appeal that, even without his own medical expert's testimony, he could win by proving that Zimmer failed to adequately warn both himself and his doctor of the risks associated with the knee implants. Joas supported his positions with testimony from one of Zimmer’s experts, who opined that it would take two bags of cement to properly bond the knee implant to a patient’s shinbone.  Because his doctor used only one bag, Joas theorized that Zimmer failed to satisfy its duty to warn that two bags of cement were needed to properly bond the implant.  Id. p. 4.

The Seventh Circuit rejected this argument on a number of grounds.  With respect to Zimmer’s duty to warn Joas directly, the Seventh Circuit noted that this was an issue of first impression under Wisconsin law.  The Court noted, however, that the overwhelming majority of courts from other jurisdictions facing this issue have adopted the “learned intermediary doctrine,” which states that medical device manufacturers satisfy their duty to warn of product risks by informing the prescribing physicians of those risks.  The Court predicted that Wisconsin would follow suit. It reasoned that the doctrine recognizes the practical reality that patients cannot obtain such devices without physician intervention and that patients reasonably rely on their physicians to warn them of the risks associated with medical procedures.  Id. pp. 5-8.

The Court also noted that Joas’ argument suffered from a lack of evidence to establish causation.  A warning directly to Joas would not have changed the outcome given that it was his physician (rather than Joas himself) who selected to use the Zimmer brand of knee implant for his procedure.  Any warning directed towards Joas’ surgeon similarly would have failed to make a difference, as the surgeon testified that he performed the surgical cementing technique based on his medical fellowship and residency training and that he did not review Zimmer’s device instructions.  While Joas argued for a “heeding presumption” that would allow for a factfinder to presume that a proper warning would have been read and followed by a medical professional, he cited no Wisconsin authority in support of this argument. The Court determined that such a presumption likely would not be adopted by Wisconsin courts.  Id. pp. 8-13.

While the Seventh Circuit’s decision is not a binding statement of Wisconsin law, Wisconsin courts will likely follow its well-reasoned analysis adopting and applying the “learned intermediary doctrine” to insulate medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers from claims that they have a duty to warn patients directly.  Patients should also view In re: Zimmer, NextGen Knee Implant Products Liability Litigation as a warning that direct causal evidence likely will be needed to prevail on any liability claims against manufacturers of medical products

 

Court of Appeals Denies Nonprofit Medical Clinics from Claiming Property Tax Exemption

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The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently held that a hospital owned by a non-profit entity failed to demonstrate that three medical clinics it also owns are not used as “doctor’s offices,” and therefore are not exempt under Wisconsin’s nonprofit hospital property tax exemption.  Mile Bluff Medical Center, Inc. v. Village of Necedah, City of New Lisbon and City of Elroy, No. No. 2017AP751, 2018 WL 1040203 (Wis. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2018) (slip opinion) (unpublished.)  Mile Bluff is the most recent decision in a line of cases addressing whether medical clinics owned by a nonprofit hospitals qualify for the exemption.

Mile Bluff is a non-profit entity that owns a hospital in Mauston and the three medical clinics at issue in this case.  Mile Bluff sought an exemption from property taxation for the clinics under Wis. Stat. § 70.11(4m)(a).  Under § 70.11(4m)(a), real property owned and used exclusively for the purposes of a non-profit hospital of 10 beds or more devoted primarily to the diagnosis, treatment or care of the sick, injured or disabled is eligible for the exemption provided, among other things, that the property is not used as a doctor’s office. 

In concluding that the Mile Bluff medical clinics are used as doctor’s offices, and therefore not exempt from property taxation, the court considered seven factors previously articulated by other courts as relevant in determining whether a facility is a doctor’s office.  The seven factors the Court analyzed include whether the:

  1. physicians at the clinics owned or lease the facility or equipment;

  2. physicians at the clinics received “variable compensation,” that is, compensation based on their “productivity”;

  3. physicians at the clinics employed or supervised non-physician staff, or received extra compensation for such duties;

  4.  clinics and hospital generated separate billing statements or use separate billing software;

  5.  physicians at the clinics had office space in the clinics;

  6.  clinics provided services of the type that had been formerly performed inpatient at the hospital; and

  7. clinics were open during regular business hours during which time the physicians generally saw patients by appointment.

