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.

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”)

Featured on Employment Law This Week:  No relief is expected from the Trump administration on anti-poaching agreements.

2016 guidance from the DOJ and FTC put employers on notice that agreements between companies not to poach employees, or to limit the compensation paid to some employees, could violate antitrust laws. There had been some speculation that President Trump’s DOJ would back away from this policy, but recent comments by the Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division indicated that new administration will support the policy, and promised several announcements in the coming months.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

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.

Consider the following scenario that was the premise of the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and later adapted into the classic film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971): your company (Willy Wonka Chocolates) is in the candy business and develops an idea for an everlasting gobstopper (a sucking candy that never gets smaller).  Anticipating substantial profits from the product, the company designates the everlasting gobstopper formula as a trade secret.  As in the book and film, a rival chocolate company (Slugworth Chocolates) seeks to steal the trade secret formula in order to develop and market a competing gobstopper.

While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is premised on a local competitor seeking to steal trade secrets for its own business, this post focuses on an adaptation to the story based in today’s global economy, and more specifically, the actions a company may take within the United States and abroad to protect against trade secret misappropriation.

Most U.S. companies are now aware of the protections afforded by the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1836, et seq. (the “DTSA”).  Of most importance is that the DTSA created a uniform legislation that provides companies with a private civil cause of action for trade secret misappropriation.  As a result of enactment of the DTSA, a company that is the victim of trade secret theft has standing to file a civil suit in federal court.  The company may also report the theft to the United States Department of Justice because, in certain cases, the theft of trade secrets constitutes a crime under the federal Economic Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1831, et seq. (the “EEA”).

Due to jurisdictional limitations, however, the DTSA and EEA may not provide adequate protection when there has been a misappropriation of trade secrets in the international arena. Companies should, therefore, be aware of other methods to protect against trade secret misappropriation abroad.  One method is through the United States International Trade Commission (the “ITC”), an independent, quasi-judicial federal agency with broad investigative responsibilities on matters of trade. Pursuant to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 (the “Act”), the ITC has jurisdiction to investigate and can render unlawful, the importation of goods stemming from “unfair methods of competition and unfair acts in the importations of articles … in the United States.”  The ITC has determined that trade secret misappropriation is a form of unfair competition that is protected under Section 337 of the Act, and the United States Courts of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has affirmed this interpretation in two separate cases. See Sino Legend Chemical Co. v. ITC, 623 Fed. Appx. 1016 (Fed. Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 196 L. Ed. 2d 517 (2017); TianRui Group Co. Ltd. v. ITC, 661 F.3d 1322, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2011).

In Sino Legend Chemical Co., employees had been working for a U.S.-based company at a facility in China.  The employees stole trade secrets from the company and brought them to Sino Legend Chemical Co., a competitive Chinese company that began developing a competitive product and sought to sell it in the United States.  The U.S. company filed a complaint with the ITC, and after investigation, the ITC instituted a 10-year ban on the importation of products resulting from trade secret misappropriation that had occurred entirely outside the United States.  On appeal, Sino Legend urged the Federal Circuit to overturn the ITC’s decision, arguing that Section 337 of the Act should not apply because the trade secret misappropriation occurred entirely outside the United States.  The Federal Circuit disagreed and affirmed the 10-year ban instituted by the ITC, and in 2017, the United States Supreme Court declined review.

A company should be aware that even if a theft of trade secrets occurs abroad, the company may seek relief through the ITC to prevent the importation of competitive products into the United States that are developed as a result of the stolen trade secrets. Of course, relief through the ITC is limited because the ITC cannot stop the offending company that stole the trade secrets from marketing a competitive product in countries outside the U.S.  There remain, however, other methods to protect against the misappropriation of trade secrets abroad.

Similar to the DTSA, the European Union (“EU”) enacted its own framework for the protection of trade secrets via a directive that went into effect on June 8, 2016. The EU directive provides protection of “undisclosed know-how and business information against their unlawful acquisition, use and disclosure.”  Although the EU directive does not establish criminal sanctions, it does provide for civil means through which victims of trade secret misappropriation can seek protections, such as: (i) allowing for temporary restraining orders and injunctive relief; (ii) removal from the market of goods manufactured based on stolen trade secrets, and (iii) monetary damages.  Pursuant to the EU directive, each member country must incorporate the required provisions into its laws by June 9, 2018.  Importantly, the EU directive contains only the minimum requirements for the protection of trade secrets; however, each EU member country may elect to enact stronger protections.  It remains to be seen whether the EU countries will enact provisions more stringent than the EU directive.

Companies need to protect themselves from the Slugworths of the world. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Slugworth was a local competitor that sought to steal Willy Wonka’s trade secrets, but in today’s global economy, Slugworth can steal trade secrets from anywhere and can also market competitive products throughout the globe.  As a result, companies need to be well versed in the various global protections against misappropriation of trade secrets.  Use of counsel knowledgeable of these various protections is critical to ensure that all avenues of relief are considered.

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.

Political winds disfavoring non-compete agreements for low wage and rank-and-file workers continue to blow, and appear to be picking up speed.

On October 25, 2016, the White House took the unusual step of issuing a “Call to Action” to states regarding non-compete agreements, as part of the President’s initiative to stoke competition across the economy.  Calling non-competes an “institutional factor that has the potential to hold back wages and entrepreneurship,” the Call to Action seeks to reduce the misuse of non-compete agreements nationwide.

President Obama called on state policymakers to join in pursuing best-practice policy objectives, including:

  1. Banning non-compete clauses for categories of workers (such as low wage workers or workers laid off or terminated without cause);
  2. Improving transparency and fairness of non-compete agreements; and
  3. Incentivizing employers to write enforceable contracts (i.e., discouraging overreaching provisions) by, for example, promoting the “red pencil doctrine” which renders contracts with unenforceable provisions void in their entirety.

Immediately answering the White House’s Call to Action, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced on October 25, 2016 that he would introduce legislation in New York’s state legislature in 2017 “to curb the rampant misuse of non-compete agreements, which depress wages and limit economic mobility.”

Among other things, the proposed New York bill would prohibit the use of non-competes for any employee below the salary threshold set by Labor Law Section 190(7) (currently $900 per week); would require non-competes to be provided to individuals before a job offer is extended; and would require employers to pay employees additional consideration if they sign non-competes.

Employers thus should review their non-competes to ensure that they are narrowly drafted and should re-evaluate the categories of employees asked to sign them, so as to confirm that only those who truly pose a competitive threat are asked to sign a non-compete.

Also, the Call to Action falls in line with Guidelines recently issued by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, which outline an aggressive policy to investigate and punish employers and individual human resources employees who enter into unlawful agreements concerning employee recruitment or retention.

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.