It was difficult to fight IBM Corp. to complain about his sales commission practices but "it was fun," the plaintiff's lawyer, Matthew E. Lee, partner at Whitfield Bryson LLP in Raleigh, told Bloomberg Law.
Lee and his co-counsel had a big win against IBM in May when the U.S. Circuit 4th Court of Appeals revived their customer Justin Fessler's claims that the company had illegally limited its sales commissions after repeatedly telling him that his earnings potential was Be limitless in sales meetings and PowerPoint presentations.
The Fourth Circuit overturned the US District Court's decision for the Eastern District of Virginia to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that Fessler had provided enough factual information to allow a jury to conclude that it was reasonably based on IBM's testimony.
Lee said in an interview on July 27 that the "stakes were really high" as the court's decision controlled the outcome of several similar cases pending against IBM for its sales commission practices.
It helps to work with a great team. "The three of us complement each other well," said Lee, referring to his co-counsel Jeremy Williams from Whitfield Bryson and Mark Sigmon from Sigmon Law PLLC.
"I don't think anything is happening in the litigation world," he added, especially at this level, "with one person."
Whitfield Bryson has offices in Charleston, S.C., Los Angeles, Nashville and Raleigh, N.C.
Lee began working in complex litigation at the Wake Forest Law School in 2006, immediately after graduating in law. He first learned about IBM's commission practices when a friend from college while studying at the Catholic University came to him with the case.
As he dug deeper, he noticed how IBM had consistently refused these types of claims on a case-by-case basis to the point where it looked "very bleak to a plaintiff".
However, Lee said his team was well equipped to investigate cases like this and go "head to toe" with IBM and his lawyers at Jackson Lewis PC.
"That's the nice thing about our system, it's the big balance," said Lee.
IBM has argued that its incentive plan letters include commission disclaimers that alert sales reps to the company's ability to adjust payments.
Next Up, California class
After Lee and his team rejected IBM's dismissal and summary judgments and negotiated individual customer settlements in several cases, they filed a class action lawsuit in California in late 2019.
California law requires employers to explicitly provide written commission contracts that explain how these payments are calculated.
According to Lee, IBM does not comply with this rule among its sales staff, and at least one federal court in California has approved this argument.
"A team is always needed
Teamwork and preparation are more important than ever, with the increasing number of cases and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Filing is particularly critical in these cases, so lawyers need to be "ready to fight," Lee said. That means knowing the documents, asking the right questions and setting the right topics.
A good document management system and strong support staff "also make a big difference," said Lee. The team also makes regular phone calls to stay organized and meet deadlines, especially during the pandemic.
"You lose something, especially with deposits, when you're out of the way," Lee noted that briefing over federal courts is more important.
However, working remotely also has advantages.
Before the pandemic, Lee often had to travel from Raleigh to San Francisco to attend court hearings and schedule conferences for his cases in the northern district of California. With courts doing more remotely, he can now prepare at home and fight from a conference room.