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Colorado trial courts are not required to blue-pencil non-compete and non-solicit covenants

Even where an agreement says that covenants “shall be” blue-penciled (meaning, rewritten if determined to be unenforceable and narrowed to whatever the court rules would have been enforceable), a trial court in Colorado is not required to do so. In a recent decision, 23 LTD v. Herman, case no. 16CA1095 (Colo.App. 7/25/19), the Colorado Court of Appeals confirmed blue penciling is within a trial court judge’s discretion. The parties cannot, by way of mandatory language like “shall,” not only confer on the judge the authority to re-write their agreement but an obligation to do so.

Simply put, the court is not a party to the agreement, and the parties have no power or authority to enlist the court as their agent. Thus, parties to an employment or noncompete agreement cannot contractually obligate a court to blue pencil noncompete provisions that it determines are unreasonable.

The case is a strong reminder for employers not to over-reach when drafting covenants, non-competes or non-solicits. While a blue penciling clause may give the judge to make some changes like reducing the geographic or temporal reach of the covenant (how many miles/how many months), the parties should not expect a judge will be willing to make changes beyond that, or even of that nature. Whether to blue pencil at all is an issue for each judge.

Fundamentally, it is the obligation of a party who has, and wishes to protect, trade secrets to craft contractual provisions that do so without violating the important public policies of this state.[5] That responsibility does not fall on the shoulders of judges

Three issues in Colorado regarding vacation pay

Colorado law, CRS 8-4-101 defines vacation to be a part of “wages” when “earned in accordance with the terms of any agreement. If an employer provides paid vacation for an employee, the employer shall pay upon separation from employment all vacation pay earned and determinable in accordance with the terms of any agreement between the employer and the employee.” As such, an employee cannot agree to waive vacation, or any other “wages,” once “earned, pursuant to CRS 8-4-121, and CRS 8-4-109 requires that such vacation, along with all other “wages,” to be paid out in final paychecks.

Despite what seems relatively clear statutory language on first blush, three issues persist. Colorado employers have received some fleshout on at least two.

1. Can an employer impose conditions on the payout of vacation in a final paycheck? The Colorado Court of Appeals says, yes.

A recent Colorado Court of Appeals case suggests the law may not be that simple. In  Nieto v. Clark’s Mkt., Inc. the employer added a twist in its handbook. There, a policy said that an employee “forfeits all earned vacation and pay benefits” if they fail to provide 2-week notice before quitting. The employee cited the foregoing statutes, arguing the vacation could not be waived and had to be paid out in the final paycheck.

The Court of Appeals held for the company. The Court of Appeals looked to the “terms of any agreement,” as required by the statute, in other words, to the language of the vacation policy and held that 2-week notice was a condition of earning the vacation.

Ms. Nieto’s right to compensation for accrued but unused vacation pay depends on the parties’ employment agreement. And that agreement unequivocally says that the vacation pay she seeks wasn’t vested given the circumstances under which she left the Market’s employ.

Is Nieto good law in Colorado, can employers rely comfortably on it? Many would argue that the Colorado Court of Appeals simply got it wrong. However, the deadline for appeal has now passed, so it is certainly the law as between Ms. Nieto and her former employer Clark’s Market, Inc. It is noted too that the decision was selected for official publication, so, unless the Court of Appeals or the Colorado Supreme Court revisit the issue in a future case, it is binding on trial courts. Therefore employers could arguably rely on it for now, so long as they are willing to risk protracted litigation and future appeals.

2. Can an employer apply a use-it-or-lose-it rule to vacation at the end of every year? The Colorado Division of Labor and Employment says, no, but the issue is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Pending before the Colorado Court of Appeals is Blount, Inc. v. CDLE, in which the Colorado Division of Labor and Employment is asking the Court of Appeals to rule against an employer’s purported use-it-or-lose-it policy. In an apparent effort to end-run the Court’s decision, the CDLE issued on the same day as it filed a brief in the appeal, a new rule (7 CCR 1103-7 rule 2.15) — which it then proceed to rely upon in its brief — stating that employers may not have use-it-or-lose-it policies. How will the Court of Appeals rule? How will the Court of Appeals view the CDLE’s apparent claim-jumping regulation? Will the Court of Appeals take Blount as an opportunity to re-consider or limit Nieto? Stay tuned.

3. Do these same rules apply to PTO or just vacation? The Division of Labor and Employment says, no, these restrictions do not apply to PTO.

As of this summer, callers to the Colorado Division of Labor and Employment will be told it takes the position that these “vacation” rules do not apply to PTO. CRS 8-4-101 speaks only to the inclusion of “vacation” in “wages,” not PTO; therefore, the Division will not currently pursue an administrative wage claim for PTO.

Notwithstanding, employers should realize that some plaintiff attorneys will take such claims to court, but they do so under a contract law theory, not under Colorado’s wage statutes, and as a contract claim, such claims do not carry attorney fees or penalties.

