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.

In E.J. Brooks Company v. Cambridge Security Seals, the Court of Appeals of New York narrowed the scope of permissible damage claims plaintiffs can assert in trade secret actions under New York law. The ruling denies plaintiffs the ability to recover costs that defendants avoided through misappropriating trade secrets (known as “avoided costs” theory), making New York law less attractive to certain types of trade secret actions due to the state’s conservative approach in calculating damages.

E.J. Brooks Company d/b/a TydenBrooks (“TydenBrooks”), the largest manufacturer of plastic indicative security seals in the United States, brought an action in federal district court against rival manufacturer Cambridge Security Seals (“CSS”), asserting causes of action that included common law misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. TydenBrooks alleged that former TydenBrooks employees misappropriated trade secrets after defecting to CSS and sought damages based on an “avoided costs” theory.

Under an “avoided costs” calculation, the plaintiff estimates damages based on the amount the defendant saved in research and development costs by unlawfully acquiring the plaintiff’s trade secrets. At trial, the jury found CSS liable under all three claims and awarded TydenBrooks a $3.9 million judgment based solely on the TydenBrooks’ avoided cost theory.

On appeal, the Second Circuit requested guidance from the New York State Court of Appeals on the issue of whether, under New York law, a plaintiff asserting claims of misappropriation of a trade secret, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment can recover damages measured by the costs the defendant avoided due to its unlawful activity. Prior New York precedent had not conclusively addressed whether a plaintiff could recover damages based solely on the cost avoidance of a defendant’s unlawful misappropriation of trade secrets.

In a 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff may not elect to measure its damages by the defendant’s avoided costs in lieu of the plaintiff’s own losses. The majority went on to explain that the calculation of damages must be narrowly focused on the economic injuries incurred by the plaintiff. The minority noted that the decision departs from the predominant rule accepted by most states and may even encourage unlawful theft of trade secrets in circumstances where the unlawful actor’s benefit far exceeds the likely cost of defending against a trade secret action. Other jurisdictions, such as the Fifth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, have either allowed actions based solely on an “avoided cost” theory, or allowed a calculation of reasonable royalty[1] in lieu of a calculation of the plaintiff’s own losses.

Companies should be aware of New York’s conservative approach to damage calculations when entering into litigation surrounding trade secrets. Plaintiffs should also pay special attention to choice of law and choice of forum provisions in their contractual dealings with employees and contractors, as these may have an impact on the type of calculations that can be used to assess damages.

It is also important to note that the federal government expanded protections for trade secrets in adopting the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) of 2016. DTSA claims were not at issue in this case, because it predated DTSA’s enactment, but are an important consideration given the current case law in New York.

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[1] A reasonable royalty is similar to “avoided costs” because it allows a plaintiff to recover damages in lieu of showing actual loss.

This post was written with significant assistance from Eduardo J. Quiroga, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

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”)

Earlier this month, Colorado amended its law governing physician non-compete agreements (C.R.S. § 8-2-113(3)).  Since its enactment in 1982, that statute generally has prohibited agreements restricting the rights of physicians to practice medicine, but has allowed contractual provisions requiring a physician to pay damages arising from his or her competition if the damages are reasonably related to the injury suffered by the employer or other contracting party.  Under the amended statute, “a physician may disclose his or her continuing practice of medicine and new professional contact information to any patient with a rare disorder…to whom the physician was providing treatment.”   The goal of the amendment is to avoid interruptions to the continued care of individuals with rare disorders.  The statute looks to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc. to maintain a database of diseases considered “rare disorders.”

Colorado physician practices should review and, if necessary, update any restrictive covenants in their physician agreements to ensure they are enforceable under the amended statute, bearing in mind that physicians now have the right to communicate personal contact information to patients suffering from rare disorders. Going forward, to avoid future disputes, physicians and their employers or practices may even wish to agree upon the language departing physicians can use to communicate information regarding their new practice to persons with rare disorders.

Also, any such review of physician agreements should consider the recent Colorado Supreme Court decision limiting the damages physicians’ practices can recover against physicians in breach of their non-compete agreements.

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.