The Court sided with Mile Bluff on the first factor and assumed, without analysis, that the second factor also supported Mile Bluff’s position. The Court found that the fourth factor did not favor either of the parties.  The Court sided with the municipalities with respect to a majority of the factors—the third, fifth, sixth and seventh factors.  The Court further concluded that the clinics lacked typical hospital amenities, like a gift shop, and did not offer urgent care services, making the clinics more like doctor’s offices. 

The Court also rejected Mile Bluff’s argument that the fact that the clinics were “rural health clinics” and are required by federal and state law to have a certain level of integration with the non-profit hospital that owns them should be considered in determining whether the clinics were hospitals or doctor’s offices. The Court found that this status did not result in any significant change in the nature or manner of patient services, a critical element in determining whether a clinic is a doctor’s office, and therefore was not enough to tip the scales in favor of Mile Bluff’s argument.

Based on these findings, the Court held that the clinics were in fact doctor’s offices and therefore not exempt under the non-profit hospital exemption. 

The case makes clear that there is no bright line test for whether, on balance, property owned by a non-profit is a doctor’s office.  Assessors should carefully weigh the particular facts of each case against the guidelines relied upon by the Court. 

If you have questions on this case or on other property taxation related matters, contact Meg Vergeront at (608) 259-2663.

The NLRB Creates a New Standard for Evaluating Workplace Rules’ Effect on the Right to Unionize

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In The Boeing Company and Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, IFPTE Local 2001 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) articulated a new standard for determining whether employers’ rules and handbook provisions violate the National Labor Relations Act’s (NLRA) prohibition on rules that interfere with employees’ right to join labor organizations and bargain collectively. Cases 19-CA-09032, 19-CA-090948, and 19-CA-095926. The NLRB believes that this new standard will be easier to apply on a case-by-case basis, and will invalidate fewer “common-sense rules and requirements that most people would reasonably expect every employer to maintain.”

Background

In The Boeing Company, Boeing had a policy that banned the use of “devices to capture images or video” without a valid business need and camera permit (No-Camera Rule). The No-Camera Rule prohibited only the use of the camera–not the entire device–therefore employees were allowed to use cellphones and laptops on company property. The question before the Board was whether the No-Camera Rule violated the NLRA’s prohibition against employers interfering with employees’ right to unionize.

Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees the right to self-organize and join labor organizations. Section 8(a)(1) makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to interfere with that right. Under prior law, if a rule did not explicitly interfere with employees’ right to unionize, the NLRB would consider whether: (1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights. Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, Case 7-CA-44877 (emphasis added). The administrative judge held that Boeing’s No- Camera Rule was unlawful because it failed prong (1) of the test; that is, employees would “reasonably construe” the rule to prohibit Section 7 activity.

NLRB Decision

The NLRB overruled the “reasonably construe” standard iterated in Lutheran Heritage and held that, under its new test, the No-Camera Rule was lawful. The NLRB listed many reasons why the test was insufficient. Among those reasons, was that the “reasonably construe” test “entails a single-minded consideration” in that it does not consider justifications for having the employer’s rule in place. The NLRB noted that the test created confusion for employers because outcomes were unpredictable, and that the test was based on the false premises that employees are best served by not having employment policies.

Under the NLRB’s new test, the first question is whether the rule would potentially interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights. If not, then the rule is lawful. If yes, then the NLRB considers (1) the nature and extent of the potential impact on NLRA rights, and (2) legitimate justifications associated with the rule. Then the NLRB will classify the rules it evaluates under this new standard into one of the three categories. Category 1 includes rules that are lawful because they don’t interfere with NLRA rights or the potential adverse impact on rights is outweighed by the rule’s justification. Category 2 includes rules that warrant individualized scrutiny in each case as to whether the rule would prohibit or interfere with NLRA rights, and if so, whether any adverse impact is outweighed by justifications. Finally, Category 3 includes rules that the NLRB designates as unlawful because they violate NLRA-protected conduct and are not properly justified.

As for Boeing, the NLRB determined that the No-Camera Rule fell under Category 1 because it only had a slight adverse impact on Section 7 activity and Boeing had legitimate justifications for the rule. Boeing has highly sensitive and classified information because it manufactures military aircrafts for the federal government.

Take-Away

The NLRB’s ruling affects union and non-union workplaces because non-union workplaces must also comply with the provisions in the NLRA prohibiting interference or restraint on collective bargaining and self-organizing. Therefore the ruling has a widespread impact. The new test is more employer friendly in that it gives weight to the reasoning behind implementing a workplace rule or policy.  Additionally, the categorization scheme should provide employers with more guidance in creating lawful work policies.

The case is available at: https://dlbjbjzgnk95t.cloudfront.net/0995000/995170/decision.pdf

Seventh Circuit Holds Pharmaceutical Product Liability Claims Preempted By Federal Law

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The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held on January 19, 2018, that federal law preempts thousands of product liability claims, brought under the laws of various states, concerning Depo-T (a testosterone drug). Guilbeau v. Pfizer Inc., No. 17-2056 (7th Cir.). The case illuminates the intersection of tort law, federal regulation, and intellectual property.

Generally, a new drug must undergo a rigorous “new drug application” (NDA) process before the Food and Drug Administration will approve them for public use. The NDA process includes a laborious review to determine a drug’s safety and efficacy. If approved, a drug that has gone through the NDA process is considered a brand name drug and any drug made thereafter of the same composition will be considered a generic drug. The distinction between brand name and generic drugs implicates intellectual property rights, pricing, and obligations with respect to labeling.

If a second drug is considered to be the same as or bioequivalent to a drug approved through the NDA process, that second drug may be reviewed by the FDA under the “abbreviated new drug application” (ANDA) process. A drug approved through the ANDA process is generally considered a generic drug. However, in certain circumstances, a drug approved through the ANDA process is deemed to be the reference-listed drug (that is, the first drug of that physical composition to be approved by the FDA), and is therefore considered a brand name drug.

This case fell into those unusual circumstances. In 1953, Delatestryl (a testosterone replacement drug) was approved as a new drug by the Food and Drug Administration after NDA review. Then, in 1979, Depo-T was found to be the same as Delatestryl and was approved through the ANDA process. However, because Depo-T was slightly different in physical composition to Delatestryl, the FDA deemed it a separate reference-listed drug. Depo-T therefore became the brand-name drug for any later generic versions using its particular formulation.

In 2014, more than a thousand plaintiffs filed suit in several states, alleging that, after taking Depo-T as prescribed, they suffered heart attacks or strokes. The plaintiffs sued Pfizer, Inc. (the drug’s manufacturer), under the theory that the company failed to warn physicians and patients of the drug’s potentially fatal side effects. After those cases were consolidated and the district court concluded that the plaintiffs’ state-law claims were preempted by federal law, the plaintiffs appealed.

The Seventh Circuit held that Depo-T’s classification as a brand name drug was less important than its regulatory approval under the ANDA process. The plaintiffs argued that, because Depo-T is a reference-listed drug, Pfizer had a duty to warn prescribers and patients of any dangers and should, therefore, have updated its labels explaining the risks of heart attack and stroke as those risks were discovered. The court disagreed. Because Depo-T was approved under an ANDA, it was to be treated legally as if it were a generic drug.

Generic drugs are obligated to use a label that matches the one used by the corresponding brand name drug and cannot make changes absent FDA approval. As a result, manufacturers of generic drugs cannot be sued on the theory that their labels fail to contain information not included on the label of the corresponding brand name drug.

The Seventh Circuit cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Pliva, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604 (2011), which held that when federal drug regulations that apply to generic drugs conflict with state law claims, like failure to warn of adverse side effects, the state law is preempted. In other words, because Depo-T’s was approved through the ANDA process and its label conforms with what the FDA required, the state-law failure to warn state law claims against Pfizer are preempted by federal law. The court noted that the unusual fact of Depo-T being a reference listed drug while also having the legal status of a generic does not change the outcome here.

Laura Lamansky is a law student at the University of Wisconsin and a law clerk working under supervision. She will be a full-time lawyer at Stafford Rosenbaum beginning later this year.

Top 10 Municipal Law Developments of 2017

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Stafford Rosenbaum’s Government Law and Government Relations teams continuously stay apprised of the latest developments in Wisconsin municipal law. Below, in no particular order, are the top 10 municipal law developments of 2017.

