Non-Solicit Agreements

States across the country have been using enforcement actions, legislation, and interpretive guidance to limit employers’ ability to enforce restrictive covenants against low wage workers. The recent decision in Butler v. Jimmy John’s Franchise, LLC et. al., 18-cv-0133 (S.D. Ill. 2018) suggests this trend may extend to federal antitrust law.

The Butler case relates to the legality of certain restrictive covenants in Jimmy John’s franchise agreements.[1] The Complaint alleges that Jimmy John’s required franchisees to agree not to hire any job applicants who worked for a different Jimmy John’s franchise in the previous year. Franchisees also agreed not to solicit one another’s employees. The franchise agreements also named all other Jimmy John’s franchisees as third party beneficiaries of the agreement. This meant that if Franchise B hired a Franchise A employee, Franchise A could sue to enforce the agreement between Franchise B and Jimmy John’s Franchise LLC (the franchisor).

In determining claims of antitrust violations, the distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical” agreements is highly significant. Challenges to vertical agreements are analyzed under the “rule of reason” under which plaintiffs must prove market power and that the challenged practices actually harm competition. This generally requires sophisticated economic analysis. Horizontal agreements not to compete, in contrast, are generally deemed “per se” unreasonable and do not require any proof regarding market context.

In Butler, the Court characterized the franchise agreements as horizontal agreements. Such a characterization permitted the plaintiffs to state a claim without alleging that a particular franchisor has sufficient market power to effect the market for employees in an entire geographic region. In other words, the plaintiffs did not have to prove that Jimmy John’s on its own had enough market power to depress the wages of delivery drivers in a particular city.

To keep things in perspective, Butler is an isolated district court decision which may remain an outlier. However, it serves as another example of how subjecting low wage workers to restrictive covenants can impose heightened litigation risk. Butler provides another reason (on top of the joint FTC/DOJ Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals and DOJ enforcement actions following through on that guidance) for employers to ensure their restrictive covenants are not only enforceable but compliant with antitrust law.

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[1] Jimmy John’s has since agreed to remove the challenged provisions from their franchise agreements.

Whenever possible, restrictive covenants should be carefully worded to track the language of applicable law in the jurisdiction where they will be enforced. The South Dakota Supreme Court’s recent decision in Farm Bureau Life Insurance Co. v. Dolly provides a strong reminder of this lesson.  The case concerned an action by Farm Bureau to enforce a restrictive covenant against Ryan Dolly who had worked for Farm Bureau as a captive life insurance agent. Dolly’s contract with Farm Bureau contained a restrictive covenant providing that Dolly would “neither sell nor solicit, directly or indirectly…any insurance or annuity product, with respect to any policyholder of [Farm Bureau]… for a period of eighteen (18) months following the termination of” his contract.

When Dolly started selling insurance for a different issuer, Farm Bureau sought an injunction prohibiting Dolly from soliciting or selling to Farm Bureau policyholders.  The Trial Court enjoyed Dolly from soliciting Farm Bureau policyholders but declined to prohibit him from selling to Farm Bureau policyholders who reached out to him directly.

After consulting the South Dakota statute governing contracts with captive insurance agents (SDCL 53-9-12), the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed.  The Court interpreted SDCL 53-9-12 to prohibit all restrictive covenants between life insurance companies and captive agents except agreements (a) not to solicit existing customers of the insurer within a specified area; and (b) not to engage directly or indirectly in the same business or profession as that of the insurer.  The Court ruled that the agreement not to sell to existing customers was neither an agreement not to solicit, nor an agreement to refrain from the business altogether and was therefore invalid under South Dakota law.

Failure to track the precise language of the statute prevented Farm Bureau from enjoining conduct which it otherwise could have prevented had it tracked the statutory language more closely.

On April 3, 2018, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (“DOJ”) announced that it had entered into a settlement with two of the world’s largest railroad equipment manufacturers resolving a lawsuit alleging the defendant employers had entered into unlawful “no-poach” agreements.  The DOJ’s Complaint, captioned U.S. v. Knorr-Bremse AG and Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp., 18-cv-00747 (D. D.C.) alleges that three employers referred to as Knorr, Wabtec and Faively,[1] unlawfully promised one another “not to solicit, recruit, hire without approval, or otherwise compete for employees.”  It goes on to allege “[t]hese no-poach agreements denied American rail industry workers access to better job opportunities, restricted their mobility, and deprived them of competitively significant information that they could have used to negotiate better terms of employment.”

This development should come as no surprise; since October 2016 federal antitrust enforcement agencies[2] have been vocal about their increased focus on no-poaching and wage-fixing agreements among employers.  This past January, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division reiterated that no-poaching agreements among employers remained an enforcement priority and employers could expect the DOJ to announce an increasing number of enforcement actions in the coming months.

