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Class Action Defense Cases–Schachter v. Citigroup: California Supreme Court Affirms Defense Judgment In Labor Law Class Action Holding Forfeiture Of Restricted Stock Shares Upon Termination Did Not Violate California Labor Code

Trial Court Properly Granted Summary Judgment in Favor of Employer in Class Action Alleging Failure to Pay Wages under Labor Code because Prospective, Bilateral Agreement between Employer and Employee to Pay a Portion of Compensation in Restricted Stock Shares that were Forfeited upon Resignation or Termination for Cause Prior to Expiration of Two-Year Vesting Period did not Violate Labor Code California Supreme Court Holds

Plaintiff, a former stockbroker at Smith Barney (a subsidiary of Citigroup), filed a putative class action in California state court against Citigroup and others alleging violations of California’s labor laws; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that Citigroup’s voluntary employee incentive compensation plan, which permitted employees to obtain “shares of restricted company stock at a reduced price in lieu of a portion of that employee’s annual cash compensation,” violated California law because the plan provided that if the employee resigns or is fired then he forfeits any shares of stock that had not yet vested. Schachter v. Citigroup, Inc., 47 Cal.4th 610 (Cal. 2009) [Slip Opn., at 1-2]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, plaintiff, “along with officers and other key individuals in the company’s employ,” participated in the plan – receiving restricted stock in lieu of a portion of their salary. Id., at 3. The stock would not vest for two years, and if an employee was fired without cause prior to that time then “the employee forfeited his or her restricted stock, but received in return, without interest ‘a cash payment equal to the portion of his or her annual compensation that had been paid in the form of such forfeited [r]estricted [s]tock.’” Id. However, if the employee voluntarily resigned or was terminated for cause prior to that time, then “the employee forfeited his or her restricted stock as well as the percentage of annual income designated by the employee to be paid as shares of restricted stock.” Id. Plaintiff resigned before all of his stock vested, and therefore fell within this latter group, forfeiting his stock and that portion of his income that he directed to be paid as stock. Id., at 4. His class action complaint followed, id. Defense attorneys moved for summary judgment but the motion was denied, id. After several years of litigation, and after the trial court certified the litigation as a class action, the trial court reconsidered its summary judgment ruling sua sponte and concluded that the plan’s forfeiture provision did not violate California law; accordingly, it granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Id., at 5. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, see id., at 5-6, and the California Supreme Court granted review, id., at 7. The Supreme Court affirmed, concluding that “the forfeiture provision does not run afoul of the Labor Code because no earned, unpaid wages remain outstanding upon termination according to the terms of the incentive plan.” Id., at 1.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether employees “would be owed – and therefore would be required to forfeit – any ‘earned and unpaid’ wages upon resigning or being terminated for cause.” Schachter, at 8. Plaintiff argued “the percentage of his annual compensation he directed be paid to him in the form of shares of restricted stock constitutes a wage that remained earned but unpaid following his resignation.” Id., at 9. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the shares of restricted stock constituted wages. Id. The controlling factor was that the employer and employees had entered into a bilateral agreement after the employees had been hired: “It cannot be questioned that employers and employees are free to prospectively and bilaterally alter the terms of employment.” Id., at 11. Here, plaintiff specifically requested that he be paid in part in restricted stock shares, and contractually agreed that “his resignation or termination for cause before the end of the two-year vesting period would result in forfeiture of the restricted stock and the percentage of his compensation that he ‘authorized to be paid in the form of such restricted stock.’” Id. The Supreme Court summarized its holding at page 13:

Here, of course, [plaintiff] voluntarily terminated his employment before his restricted stock fully vested. By the terms of the Plan, and [plaintiff’s] own concession, he is not entitled to those unvested shares of restricted stock. Having elected to receive some of his compensation in the form of restricted stock, a transaction he was aware carried risk as well as the potential for reward, [plaintiff] cannot now assert that he should have been paid in cash that portion of his compensation he elected to receive as restricted stock.

In other words, “[plaintiff’s] actions – not the company’s – resulted in the loss of [plaintiff’s] contingent incentive compensation.” Id., at 14. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed. Id., at 16.

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