Monday, October 22, 2018

Cleaning Up the Janitorial Mess

Somewhat predictably, the reaction to C&W Facility Services non-compete lawsuit against janitorial employee Sonia Mercado was swift and severe.

I wrote about this last week, offering my opinion on a number of different facets to this ill-advised lawsuit. This dispute got mention not just on the nerdosphere, but also mainstream outlets including the Financial Times and the Washington Post.

After the Post published its piece, Cushman & Wakefield (an affiliate of C&W) issued a statement withdrawing the case and apologizing to Ms. Mercado. It also offered to pay her the bonus she had given up in an attempt to avoid triggering the non-compete. Here's the apology:

"Following recent media reports related to the use of restrictive agreements with our janitorial staff, we have completed a review of the circumstances. While we do have restrictions with a select number of salaried managers, we have found that this policy was incorrectly applied in this instance. We are taking action to correct this situation. We sincerely apologize to Ms. Mercado. Restricting the employment of hourly workers is inconsistent with our policies and contrary to our values as an organization.”

There are two ways to view this. First, C&W may have just tried to pull a fast one and then issued an apology when it got caught in a media firestorm. That's probably the most plausible. Second, someone at C&W may have authorized counsel to take action without clearing it through the appropriate channels. That, too, is quite plausible. At least, that's the narrative C&W's statement seems to be trying to sell.

I maintain, as do others, that Ms. Mercado was never a real target. She was a pawn, used as part of a tactical gambit against C&W's competitor. (To continue the dorky chess analogy, she became a passed pawn ready to mate the other side until it resigned.) This happens far too often in non-compete litigation, when one individual gets caught in the crosshairs of a much larger message-sending dispute. Common or not, that is not an appropriate use of legal process.

In the end, it is at least gratifying that this story had a just ending to it. But it never should have been written in the first place.


One noteworthy item. The Fifth Circuit, applying Louisiana law, has taken a narrow view of the preemption doctrine applicable to statutory trade-secrets claims. States that have adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act frequently confront the question of preemption. That is, when do other claims based on trade-secrets theft have to give way to just the statutory claim itself? The so-called narrow view is more in line with the text of the statutory preemption clause. In other words, a plaintiff cannot use another tort claim that invokes trade-secrets misappropriation. Common victims include conversion and breach of fiduciary duty. But as the Fifth Circuit held in Brand Services LLC v. Irex Corporation, claims based on misuse of confidential information that is not a trade secret do not fall within the preemption provision.

This is a textual reading of the statute, endorsing a narrow view of preemption and rejecting a more pragmatic approach favored by many courts.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Janitor Non-Compete, This Time for Real

The janitor hypothetical is one of the most timeless aspects of non-compete cases. That is, when illustrating how broad a non-compete is, courts and lawyers alike often resort to a sometimes absurd hypothetical. It often contains some variation of "this non-compete is so broad it would restrict [insert poor sap stuck in litigation] from being a janitor." Feigned outrage and chuckles then ensue.

Only this time, no absurd hypothetical. Enter the combatants. On one side is C&W Facility Services, which provides maintenance services to commercial property owners. On the other side is UG2, a competitor. In the middle sits poor Sonia Mercado, a non-exempt "janitorial supervisor" making $18 per hour at C&W.

C&W is faced with a contract renewal to provide maintenance services at some outfit called Lonza Biologics, a life sciences company. Apparently, Lonza put the maintenance contract out to bid and lost it to UG2. Mercado worked for C&W on-site at Lonza. From her Declaration (unrebutted), she describes her job like this:

"As a supervisor, my job responsibilities differed from clearness only in that I helped to train new staff in how to clean. Otherwise, I was a cleaner. My English is better than some of the other cleaners, and I believe this is why I was made a supervisor."

She continues, again without rebuttal:

"I cleaned in the Carpet World. The Carpet World cleaners, including myself, did vacuuming, cleaning rugs, dusting, emptying trash cans/recycle bins, and periodically washing windows. We had a small room with cleaning supplies." She went so far as to attach a goddamned picture of the room with cleaning supplies."

After C&W loses the services contract to UG2, it presents Mercado with a two-year non-compete agreement. The upshot of the agreement is that Mercado, under the agreement, could not provide services at Lonza for another maintenance company. Mind you, by this time, C&W has lost the agreement and Mercado had no involvement in that process whatsoever.

The circumstances under which Mercado signed the restrictive covenant are questionable. From her affidavit, Mercado says that C&W informed Mercado and others that they would be placed at a new facility (Lindt chocolate...overrated, by the way). Apparently, C&W felt that UG2 would have trouble handling the job and told Mercado that she would be back at Lonza in no time. Weird, but plausible.

Mercado then signs the restrictive covenant along with a bonus agreement, most of which she ultimately returns. She ends up back at Lonza working for UG2, which should have surprised no one.

C&W then takes the inexplicable step of suing Mercado to enforce the agreement. The Verified Complaint is the typical sort of canned pleading we've come to hate, playing up what a total fucking disaster it would be for the company's confidential information to be lost. Mercado had no access to any such information, but the point seems to have been lost on C&W. In fact, the so-called protectable interest allegations, to me, do not pass the smell test. If believed, Mercado's responsibilities as a janitorial supervisor are on par with Lonza's head of operations.

The district court then enters an order of injunctive relief, enforcing the non-compete for four months (not two years) and ordering C&W to pay Mercado a portion of the bonus she returned to C&W. In effect, the court told C&W its non-compete was overbroad, required some modified form of "garden leave," and then struck as unreasonable the fee-shifting clause. The ruling preserved some semblance of sanity, though the court made a grave error. It should have denied the injunction outright.

The overarching problem is the court's complete lack of engagement with the protectable interest requirement. In other words, what was C&W hoping to achieve by preventing a custodian from working for another service provider after C&W already had lost the service contract? The court never says, beyond some unconvincing reference to training costs.

This is a problem in non-compete cases. Judges must be engaged with the facts to understand the rationale behind enforcing the restriction. Too often, plaintiffs get a free pass because they lodge vague generalities about threatened injury that sound just fine on paper, but fall apart in practice. It is unclear where C&W possibly could go from here. This case won't get any better. It's likely to get far worse.

A final word. It seems pretty clear to me that C&W is using Mercado as a pawn in much larger tactical battle with UG2. C&W could care less about her - that much is clear from the mere filing of the suit. Companies that use ex-employees in this way, as well as the "lawyers" representing them, do grave damage to the labor market and the use of human capital. This particular dispute sucks, and it's a total waste of time. C&W doesn't care. No one at UG2 is likely losing sleep. But I guarantee you Mercado cares.

I know people like her. I see them at night when I am working late. I make a point to get to know them and let them know they're appreciated. They work hard, for not much money, and people take them for granted. When my father was a school superintendent, he knew each custodial worker in my high school. He knew them by name. He gave them little things, an old TV comes to mind, knowing how much they'd appreciate it. That always has stuck with me.

Ultimately, it is C&W that will suffer the consequences of this inane and utterly pathetic lawsuit. It will be used as exhibit A for non-compete abuse. It ought to be used as a justification by some future client of C&W to not hire C&W at all.