Although the allegations against Knorr and Wabtec concern agreements between high-level corporate officers, employers should take steps to ensure that all managers, recruiters, and human resources professionals comply with applicable antitrust laws. For example, seemingly innocuous activities like discussing employee salary and benefits at industry conferences can constitute an unlawful information exchange.  Consulting the joint FTC and DOJ Antitrust Red Flags for Employment Practices provides an accessible starting point for understanding this area of the law.  However, employers will be well served to take additional steps to audit their business practices and communications with competitors throughout the organization in order to detect, and mitigate any legal risk associated with potentially unlawful agreements with competitors.

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[1] “Knorr” refers to Knorr-Bremse AG, including its wholly owned US subsidiaries.  “Wabtec” is an abbreviation of Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation.  “Faiveley” refers to Faiveley Transport S.A.  Faiveley is not included in the case caption because it was acquired by Wabtec in 2016.

[2] The DOJ Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”)

On October 20, 2016—just about three weeks before the presidential election won by Donald Trump—the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission issued a remarkable document, entitled “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals,” which outlined an aggressive policy promising to investigate and punish employers, and even individual Human Resources employees, who enter into unlawful agreements concerning recruitment or retention of employees.  As stated in that document, “[a]n agreement among competing employers to limit or fix the terms of employment for potential hires may violate the antitrust laws if the agreement constrains individual firm decision-making with regard to wages, salaries or benefits; terms of employment; or even job opportunities.”

For over a year, a question on the minds of many practitioners was whether the Antitrust Guidance document and policy would remain a priority for the DOJ and FTC under President Trump.  Those agencies had not issued public pronouncements, and there was uncertainty over whether conduct like wage-fixing and no-poaching agreements would continue to warrant serious civil or criminal scrutiny.  Would the new administration continue the Obama Administration’s antitrust guidance initiative or would it lean more toward a more laissez-faire, do-not-interfere with corporate management philosophy?

We may now have the answer.  The Trump administration has voiced support of this Obama-era policy.  On Jan. 19, 2018, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Makan Delrahim remarked at a conference that if employers have engaged in no-poaching or wage-fixing agreements since the issuance of the policy, their actions will be treated as criminal.  He noted the Antitrust Division has “been very active” in reviewing potential violations, and that, “[i]n the coming couple of months, you will see some announcements, and to be honest with you, I’ve been shocked about how many of these there are, but they’re real.”

Employers and practitioners should stay tuned for these announcements from the Antitrust Division.

Financial analytics firm Novantas, Inc. and two individual defendants closed out 2017 with a victory, securing the dismissal of claims by rival First Manhattan Consulting Group LLC (“First Manhattan Consulting Group”) [1], which accused them of competing unfairly by poaching First Manhattan Consulting Group’s employees in order to steal its trade secrets.  The result demonstrates the need for plaintiffs in such cases to be able to prove with specificity which trade secrets were taken or threatened by the defendants’ conduct.

The Complaint alleged that Novantas engaged in a “pattern and practice of poaching” First Manhattan Consulting Group’s employees, including defendants Peter Gilchrist and Andrew Frisbie in 2014, to gain access to First Manhattan Consulting Group’s confidential information.  These individuals, who were officers of First Manhattan Consulting Group, were subject to contractual confidentiality and employee non-solicitation obligations.  First Manhattan Consulting Group asserted causes of action for breach of contract against the individuals, for tortious interference with contract and unfair competition against Novantas, along with a misappropriation of trade secrets claim against all defendants.

The case went to trial in Supreme Court, New York County. Justice Barry Ostrager declined to submit the misappropriation claim to the jury, because the information presented by First Manhattan Consulting Group at trial did not appear to the Court to be a trade secret, and there was no testimony concerning trade secrets.  In its verdict, the jury unanimously found no liability on any of the other claims.  On December 19, 2017, the Court dismissed First Manhattan Consulting Group’s claims.

For practitioners, this outcome is a useful reminder that trade secret misappropriation claims require in-depth understanding of the client’s business, detailed allegations in pleadings of the legally required elements of a misappropriation claim and, at trial, a full presentation regarding the wrongdoing and what specific information was taken and how the plaintiff has been damaged.

 

[1] First Manhattan Consulting Group is unrelated to First Manhattan Co.

Epstein Becker Green attorneys Peter A. Steinmeyer, Robert D. Goldstein, and Brian E. Spang are pleased to be presenting 2017 Year in Review: Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Developments webinar on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 from 1:00 p.m. — 2:15 p.m. with Practical Law.

This webinar will provide insights into recent developments and expected trends in the evolving legal landscape of trade secrets and non-competition agreements. This webinar will focus on how to navigate this continually developing area and effectively protect client relationships and proprietary information.

