Non-Solicit Agreements

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.

Following up on a string of civil enforcement actions and employee antitrust suits, regarding no-poaching agreements in the technology industry, on October 20, 2016 the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals (the “Guidance”). The Guidance outlines an aggressive policy to investigate and punish employers, and individual human resources employees who enter into unlawful agreements concerning employee recruitment or retention.

The Guidance focuses on three types of antitrust violations:

  • Wage fixing agreements: agreements among employers to fix employee compensation or other terms or conditions of employment at either a specific level or within a range;
  • No poaching agreements: certain agreements among employers not to solicit or hire one another’s employees not ancillary to an overarching pro-competitive collaboration; and
  • Unlawful information exchanges: exchanges of competitively sensitive information which facilitate wage matching among market participants.

“Naked wage-fixing or no-poaching agreements among employers, whether entered into directly or through a third-party intermediary, are per se illegal under the antitrust laws. That means that if the agreement is separate from or not reasonably necessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers, the agreement is deemed illegal without any inquiry into its competitive effects.” The Guidance goes on to warn that “going forward, the DOJ intends to proceed criminally against naked wage fixing or no poaching agreements. These types of agreements eliminate competition in the same irredeemable way as agreements to fix product prices or allocate customers, which have traditionally been investigated and prosecuted as hardcore cartel conduct.”

“Even if an individual does not agree explicitly to fix compensation or other terms of employment, exchanging competitively sensitive information could serve as evidence of an implicit illegal agreement.” Information sharing agreements which have anticompetitive effects are subject to civil antitrust liability, including treble damages (a monetary penalty of three times the amount of the actual damages suffered). The FTC has taken the position that “merely inviting a competitor to enter into an illegal agreement may be an antitrust violation—even if the invitation does not result in an agreement to fix wages or otherwise limit competition.”

Antitrust Red Flags

In addition to the Guidance, the FTC and DOJ issued a list of Antitrust Red Flags for Employment Practices that human resources professionals should look out for in the employment setting. Red flags include:

  • Agreements with another company about employee salary or other terms of compensation either at a specific level or within a range;
  • Agreements with another company to refuse to solicit or hire that other company’s employees;
  • Agreements with another company about employee benefits;
  • Agreements with another company on other terms of employment;
  • Expressing to competitors that they should not compete too aggressively for employees;
  • Exchanging company-specific information about employee compensation or terms of employment with another company;
  • Participating in a meeting, including a trade association meeting, where the above topics are discussed;
  • Discussing the above topics with colleagues at other companies, including during social events or in other non-professional settings; and
  • Receiving documents that contain another company’s internal data about employee compensation or benefits.

The above conduct is not necessarily unlawful in all circumstances. However, best practice is to consult counsel prior to engaging in this conduct to avoid antitrust law violations and if possible, restructure the agreement or information exchange to accomplish its intended legal purpose.

Featured in the top story on Employment Law This Week:  Former employees turned competitors in Pennsylvania are hit with $4.5 million in punitive damages.

An insurance brokerage firm sued a group of employees, claiming that they violated their non-solicitation agreements by luring away employees and clients to launch a new office for a competitor. A lower court awarded the firm nearly $2.4 million in compensatory damages and $4.5 million in punitive damages because of the defendants’ outrageous conduct. On appeal, the appellate court agreed and upheld all damages.

See the segment below and read our recent blog post on this topic.

Rarely do we see punitive damages being awarded in cases involving the movement of employees and information between firms. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania last week affirmed a punitive damage award granted by a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in such a matter, albeit which also found tort liability against the new employer and the five former employees.

The decision in B.G. Balmer & Co., Inc. v. Frank Crystal & Co. Inc., et al. sets forth a classic example of “bad leavers” and a complicit new employer. Confidential information concerning clients was copied and given to the new employer.  The senior employees, on Company time and using Company facilities, conspired with the new employer to hire the junior employees and solicit existing clients, including the largest and best clients of the Company.  Complete indemnification was provided by the new employer to the employees.  Personnel files were purloined and not returned upon request.  Upon resignation they immediately solicited the company’s largest client and did so using trade secret and confidential information of the Company while disparaging the Company in the process.

Applying Pennsylvania law, the Appellate Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the defendants’ conduct was outrageous and shocking to the Court’s sense of justice. As summarized by the trial court:

All [Appellants] met on June 25, 2003 in New York City to discuss their resignations and start date at FCC Philadelphia. All [Appellants] knew of the existence of the employment agreements.  The individual [Appellants] cleared out personal belongings at the Balmer Agency, attempted to delete information from Balmer Agency computers, immediately went to work at FCC Philadelphia and immediately began soliciting Balmer Agency clients using Balmer Agency trade secrets in violation of the employment agreements, all with the knowledge and assistance of FCC and for the purpose of benefitting FCC Philadelphia.  This conduct was deliberate and reckless with respect to the violation of their contractual and fiduciary obligations at the Balmer Agency and the resultant damage their actions would create.  The [trial court] finds these actions to be with unjustifiable malice with the intent to establish FCC Philadelphia at the direct and crippling expense of the Balmer Agency.  As a result of this conduct, the Balmer Agency suffered damage.  All revenues in the first year of FCC Philadelphia w[ere] received from Balmer clients.  This intended malice is reflected in [Appellant] Reilly’s letter to Craig Richards stating that 50% of FCC Philadelphia  revenues for 2004, 2005 and 2006 will come from solicited Balmer Agency clients.  He states:  “In short, why compete when we do not have to do so….”

The conduct of the defendants in Balmer provides a roadmap on how not to recruit employees from a competitor and the resulting punitive damages award should be a further deterrent to all bad leavers and their new employers.