no poaching agreements

On Monday, attorneys general in eleven states, including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, and Illinois, revealed that they are investigating several prominent fast food franchisors for their potential use of no-poaching or non-compete agreements restricting the ability of low wage workers to obtain a better-paying job with another franchise. To that end, these attorneys general have propounded document and information requests to these restaurants, returnable August 6, 2018.

In the Illinois AG’s press release, Attorney General Madigan stated that “No-poach agreements trap workers in low-wage jobs and limit their ability to seek promotion into higher-paying positions within the same chain of restaurants.” Madigan claims that at least 58 percent of major franchisors have no-poach provisions in their franchise agreements. This is not the first time that the Illinois AG has taken aim at non-compete agreements. Over two years ago, Madigan’s office sued sandwich chain Jimmy John’s for employing what it deemed “highly restrictive non-compete agreements,” ultimately reaching a $100,000 settlement with the franchisor. Ten months after Illinois passed the Freedom to Work Act, which prohibits private sector employers from requiring non-compete covenants of low-wage employees, defined as the greater of the applicable federal, state, or local minimum wage (currently $7.25 under federal law and $8.25 under Illinois state law) or $13 per hour, Madigan sued a national payday lender for requiring its employees, including workers who earn less than $13 an hour, to sign a non-compete agreement as a condition of employment.

Illinois is not the only state to pursue non-compete reform. Several other states recently have enacted legislation curbing the use of non-competes with respect to certain categories of workers, such as certified nurse practitioners and midwives (New Mexico) and workers in the broadcasting industry earning under a certain salary (Utah). Other states have proposed similar legislation. For example, New Hampshire bill SB 423 would ban non-compete agreements with “low-wage employees.” On the other end of the spectrum, Vermont House Bill 556 and Pennsylvania House Bill 1938 would ban all non-competes other than those formed in connection with the sale of an ownership interest in a business entity or the dissolution of a partnership or limited liability company. Even if these bills ultimately fail, they signal a rising trend of state-level restrictive covenant reform, which will likely gain momentum as state attorneys general step up enforcement in this area.

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”)

Of the various types of post-employment restrictions imposed on employees, a restriction on the recruitment of former co-workers (sometimes referred to as a “no-poach” or “anti-raiding” clause) is the type most likely to be enforced by a court. As a result, this is one type of post-employment restriction that is frequently drafted without the careful thought generally put in to traditional non-competes and client non-solicitation clauses.  But in what could be a foreshadowing of closer judicial scrutiny of co-worker non-solicitation clauses nationwide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently held that the Wisconsin non-compete statute applies to such clauses, and that the particular clause in question was unenforceable because it was not “reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer.”

Specifically, in Manitowoc Company v. Lanning, 2018 WI 6 (Jan. 19, 2018), the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin’s non-compete statute, Wis. Stat. § 103.465, broadly applies to restrictions on competition, including post-employment restrictions on the ability to solicit former co-workers.  In Lanning, the defendant, an engineer and former employee of the plaintiff, resigned and immediately began working for the plaintiff’s direct competitor. Defendant did not have a non-compete agreement but he did sign an employment agreement that included a non-solicitation clause that prohibited him from soliciting or inducing any employees from the plaintiff’s company to join a competitor within the two-year period following his resignation. After joining the competitor, defendant allegedly began to recruit employees to join the competitor company. Plaintiff argued that the defendant’s actions violated the non-solicit provision and sued him. The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the non-solicitation provision was an unreasonable restraint on trade which failed to meet the statutory requirement that the restriction “be reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer.”

Wis. Stat. § 103.465 sets forth five requirements that must be met for a restrictive covenant to be enforceable. The restraint must: “(1) be necessary for the protection of the employer, that is, the employer must have a protectable interest justifying the restriction imposed on the activity of the employee; (2) provide a reasonable time limit; (3) provide a reasonable territorial limit; (4) not be harsh or oppressive as to the employee; and (5) not be contrary to public policy.”

Here, the court looked to several factors when determining that the non-solicit provision was an unreasonable restriction on trade, including the fact that the provision contained no limitation based on the employee’s position, no limitation based on the employee’s “familiarity with or influence over a particular employee,” and no geographical limitation. The company argued that the provision was written to protect the company’s “investment of time and capital involved in recruiting, training and developing its employee base from ‘poaching’ by a ‘former employee who has full awareness of the talent and skill set of said employee base.’” The Court rejected this claim, instead determining that the provision was overbroad and restricted competitors’ access to the labor pool.

This case sends a message to employers that all types of post-employment restrictions on employees, even those which are not traditional non-compete agreements, should be drafted narrowly to protect legitimate business interests of the company, and should be no broader than necessary.

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.

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.