Wild KPMG Fees Decision
posted by Dave Hoffman
Barely one day old, and Gonzalez-Lopez is already making waves in corporate law. To see the connection, however, you’ll have to bear with me for a bit of brush-clearing.
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan (S.D.N.Y.) today ruled on certain individual defendants’ motions to dismiss an indictment arising from the KPMG tax shelter investigation. (Large pdf here.) According to the defendants, their due process rights were violated when the U.S. Attorney pressured their former employer (KPMG) not to advance and reimburse legal fees incurred as individuals defendants. Judge Kaplan found a due process violation, scolded the government, and suggested a new lawsuit against KPMG to recover those legal fees, in which today’s decision would have collateral effect and make the proceedings summary. In short: the decision seems to constitutionalize the right to receive indemnification from your employer.
KPMG had a “longstanding voluntary practice” of paying legal fees where employees required separate counsel in matters arising from the employment relationship, regardless of whether the employee had been charged criminally or civilly with wrongdoing. These arrangements were not memorialized in the partnership agreement governing most of the defendants, nor were there contractual provisions about it. No mention is made in the opinion of the relevant insurance negotiations or provisions.
The background law governing most of the partner-defendants (Delaware) requires neither indemnification nor pre-payment. However, two of the defendants, mere employees residing in California, had a right to indemnification arising out of California statutory law.
Judge Kaplan construed this arrangement as a legal entitlement. At the least, according to Judge Kaplan, the defendants had “every reason to expect that KPMG would pay their legal expenses in connection with the government’s investigation.” (But this was the sort of expectation, as Judge Kaplan later argued (p.57) that might give rise to a tortuous interference claim). In the alternative, and in a footnote, Judge Kaplan wrote that “arguably” the defendants had a contract “implied in fact from KPMG’s uniform past practice and the circumstances of the business.” (Fn. 119).
Wow. But how does this contract problem get turned into a Gonzalez-Lopez due process problem? Ah, it turns out that the government has a set of prosecution guidelines to help it determine when to indict a corporation. As a part of those guidelines, the government treated payment of an employee’s legal fees as a blemish on the corporation’s record. And, thus, the U.S. Attorney negotiating with KPMG (itself desperate to avoid indictment) told the Firm that “under the fedaral guidelines misconduct can not be rewarded [by the payment of fees of wrongdoers."]
KPMG got the message. Shortly thereafter, KPMG notified the defendants that their legal fees would be compensated only as long as they cooperated — they could not take the Fifth, for example. Further, KPMG apparently capitulated to the government’s demand by backing away on a recommendation that the defendants obtain counsel.
Judge Kaplan found that this conduct by the government violated the defendants’ right to a fair trial and (I think) to counsel of their choice. In a passage of the opinion I don’t really grasp, the court (p. 49) found that the pressure to cooperate exerted by the Thompson memorandum (the relevant prosecutorial guidelines) on KPMG should be subject to “strict scrutiny” because (1) this will be a big trial, requiring “substantial resources”; and (2) the government interfered with the ability of the KPMG defendants “to obtain resources they otherwise would have had.” While the government claimed that it only used its guidelines to infer lack of cooperation when the payment of fees was used to impede investigations, the court found that the public perception of such pressure is what matters: “[f]ew if any competent defense attorneys would advise a corporate client at risk of indictment that it should feel free to advance legal fees to individuals in the face of the language of [the guidelines." (p.51) And, under Gonzalez-Lopez, this prejudice creates a per se violation. Judge Kaplan appears to hold that the prosecution guidelines are unconstitutional to the extent that they pressure corporations not to provide indemnification to their employees.
The weirdest part of this interesting decision is the remedy. The court refused to dismiss the indictment (for one, I assume, this would result in an immediate appeal). The government suggested that KPMG be allowed to consider again if it wanted to pay fees, without any threat of retaliation. No go, said the court. Instead, the court said that the defendants must be compensated for all of the expenses they had or would incur. Unfortunately, sovereign immunity bars relief against the government, even though it was the wrong-doer. Instead, the court held that KPMG, a non-party to the proceeding, was obligated to pay. However, the court lacked personal jurisdiction over KPMG. Therefore, the court recommended that the individual defendants sue KPMG. The court would then conduct a “expeditious” hearing and provide relief. [There is apparently an arbitration agreement in the partnership agreement which could delay matters, but the court suggested what it thinks of that provision by saying “Assuming that the KPMG Defendants pursue relief against KPMG and that KPMG remains insistent upon its alleged arbitration remedy, the questions whether the arbitration clause properly is so construed and, if so, whether it is void as against public policy [as frustrating the court’s decision] will be addressed . . . .” (fn. 239). Hee.]
To sum up. KPMG, which had no clear contractual obligation to pay these fees, now must do so compelled by a judicial order. The government can not discourage indemnification to criminal defendants as a part of making a decision about the firm’s cooprative attitude (or, at least, it can’t do so in writing). One possible result of the case: potentially vulnerable firms will draft by-laws or contracts that exclude indemnification absent cooperation, to make clear that the government has the right to demand cooperation from employees.
The prosecutors, scolded by the court as “economical with the truth” (p. 80-81), must be feeling angry. The defendants, 83 pages later, are still going to trial. But the 28 private firms listed in the caption will get paid.
[UPDATE: More at the White Collar Crime Blog.]