You get what you get with arbitration, holds Colorado Court of Appeals

Employers considering adopting arbitration agreements might be interested in a recent decision by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Court’s ruling highlights some of the major differences between litigating in courts and arbitrating before a private arbitrator.

The case involved an arbitration agreement that required arbitration of claims “arising” under the parties’ contract. One of the parties brought a claim for violation of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, which is a separate claim that sounds in tort, not contract. The argument was that, because it is a tort claim not a contract claim, it was not subject to arbitration. Even though the arbitration agreement’s language was narrower than the more customary phrase, “related to or arising out of,” the Court held it was, nonetheless, broad enough to require arbitration of the tort claim.

Next, the arbitrator’s ruling was challenged on substantive grounds. The party contended the arbitrator had gone so far as to improperly re-characterize its claim, then deny the claim as re-characterized. The party felt it had never gotten a ruling on its actual, original claim. However, arbitration does not generally provide for a right of appeal. There are only very limited grounds for appeal. Additionally arbitration does not typically involve a court reporter being present, so there is generally no transcript of testimony. The Colorado Court of Appeals held that, even if the arbitrator had erred, there was no way for the Court of Appeals to analyze the arbitrator’s ruling, since with no transcript of testimony, it had no way of knowing what had occurred in the hearing.

We know from the arbitrator’s award that the evidentiary part of the hearing lasted two days, two witnesses testified, the arbitrator admitted about fifty-five exhibits, and the parties gave their closing arguments over the telephone. But we do not know what anyone said during the hearing. As a result, we must, as we have previously concluded, presume that the transcript would support the arbitrator’s award.

The case is a good reminder that, for all its advantages, arbitration comes with its own set of disadvantages. It isn’t just a quicker more private version of litigation. Companies considering arbitration agreements should carefully consider both the pro’s and con’s of arbitration.

Source: Digital Landscape v. Media Kings, case no. 17 CA 1111 (Colo.App. 9/20/18).

Individual liability possible for wage claims, in Colorado

In a 2003 decision, Leonard v. McMorris, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Wage Claim Act does not itself create statutory liability for individuals who own or manage a company. But what about other theories?

In a recent decision, Paradine v. Goei, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that Leonard does not foreclose personal liability. Rather, it simply held that the Colorado Wage Claim Act itself cannot be a vehicle for imposing personal liability. The Colorado Court of Appeals held in this case that there are, at least, two other “well-established” theories for holding an individual liable for the acts of a company: “peircing the corporate veil, and when an officer acts on behalf of an undisclosed principal.” Oversimplifying these two principles, (1) the first allows a person to be held liable for the acts of his entity if, in running that entity, he has not obeyed corporate formalities and ignored the distinction between the entity and himself; (2) the latter allows a person to be held liable when he seems to have acted on his own behalf but later wishes to claim, unbeknownst to the plaintiff, that he was actually acting behind an entity.

In this case the Court of Appeals held the plaintiff had adequately pled a case to pierce the corporate veil and was, therefore, entitled to seek discovery in pursuit of his allegations. In particular the court noted the plaintiff alleged that the individual collected the company’s money to be used to pay wages, used the company’s revenues for “his own personal use” and “diverted corporate funds” to pay his own expenses, including his “apartment lease” and “vehicle payments,” treating the company as his “alter ego” while commingling bank accounts and credit cards.”

Paradine will no doubt stimulate the filing of individual liability claims in Colorado wage cases.

Source: Paradine v. Goei, case no. 16CA1909 (Colo.App. 4/19/18).

When an “interstate” driver isn’t, but is …

Both federal law (the Fair Labor Standards Act, “FLSA”) and Colorado law (the Colorado Minimum Wage Act, the Colorado Wage Claim Act, and the Colorado Minimum Wage Order) exempt “interstate drivers.” Under FLSA, a driver can be considered “interstate” if she, like taxi drivers, is subject to the federal Motor Carrier Act, even where she drives only within the state. This means taxi drivers are not entitled to overtime under federal law.

In this case, the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s view that Colorado intended a stricter approach. According to the Court and the DOLE, Colorado’s overtime exemption does require that a driver actually drive across state lines as part of their job. Accordingly, the Court held, Colorado taxi drivers are entitled to overtime under state law, even though they would not be under federal law. As the Court explained, FLSA permits states to adopt stronger protections for employees than federal law. Here, the Court held Colorado did so because Colorado’s overtime exemption is worded slightly differently than FLSA’s.

Remaining issues include the applicability of this ruling to “gig” drivers, like those who drive through Uber or Lyft. Also, while this case has held that taxi drivers who don’t actually drive in and outside the state are entitled to overtime, it did not address whether other parts of Colorado wage law, including minimum wage requirements, also apply to such drivers.

Source: Brunson v. Colorado Cab Company, LLC, case no. 16CA1864 (1/8/18).