A class action claim involving more than 64,000 employees of high-tech companies may settle before it reaches trial to avoid embarrassing disclosures, significant potential penalties, and adverse legal precedent.
Adobe, Apple, Google, and Intel are scheduled to defend their behavior in a courtroom next month against allegations that they conspired to avoid hiring each other's employees, thereby hindering the careers and salaries of affected workers.
The lawsuit against the companies -- a combination of several separate claims filed in 2011 -- seeks as much as $3 billion in lost wages and damages. If a jury finds the companies willfully violated antitrust law, the penalty could be tripled to $9 billion.
According to The New York Times, talks to settle the case have accelerated as the trial date next month draws near.
Three other companies involved in the case, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Intuit, last year proposed to settle claims against them. Pixar and Lucasfilm agreed to pay $9 million between them and Intuit agreed to pay $11 million. This $20 million settlement package will be reviewed by the court in May for possible approval.
All seven companies settled an antitrust claim brought by the Justice Department in 2010 by agreeing not to engage in no-hire agreements for five years. The Justice Department did not seek any monetary damages.
A report published earlier this month by Pando Daily indicates that dozens of other companies were aware of, or participated in, agreements not to hire each other's employees.
The case presents a public relations problem for many of the companies involved because email between various executives paints them in an unflattering light. For example, messages introduced into evidence indicate that the late Steve Jobs, when he was CEO of Apple in 2007, asked Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, to restrain its recruiters after one contacted an Apple employee. Google then terminated the recruiter to make an example of the individual. When informed that the Google employee had been fired, Jobs forwarded the note to Apple's head of human resources with a smiley-face emoticon.
In another message, Schmidt asks to take the no-hire discussion offline because "I don’t want to create a paper trail over which we can be sued later."
Dan Eaton, a partner at Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek in San Diego and an instructor in the management department of the San Diego State University College of Business Administration, said in a phone interview that Silicon Valley may be about to experience its own version of Star Wars, in which corporate recruiters seek to woo star talent from competitors.
"If before there was this peace in the form of these bilateral agreements... now you're going to have at least potentially a free-for-all where everyone's employees are fair game for everyone else," said Eaton.
At the very least, Eaton added, we shouldn't see recruiters being terminated for reaching out to employees at competing companies.
Eaton is skeptical that the settlement talks are being driven by fear of further revelations because so much has already been made public. Rather, he argued, the companies are more likely to be motivated by concerns about damages and legal precedent.
"There's potential for a significant verdict against the companies," Eaton said, noting that the plaintiffs are seeking billions of dollars. "There's also the risk that bad law could be made against the industry, in terms of no-solicitation clauses."
If the case settles, there will be no appellate court ruling that could be used as a precedent if similar situations arise in the future, said Eaton. The law in this area, with some exceptions, is not very clear, he said, and it may be in Silicon Valley's interest to preserve that lack of clarity.
Nonetheless, