Protorae Law
Mike Holm | LeClairRyan | UBP Team

Unfair Business Practices



This blog focuses on unfair business and trade practices such as business conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, misappropriation of trade secrets and other proprietary information, fraud, tortious interference with contracts and other unfair business practices that are not neatly defined. Since we are located in Tysons Corner, Virginia, many of the cases discussed will come from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia courts. We hope the reader finds this blog instructive.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Government Contractor Hit with $10 Million in Punitive Damages for Discriminatory Contract Termination

In a government contractor dispute between prime and subcontractor companies, a jury empanelled in the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Virginia found that the prime contractor racially discriminated against the subcontractor, tortiously interfered with the subcontractor's employee contracts, breached the parties' contracts and breached the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing. The jury awarded over $5 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages against the prime contractor.

The Court's September 22, 2008 opinion sets forth the evidence which the jury considered and ultimately believed in reaching the verdict. That evidence, the Court found, was sufficient to uphold the verdict. The opinion can be found here.

The plaintiffs were two related companies, World Wide Network Services, LLC and its subsidiary World Wide Network Services International (hereinafter "WWNS"). WWNS was certified as an "8(a)" small disadvantaged company. WWNS was awarded a subcontract with Defendant DynCorp International, LLC ("DynCorp") to assist DynCorp with its contracts with the U.S. Department of State in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the Court, "in the fall of 2005 the relationship between DynCorp and WWNS began to cool." Opinion at 7. "WWNS employees began to observe displays of racial animus towards WWNS in the form of derogatory comments . . . , as well as deliberate exclusion from planning meetings, failing to respond to e-mail requests for information and assistance . . . and failing to renew/provide WWNS employees with the proper security badges WWNS’s employees were required to have in order to perform their work and to access remote work sites. Additionally, DynCorp’s evaluations of WWNS's performance turned critical." Id.

In examining the discrimination claim filed pursuant to Section 1981, the Court maintained the burden-shifting analysis used in Title VII discrimination claims. It found that WWNS was required to show that it: "(1) is a member of a minority group; (2) was qualified to perform the obligations set forth in the subcontracts; (3) despite its qualifications and performance, it was terminated; and (4) after its termination, DynCorp retained another company from an unprotected class." Op. at 18. DynCorp would then have to "produce evidence that the plaintiff was rejected, or someone else was preferred, for a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason." Id. If those burdens were met, WWNS would have to show that DynCorp’s proffered reason was "mere pretext and that race based discrimination was the real reason" for DynCorp's actions. Id.

As to the tortuous interference with contract claim, the Court rejected DynCorp's argument that the jury's verdict was unsupported as a matter of law. DynCorp argued it did not tortiously interfere with WWNS's employment contracts because there was "no evidence that DynCorp intentionally induced any former WWNS employee to fail to provide 15 days notice of termination of their employment agreements with WWNS . . . ." Op. at 22-23. The Court found that the jury's finding was supported by the evidence of DynCorp's meeting with WWNS's employees to notify them that the subcontract "would be terminated August 11, 2006, and that as of July 26, 2006, all WWNS employees should report to DynCorp . . . ." Op. at 23. And, after receiving a letter from WWNS's counsel, DynCorp "convened another meeting . . . at which DynCorp recanted its statements . . . and notified WWNS personnel that they continued to be considered WWNS employees and would no longer work in support of the [subcontract] after August 11, 2006." "Thereafter, DynCorp began to make employment offers to select WWNS employees in Iraq in order to prevent a ‘disruption of service.'" Id.

The Court also found that there was enough evidence to support the punitive damages award and the finding that DynCorp acted with malice:

"DynCorp’s malicious intent towards WWNS is illustrated in DynCorp's conduct during the time period leading up to and after it decided to terminate its relationship with WWNS. For example, WWNS introduced evidence at trial that [DynCorp] reached out to EDO Corporation [which was a competitor to WWNS] well before DynCorp notified WWNS of its decisions to terminate their contractual relationship. [DynCorp] hired EDO Corporation to evaluate WWNS's workmanship with the Codan Radios. [DynCorp] terminated EDO Corporation’s contract because assessments of the Codan Radio system had already been completed by another firm. However, [DynCorp] indicated in an e-mail to EDO Corporation that [it] would look for ways to work with EDO Corporation in the future. Less than one month later, and before notifying WWNS of the impending contract termination, Mr. Walsh contacted EDO Corporation and requested that the company begin planning to take over the Codan Radio network. Shortly thereafter, [DynCorp] and a representative from EDO Corporation met with [a] WWNS employee . . . . At the meeting [the WWNS employee] provided [DynCorp] and EDO Corporation with a list of WWNS employees he recommended DynCorp and EDO hire. [the WWNS employee] also provided resumes and confidential salary information to DynCorp via e-mail to DynCorp [a] employee . . . ." Op. at 57.

That conduct, the Court held, "demonstrates DynCorp"s intent to not only cease working with WWNS, but to destroy WWNS’s ability to continue to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan." Op. at 58.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of DynCorp for the following counts: tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, common law civil conspiracy, Virginia statutory conspiracy and a breach of contract counterclaim.

It is clear from the number of issues raised that the case was hotly contested. It is likely that the case will be appealed and the Fourth Circuit will revisit many of the District Court’s findings.

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