  1. 2017 Wisconsin Act 67 made broad changes to conditional use permits and preemption of clauses that merge substandard lots. For more information regarding this Act and its implications, read our blog post here. Additionally, the Act was partially a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Murr v. Wisconsin, which we covered extensively with blog posts and a series of videos.

  2. In McKee Family I, LLC v. City of Fitchburg, 2017 WI 34, 374 Wis. 2d 487, 893 N.W.2d 12, the Supreme Court affirmed the bright-line limitations on the building permit exception to the general prohibition on vested rights in land use. McKee reaffirmed the common-law principle that a property owner cannot claim vested rights absent submission of an application for a building permit that conforms to the zoning or building code requirements in effect at the time of application. We posted about this decision in May.  After the McKee case was filed but years before it was decided, the legislature engrafted a vested-rights provision onto Wis. Stat. § 66.10015. Under that provision, local governments are prohibited from applying new changes or conditions to permit-approval processes after a property owner has submitted an application for a development-related permit. We do not yet know how courts will interpret the new statute and how much it will change established common-law principles.

  3. In Benson v. City of Madison, 2017 WI 65, 376 Wis. 2d 35, 897 N.W.2d 16, the Supreme Court held that the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law applies to municipalities. Though the WFDL is the subject of extensive litigation, this was an unexpected resolution. We posted about this decision in June, addressing both its municipal aspects and its business aspects.

  4. In Melchert v. Pro Elec. Contractors, 2017 WI 30, 374 Wis. 2d 439, 892 N.W.2d 710, the Supreme Court held that a private contractor was entitled to governmental immunity for damage done while carrying out the government’s specifications. The private contractor severed a sewer lateral line while working on a government construction project. Neighboring property owners then sued to recover damages from the resulting flood. The Court held the contractor immune because its work complied with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s reasonably precise specifications for the project.

  5. In Wilmet v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 2017 WI App 16, 374 Wis. 2d 413, 893 N.W.2d 251, the Court of Appeals held the supervision of a child engaged in recreational activity falls within the immunity granted for recreational activities by Wis. Stat. § 895.52. We posted about this decision in March.

  6. In City of Oshkosh v. Kubiak, 2017 WI App 20, 374 Wis. 2d 337, 893 N.W.2d 271, the Court of Appeals held that the use of the term “organizer” in a municipal special events permitting ordinance was not unconstitutionally vague. The ordinance required that the “organizer” of an event apply for a permit and pay the City’s costs. The ordinance did not define the term “organizer.” After a college pub crawl proceeded without a permit, the City sued the students who planned the event. The court held that the ordinance was not unconstitutionally vague because it did not invite guesswork in application and enforcement.

  7. In Wisconsin Carry Inc. v. City of Madison, 2017 WI 19, 373 Wis. 2d 348, 891 N.W.2d 803, the Supreme Court held that Wisconsin’s concealed-carry statute preempts the City of Madison’s rule restricting a licensee’s right to carry concealed weapons on City’s buses so long as the licensee complies with the statute’s requirements. The concealed-carry statute states that no political subdivision may adopt an ordinance or resolution that regulates the possession, bearing, or transportation of any firearm in a manner more stringent than state law. The Court held that the concealed-carry statute applies to all legislative activity by local governments, including Madison’s rule against guns on public buses.

  8. In Voces De La Frontera Inc. v. Clarke, 2017 WI 16, 373 Wis. 2d 348, 891 N.W.2d 803, the Supreme Court held that I-247 immigration detainer forms issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are exempt from disclosure under Wisconsin’s public records law. Wisconsin public records law prevents disclosure of any record that is exempted by federal law. The Court found that certain federal regulations prohibited the disclosure of the forms.

  9. In Bank of America Corp. v. City of Miami, Fla., ocal governments have standing to sue banks under the Fair Housing Act for economic harm caused to them by discriminatory lending practices, but in order to prove causation, local governments must show “some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged.” We posted about this decision in May.

