Our colleagues Janene Marasciullo and David J. Clark of Epstein Becker Green have a new post on the Trade Secrets and Employee Mobility blog that will be of interest to our readers: “Less Than a Month After DOJ Brings Its First Wage-Fixing Indictment, DOJ Brings Its First “No-Poach” Indictment.”
The following is an excerpt:
In the past month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has made good on its 2016 threat, contained in its Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals (“Antitrust Guidance”) to bring criminal charges against people or corporations who enter into naked wage-fixing agreements or naked no-poach agreements. First, as reported here, on December 9, 2020, DOJ obtained an indictment against the president of a staffing company who allegedly violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by conspiring with competitors to “fix wages” paid to physical therapists (PT) and physical therapist assistants (PTA). Although not mentioned in the indictment, a related Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint alleged that the defendant agreed with competing staffing companies to lower wages after a client unilaterally lowered the rates paid to the defendant for PT and PTA services. On January 7, 2021, DOJ announced a second indictment, which alleged that two corporations operating outpatient medical care facilities violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by reaching “naked no poach agreements” with two competitors, pursuant to which they agreed not to solicit each other’s “senior-level employees.”
Both indictments allege that the employers entered into purportedly “naked” wage-fixing and no-poach agreements, which are illegal per se, and thus are “deemed illegal without any inquiry into [their] competitive effects.” If the courts allow DOJ to proceed on the illegal per se theory, this will significantly lighten the government’s burden of proof because it assumes the anticompetitive and unlawful character of the agreement. In civil enforcement cases and statements of interest, DOJ has consistently argued that no-poach and wage-fixing agreements are illegal per se. Although DOJ has obtained several consent decrees which indicate that such agreements are illegal per se, civil cases generally resolve through settlement, and as the 2019 decision in In re Railway Ind. Employee No-Poach Litigation (W.D. Pa No. 18-798) recognizes, the law on this issue remains unsettled. Thus, these criminal cases may provide a vehicle for setting standards to determine when wage-fixing and no-poach agreements are “naked” and whether such agreements are illegal per se or subject to the rule of reason analysis.