Topics will include:

  • A review of recent developments and litigation trends under the Defend Trade Secrets (DTSA) since its enactment in 2016.
  • Newly passed state statutes addressing restrictive covenants, including who can enter into them, industry restrictions, and temporal restrictions.
  • Increased usage of “garden leave” clauses in lieu of non-competes.
  • Recent decisions regarding restrictive covenants, including whether a LinkedIn “invitation to link” is an improper solicitation.
  • Significant recent trade secret cases, including the level of detail required when pleading the existence of a trade secret.
  • Administrative agency developments regarding confidentiality clauses, including shifting agency trends under the Trump administration.
  • When are employers actually filing suit against former employees?

Click here for more information and to register for the webinar.

Earlier this week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued payday loan company Check Into Cash of Illinois, LLC for allegedly requiring that all of its employees in Illinois, regardless of position or pay, sign a standard non-compete agreement which broadly limits their employment mobility for one year post-termination.

According to the Complaint, Check Into Cash’s standard non-compete agreement effectively precludes employment with any entity that offers any “consumer lending service,” regardless of whether the entity is an actual competitor; it applies within a 15 mile radius of any of Check In To Cash’s more than 1,000 stores – regardless of the location where the employee actually worked; all employees are required to sign it; and employees receive no consideration for signing the agreement, other than the prospect of at-will employment.

The Complaint was brought pursuant to the recently enacted Illinois Freedom to Work Act (which bars non-competes for Illinois employees earning $13/hour or less), Illinois common law, and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

Although this lawsuit was filed in Illinois, there is similar political (and judicial) hostility to non-competes for low-wage workers across the country.  Given this climate, employers everywhere should take a moment to review any non-competes for low level or low wage employees and, if needed, take pro-active remedial action.

Featured on Employment Law This Week – An Illinois appellate court weighs in on social media and solicitation. The case involved a defendant who sent LinkedIn connection requests to three former coworkers, even though he had signed a non-solicit agreement. In considering whether social media activity violates non-solicitation agreements, other courts have drawn a distinction between passive social media activity and more active, direct activity. Though these requests were made directly to the former coworkers, the court in this case ruled that the content constituted passive activity because the defendant did not discuss his new job in any way, nor did he directly attempt to recruit his former coworkers. The court concluded that sending the connection requests did not violate the prohibition against inducing co-employees. Brian Spang, from Epstein Becker Green, has more:

“This particular agreement only prohibited direct inducement. It prohibited the employee from inducing other employees to leave. It could have and should have included a restriction against both direct and indirect inducement. This is important because the court pointed out in multiple places that the plaintiff did not present any evidence of ‘direct’ inducement. . . . I think that a non-compete or non-solicit agreement can specifically reference social media as a potential avenue for violation of the agreement.”

Watch the segment below and read our recent post on the topic.

In this age of social media, a frequently asked question is whether social media activity can violate a non-compete or non-solicit.   Although the case law is evolving, courts which have addressed the issue have focused on the content of the communication, rather than the medium used to convey it.  In so doing, they have distinguished between mere passive social media activity (e.g., posting an update about a new job) as opposed to more targeted, active actions (e.g., not merely posting about a new job, but also actively recruiting former co-workers or clients).

A “LinkedIn” case recently decided by the Illinois Appellate Court, Bankers Life v. American Senior Benefits, involved conduct which fell between these two extremes: an individual, Gregory P. Gelineau, who was contractually barred from soliciting former co-workers, sent three former co-workers  generic requests to become “connections” via LinkedIn.  The requests did not go further than that, but they were not purely passive in that they sent to specific individuals.  Gelineau’s former employer, Bankers Life, filed suit, accusing him of breaching his non-solicitation obligation.

After surveying decisions from around the country involving various forms of social media activity, the Court explained that the different results reached in these decisions “can be reconciled when looking at the content and the substance of the communications.” Here, the Court noted that the LinkedIn requests sent by Gelineau did not discuss Bankers Life or Gelineau’s new employer, did not suggest that the recipient view Gelineau’s new job description, and did not encourage the recipient to leave Bankers Life and join Gelineau’s new employer.  Rather, they were bare requests to become “connections” on LinkedIn.

The Court held that such bare requests were not the sort of direct, active efforts to recruit which would have been a breach of Gelineau’s contractual non-solicitation clause.

While the facts of Bankers Life fall in between the two extremes of social media activity addressed by other courts, the case ultimately turned on an evaluation of the content of the activity, as opposed to the medium.  This approach is consistent with that taken by courts whenever they are tasked with determining whether particular conduct constitutes an unlawful “solicitation.”

The top story on Employment Law This Week: The DOJ intends to investigate anti-competitive trade practices.

The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission released joint guidance for HR professionals on how antitrust laws apply to employment. The guidance explains that agreements among employers not to recruit certain employees—or not to compete on terms of compensation—are illegal. Notably, the DOJ announced that they plan to criminally investigate “naked no-poaching or wage fixing agreements” that are unrelated to legitimate collaboration between businesses. In the past, both agencies have pursued civil enforcement. Peter Altieri, co-editor of this blog and a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, is interviewed.

Watch the segment below and read our previous post on this topic.