  10. In AllEnergy Corp. v. Trempealeau Cty. Env’t & Land Use Comm., 2017 WI 52, 375 Wis. 2d 329, 895 N.W.2d 368, the Supreme Court held that: 1) a county committee did not exceed its jurisdiction when acting on a conditional use permit application by considering public health, safety and general welfare matters; 2) public testimony and opinion provided substantial evidence for a conditional use permit application denial; and 3) a conditional use permit applicant is not entitled to the permit whenever it meets the specific conditions set forth in the ordinance and any additional conditions imposed by the permitting authority. AllEnergy applied for a conditional use permit for a 265-acre silica sand mine shortly before the County imposed a temporary moratorium on new non-metallic mining activities. The County denied the permit, and AllEnergy filed suit.

APPEALS COURT CLARIFIES APPLICABILITY OF WORKER’S COMPENSATION STATUTE TO TEMPORARY EMPLOYEE CLAIMS

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In a recent decision, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals addressed the insurance implications of a car accident made unusual because at least two of the deceased workers were employees of temporary help agencies. See Ehr et al. v. West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. et al., Case No. 2017AP142 (Wis. Ct. App. January 9, 2018) [decision].  In so doing, the Court clarified that worker’s compensation laws—and particularly the exclusive-remedy provision that prevents injured employees from bringing tort suits against their employers—apply differently to temporary workers than to permanent employees.

The accident involved a vehicle owned by the temporary employer and occurred during work-related activities, which unfortunately resulted in the death of three individuals, at least two of which were temporary employees.  It’s the last of these circumstances that complicated matters.

One of the temporary employee’s estate and two surviving minor children filed a wrongful death action in Milwaukee County Circuit Court against Alpine Insulation, the temporary employer, and Alpine’s automobile liability insurer, West Bend Mutual Insurance Company. That suit sought damages for pain and suffering as well as the minor children’s loss of society, companionship, and support.  Id., ¶¶ 3-5.

After answering the complaint, Alpine and West Bend moved for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by Section 102.29(6)(b)1 of the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation statute, which states:

“[n]o employee of a temporary help agency who makes a claim for compensation may make a claim or maintain an action in tort against . . . any employer that compensates the temporary help agency for the employee’s services.”

According to Alpine and West Bend, the plaintiffs’ wrongful death tort claim was barred under this statute because the deceased had been employed by a temporary help agency and Alpine had compensated that agency for the deceased’s services.  As a result, the defendants argued that under Section 102.29(6)(b)1 the plaintiffs could not bring tort claims against Alpine as the deceased’s temporary employer.  The circuit court agreed and therefore granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Ehr slip op. ¶ 6.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed.  The Court noted that, by holding that Wis. Stat. 102.29(6)(b)1 completely bars tort claims a temporary employee may otherwise bring against its temporary employer under all circumstances, the circuit court ignored the qualifying phrase “who makes a claim for compensation.”  The Court held that the plain meaning of the statute governs, such that a temporary employee injured during the scope of his or her temporary employment may seek relief in either of two ways: (1) by making a worker’s compensation claim against his or her permanent employer (the temporary help agency) and be subject to the exclusive remedy provision or, alternatively, (2) by pursuing a third-party claim against his or her temporary employer and foregoing any claim under the worker’s compensation statute.  Id. ¶¶ 14-18.

The Court further rejected Alpine and West Bend’s argument that such an interpretation would unfairly place temporary employees in a more advantageous position than permanent employees.  The Court explained that the exclusive-remedy provision only limits permanent employees’ claims against their employers, and that such employees are free to pursue tort claims against third parties.  The exclusive-remedy provision, the Court continued, places the same limitation on temporary employees vis a vis their permanent employers (the temporary help agency).  The legislature’s adoption of Wis. Stat. § 102.29(6)(b)1 was a reasonable recognition of a “middle ground” for claims by a temporary employee against his or her temporary employer; rather than treat such entities as a truly independent third party and allow a temporary employee to pursue those tort claims in addition to a worker’s compensation claim against the temporary help agency, the temporary employee may only choose one avenue of recovery.  Id. ¶¶ 21-25.

An interesting factual wrinkle that was not explored in this decision is that the driver of the Alpine-owned vehicle was also a temporary Alpine employee, but had been hired through a different temporary help agency than the employee whose estate brought this lawsuit.  One wonders if the plaintiffs could have avoided any potential worker’s compensation statutory complications altogether by filing a claim against only West Bend under the theory that, as the insurer of the Alpine vehicle, West Bend was obligated to provide coverage for any liability arising from the negligent operation of that vehicle.  Additionally, given that the temporary workers were employed by different temporary help agencies, the plaintiffs presumably could have brought suit directly against the driver and possibly his personal auto liability insurer without implicating any potential worker’s compensation statutory limitations.

