A former California State judge in an arbitration awarded nearly $1.7 million to an employer against its former employee based primarily on his acts taken going out the door. His joking email with a co-worker after recruiting three others, characterizing their resignations as “Three bullets to the back of the head” of his employer, was clearly shooting himself in the foot in the eyes of the arbitrator. The Award is interesting for many reasons – – the interplay between fiduciary duties and non-solicitation of employees provisions, the allowable damages when such a fiduciary duty is breached by co-worker solicitation, and the overriding difference of treatment of bad leavers versus good leavers.
Michael Valentine, a corporate vice president of Fortinet, Inc., a California based network security company, left for a competitor, Sophos, in the end of 2013. The arbitrator found that due to his recruiting of several subordinates, both before and after he resigned, he had breached his fiduciary duty as an officer of Fortinet and his contractual obligations not to solicit employees for one year after his employment ended. Despite Valentine’s affirmative defense that the clause was barred by California’s public policy [see California Business & Professions Code 16-600, et seq. and Edwards v. Arthur Anderson LLP, cf. Loral Corp. v. Moyes], the arbitrator awarded significant damages for his recruitment activity based upon the breach of his fiduciary duties.
While it appears from the Award that much of the evidence of pre-resignation solicitation was purely inferential, the arbitrator viewed the efforts to cover up such evidence, and the sentiment expressed in the email as being a “despicable” act, such that it caused him to find liability for the recruitment of the three subordinates and to award punitive damages on top of both actual damages and general damages.
The arbitrator awarded actual damages, the amount expended to replace the employees based on the time spent by the executive who recruited the replacements, at his hourly equivalent salary rate, or $39,560. The arbitrator found general damages of $150,000 based on the “intentional tortious breach of fiduciary duty” and attributed that to his sense of a reasonable amount of the loss of valuable employees causing harm to the employer for likely lost business caused by delays in performance and the start-up time for new employees. Finally, based on Valentine’s willful and intentional breach of his fiduciary obligations causing direct harm to Fortinet, the arbitrator awarded $250,000 in punitive damages and attorneys’ fees pursuant to contract of $1.2 million plus costs, rendering the total Award to be in excess of $1.75 million.
Had Mr. Valentine not spoken with his co-workers about joining him before he resigned, had he not taken steps to cover up such evidence of solicitation, and, most importantly, had he not callously joked about his egregious breach of duty in such a vivid and morbid email, he may have gotten the benefit of California’s public policy disfavoring employee non-solicit agreements. But when you are a bad leaver, judges and arbitrators are definitely more likely to find breaches of duties and contractual obligations and enforce such provisions to the fullest extent.