“No poach” penalty: criminal charges from DOJ

By Jeff Jones
Special to the UCBJ

On Jan. 7, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued a press release wherein a federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment charging Surgical Care Affiliates LLC (“SCA”) for agreeing with competitors not to solicit senior-level employees. This is the DOJ’s first-ever criminal charges alleging a group of employers agreed not to hire away each other’s senior-level employees.

According to the press release, SCA, one of the largest outpatient providers in the United States, entered into agreements with competitors not to poach each other’s executive talent, in violation of federal antitrust law. SCA allegedly conspired with a Texas health care company not to solicit each other’s executives. The press release indicated that SCA allegedly reached a similar deal with a Colorado company between 2012 and 2017. To read the DOJ’s full press release, visit https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/health-care-company-indicted-labor-market-collusion

As evidence of the above-mentioned alleged agreements, the indictment details various emails between SCA and unnamed co-conspirators, including, for example, an email in which one co-conspirator’s CEO emailed its employee the following statement: “I had a conversation with [SCA’s CEO] re people and we reached agreement that we would not approach each other’s proactively.” Another email cited in the indictment was directed from a co-conspirator to SCA’s CEO, “Just wanted to let you know that [recruiting company] is reaching out to a couple of our execs. I’m sure they are not aware of our understanding.” The indictment further contains allegations of the impact of the agreement. Of note, the indictment alleges that a Human Resource employee at one company emailed a recruiter, advising the recruiter that a candidate looked great but that she, “can’t poach her” because the candidate worked for SCA. To read the indictment in full, visit https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1351266/download

In general, no-poach agreements involve an agreement with another company not to compete for each other’s employees, such as by not soliciting or hiring them. No-poach agreements are “naked” if they are not reasonably necessary to any separate, legitimate business collaboration between the employers.  A wage-fixing agreement on the other hand, involves an agreement with another company regarding employees’ salary or other terms of compensation, either at a specific level or within a range.

Naked no-poach and wage-fixing agreements are per se unlawful because they eliminate competition. Specifically, no-poach agreements make it difficult for employees to negotiate better terms of employment for themselves. Legal competition amongst employers helps both employees and potential employees compete for higher wages, better benefits, and other relevant terms of employment. Moreover, market competition among employers aids consumers. Simply put, a more competitive workforce may generate better goods and services for the general public.  

The SCA indictment should not come as a surprise to those closely following the DOJ’s intent to proceed criminally against no-poach and wage-fixing agreements.  In October 2016, the DOJ ran a public campaign warning companies about no-poach agreements and the efforts federal antitrust agencies have taken to enforce actions against employers that have agreed not to compete for employees. The campaign resulted in a publication titled, Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals

The Guidance outlines an individual likely is breaking the antitrust laws if they, 1) agree with individual(s) at another company about employee salary or other terms of compensation, either at a specific level or within a range (so-called wage-fixing agreements), or 2) agree with individual(s) at another company to refuse to solicit or hire that other company’s employees (so-called “no poaching” agreements).  Keep in mind it does not matter whether the no-poach is informal or formal, written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken; it still violates federal law as there may be evidence that could lead to an inference that the individual has in fact agreed to do so. See, https://www.justice.gov/atr/file/903511/download

After the October 2016 publication, in 2018, the Antitrust Division (“Division”) filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against Knorr-Bremse AG and Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp. The Division also simultaneously filed a civil settlement. The 2018 complaint alleged the above-mentioned companies and a third company, Faiveley, reached naked no-poach agreements spanning from 2009 until at least 2015, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

The 2018 settlement was a first-of-its-kind and contained several provisions intended to terminate each defendant’s no-poach agreements and prevent future violations. It included a broad injunction prohibiting each of the defendants from entering or maintaining no-poach agreements among themselves and with other employers. Under the terms of the settlement, these provisions would be enforced for seven years.  The agreement also consisted of an affirmative obligation to cooperate in any Division investigation of other potential no-poach agreements between the defendant and any other employer and a requirement that each defendant affirmatively notify its U.S. employees and recruiters and the rail industry at large of the settlement and its obligations. Finally, there was also a provision designed to improve the effectiveness of the decree and the Division’s future ability to enforce it. The press release issued on April 10, 2018 by the DOJ warned marketplace participants, “the Division intends to zealously enforce the antitrust laws in labor markets and aggressively pursue information on additional violations to identify and end anticompetitive no-poach agreements that harm employees and the economy.” See https://www.justice.gov/atr/division-operations/division-update-spring-2018/antitrust-division-continues-investigate-and-prosecute-no-poach-and-wage-fixing-agreements

It is imperative for companies to raise awareness that improper agreements in the labor market could expose them to criminal charges. The Sherman Act of 1890 was the first major federal law passed with the purpose of ensuring competition across and within industries. Today, a violation of the Act carries a maximum $100 million dollar penalty. The fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by victims if either amount is greater than the statutory maximum. 

Familiarity with the 2016 Guidance, proper compliance programs, and regular training within your company are imperative to determine whether your company has potential anticompetitive hiring practices and procedures currently in place. If Human Resource professionals have questions regarding whether particular conduct or workplace practices violate the antitrust laws, they should consider seeking legal advice. 

Jeffrey G. Jones is a regional managing member for Wimberly Lawson Wright Daves & Jones PLLC. He can be reached at jjones@wimberlylawson.com.

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