In any event, in light of the Ehr decision, Wisconsin employers should factor in their increased liability exposure when deciding whether to seek help on a temporary basis.  While it may be cost-effective to avoid taking on additional permanent employees in other areas of their business, the Ehr decision makes clear that businesses employing temporary workers are exposing themselves to additional liability exposure should a temporary employee be injured on the job.  At a minimum, Wisconsin businesses should ensure that all of their liability insurance provides adequate coverage for any potential tort claims brought by a temporary employee.

WI Supreme Court Concludes Non-Compete Statute Applies to Non-Solicitation of Employees Agreement

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In Manitowoc Co. v. Lanning, 2018 WI 6, decided January 19, 2018, a 5-2 majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that a non-solicitation of employees agreement (“NSE”) can be subject to scrutiny under Wis. Stat. § 103.465. Under the statute, enacted in 1957, any covenant by an employee “not to compete” with a former employer upon termination of employment is void in toto if the agreement imposes an unreasonable restraint in any respect. However, the divided opinions strongly suggest that the court is narrowing its view of the statute’s scope.

The lead opinion, authored by Justice Shirley Abrahamson and joined in by Justice Anne Walsh Bradley, trod a familiar path in non-compete cases. It frames two issues for review. One, was the NSE a “covenant … not to compete”? Two, if so, was any part of the NSE unreasonably broad, resulting in the entire covenant being void.

The lead opinion has little difficulty answering both questions in the affirmative. In doing so, it cites past precedents applying the statute to many restrictions other than an express agreement by an employee to refrain from future employment with a competitor. The lead opinion quotes Tatge v. Chambers & Owen, Inc., 219 Wis. 2d 99, 112, 579 N.W.2d 217 (1998), for the proposition that “it would be an exercise in semantics to overlook § 103.465 merely because [a provision] of the agreement is not labeled a ‘covenant not to compete,’” adding that the statute “has been applied to agreements viewed as restraints of trade.” 2018 WI 6, ¶ 5.

While the concurring opinion, authored by Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, and joined in by Justices Michael Gableman and Daniel Kelly, agreed that the NSE at issue in the case was subject to the statute, it strongly disagrees with the lead opinion’s analysis. The concurring opinion first criticizes the lead opinion for unduly relying on the court’s own case law interpreting the statute and failing to undertake a “textual analysis” of the statute. 2018 WI 6, ¶ 65.The concurring opinion states that in “abandoning this process, the lead opinion risks reading into Wis. Stat. § 103.465 imagined words derived from the court’s perception of the legislature's unspoken policies and purpose.” Id., ¶ 66.

What “imagined words”? Specifically, the concurring opinion focuses on the lead opinion’s reference to the NSE as a “restraint of trade” and its focus on the impact of the NSE on parties other than the employee and the employer. 2018 WI 6, ¶¶ 75, 76. This latter flaw, according to the concurring opinion, led the court to err in Heyde Cos., Inc. v. Dove Healthcare, LLC, 2002 WI 131, 258 Wis. 2d 28, 654 N.W.2d 830, by applying the statute to invalidate a “no hire” agreement between two employers, an agreement to which no employee was a party. The concurring opinion states flatly that Heyde “should be overruled as unsound in principle because its analysis is patently wrong,” and it then devotes significant analysis to explaining exactly why. Id., ¶¶ 78-81.

But despite its disagreement with the lead opinion’s view of the statute and its reliance on precedents applying the statute expansively, the concurring opinion reaches the same result in this case. It agrees the NSE was a “covenant … not to compete” because it restrained the employee, Lanning, from “engag[ing] in a particular form of competition,” i.e., “soliciting, inducing, or encouraging any Manitowoc employee from accepting employment with any Manitowoc competitor, thereby limiting Lanning in performing certain work—namely, recruitment for his new employer, a competitor of Manitowoc’s.” 2018 WI 6, ¶ 72. It rejects the analysis of the dissenting opinion, authored by Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and joined in by Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler, as “internally contradictory,” in that it concluded the NSE was not a covenant not to compete under a strict reading of the statute, while at the same time stating that “the former employer will become a less effective competitor” due to the NSE not being enforceable.” Id., ¶ 74.

