on August 10, 2016
A federal court judge has allowed a plaintiff to proceed with claims against a Massachusetts company that rescinded a job offer shortly after the plaintiff left his prior job. The defendant, Loomis, Sayles & Co., is an international investment firm that had intended to launch a new hedge fund. Over a course of six months, the defendant recruited plaintiff Vishal Bhammer, then employed by a different financial services firm in Hong Kong, to join the new fund.
During the recruitment process, the defendant allegedly informed Mr. Bhammer that the new fund was an opportunity that warranted leaving his current job and relocating his family to Singapore. The defendant allegedly emphasized that the fund had an “appropriate and well-defined investment process, strategy, and philosophy.” Several of the defendant’s employees allegedly made similar statements to Mr. Bhammer via Skype video calls, conference calls and in-person meetings. In early June, 2015, the defendant allegedly told Mr. Bhammer that he should not delay in giving notice of his resignation to his current employer. Mr. Bhammer’s resignation became effective on July 5, 2015. On July 16, 2015, the defendant informed Mr. Bhammer that it had decided to abandon the new hedge fund, and thus Mr. Bhammer’s job no longer existed. The defendant allegedly told Mr. Bhammer that the fund was abandoned in part because the defendant did not approve of the Fund’s strategy and its odds of success were too low.
Mr. Bhammer filed suit on December 23, 2015, alleging three claims: misrepresentation (intentional and negligent), tortious nondisclosure, and tortious interference. Shortly thereafter, the defendant moved to dismiss all counts, and the Court denied the motion. The defendant moved to dismiss the misrepresentation claim on several grounds, including that the complaint did not meet the strict specificity requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court disagreed, finding that the complaint contains several allegations that the defendant intended to move forward with the new fund, was committed to the fund, and that there was no reason Mr. Bhammer should delay in moving his family to Singapore. The defendant also argued that such statements are not actionable fact statements, but instead merely opinions. The Court acknowledged that the distinction between opinion and fact is “often blurry,” and that the overall circumstances must be evaluated to determine the true meaning of the language used. While the defendant’s representation of the fund’s investment strategy was “appropriate and well-defined” could be considered an opinion, those words imply that the defendant believed the strategy was appropriate and well-defined, implying that it was an opinion grounded in fact. The Court found that the facts alleged covered both intentional misrepresentation and negligent misrepresentation (the claims are similar but negligent misrepresentation requires a less demanding standard).
“Tortious nondisclosure,” perhaps the most interesting claim due to its rare appearance, is a tort arising out of a duty to disclose. It is distinct from misrepresentation in that it covers what a party does not say. The Court found that the facts alleged in the complaint represented, at a minimum, circumstances in which the defendant had a duty to disclosure matters necessary to prevent its partial statement of fact from being misleading. In other words, if Mr. Bhammer’s allegations are true, then the defendant had an obligation to disclose its true belief regarding the hedge fund.
The third claim, “tortious interference,” requires a plaintiff to prove that it had an advantageous relationship with a third party (including an employment relationship), the defendant knowingly induced a breaking of the relationship, the interference was improper in motive or means, and the plaintiff suffered harm. The parties here dispute whether the defendant’s conduct was must be directed at a third party, or whether conduct directed at the plaintiff is sufficient. All of the defendant’s conduct was directed at Mr. Bhammer, not at his then-current employer. The Court stated that recent Massachusetts cases do not require the defendant to have induced the employer to break the relationship. Put differently, preventing the plaintiff from performing its own end of the contract is apparently sufficient under Massachusetts law, and this claim was also allowed to proceed to the next stage of litigation.
One lesson from this case is that employers should recruit new employees with care, particularly when such employees are leaving current jobs for a new opportunity. As the Court noted, the distinction between fact and opinion is often blurrier than one might think, and thus employers must ensure that their recruiters and senior staff avoid over-promising. Concerned parties should contact a Massachusetts employment attorney to review the recruitment process.