Once the lead and concurring opinions arrive at the conclusion that the NSE was subject to the statute, the outcome is clear. This NSE was afflicted by sins familiar to any attorney who has tried to enforce such agreements within the scope of the statute. It prohibited Lanning from soliciting “any” employee in any position with the company without regard to geographical location or personal familiarity with Lanning. 2018 WI 6, ¶¶ 46, 47, 56, 62. The lead opinion explicitly rejected Manitowoc’s argument that the statute should be applied on a “sliding scale” basis, with lesser scrutiny being given to an NSE because it was “less onerous” than a traditional not compete.” Id., ¶¶ 51-54. The concurring opinion made no reference to this argument, and presumably rejected it as contrary to its textual analysis of the statute.

So what can be drawn from this decision? Three thoughts:

First, an NSE can be treated as a non-compete subject to Wis. Stat. § 103.465, although the concurring opinion cautioned that “not every NSE provision necessarily falls under the purview of that statute.” 2018 WI 6, ¶ 65. The concurring opinion, however, makes no suggestions as to what circumstances might lead to the conclusion that a particular NSE is beyond the statute’s reach.

Second, given that the dissent joined with the concurrence in criticizing the lead opinion’s description of the statute as directed to “restraints of trade,” it appears there is a strong majority support on the court to overrule the Heyde Cos. case and it is likely only a matter of time before the court expressly does so.

Third, again, with the concurrence and the dissent in agreement that attention must focus on the text of the statute rather than expansive past precedents, it is reasonable to assume that, in future cases, employers will argue that Lanning favors a narrower, more textually focused application of the statute.

Court Determines Defendant’s Breach of Contract Constituted a “Wrongful Act”

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The Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued a decision that clarifies an exception to the general rule that attorneys’ fees are not recoverable damages. Talmer Bank & Trust v. Jacobsen, No. 2017AP752-FT (Wis. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2018). The court held that a litigant may recover attorneys’ fees if he or she is forced into litigation with a third party because of another party’s breach of contract.

Background

The Gomezes entered into a land contract with the Jacobsens. The underling land was owned by the Jacobsens, subject to a mortgage. Pursuant to the contract, the Gomezes made monthly payments to the Jacobsens, and in turn the Jacobsens were supposed to continue making mortgage payments. Unbeknownst to the Gomezes, the Jacobsens missed fifteen consecutive monthly mortgage payments. Eventually the mortgage holder initiated a foreclosure action against both the Gomezes and the Jacobsens. The Gomezes reached a settlement with the bank that allowed them to stay on the property. The Gomezes then filed a cross-claim arguing that the Jacobsens must pay their attorneys’ fees that they incurred in defending the foreclosure action.

Generally in the United States, litigants may not recover attorneys’ fees as damages, but there are exceptions to this rule. The Gomezes invoked the “third-party litigation exception,” which states that a party may recover attorneys’ fees if another party’s wrongful act forces the individual into litigation. It was uncontested that the Jacobsens’ breach of the land contract forced the Gomezes into litigation with the bank, therefore the sole question before the circuit court was whether the Jacobsens’ breach constituted a wrongful act. The circuit court held that a breach could not constitute a wrongful act, and therefore the Jacobsens were not required to pay the Gomezes’ attorneys’ fees.

Court of Appeals’ Decision

On appeal, the Jacobsens argued that their breach of contract did not constitute a wrongful act because a wrongful act is limited to fraud, breach of a fiduciary duty, or “something similar.” The court of appeals rejected this argument. “Our supreme court has unequivocally declared that ‘a breach of contract as well as tort may be a basis for allowing [a] plaintiff to recover reasonable third-party litigation expenses.” ¶ 10 (quoting City of Cedarburg Light & Water Comm’n  v. Glens Falls Ins. Co., 42 Wis.2d 120, 166 N.W.2d 165 (1969)). The court explained that attorneys’ fees are recoverable when such fees are rightly considered part of the damages flowing from the defendant’s breach of contract.

The court’s decision makes clear that when a party’s breach of contract forces someone else into litigation with a third party, such breach is a wrongful action, which permits the individual to recover his or her attorneys’ fees from the breaching party.

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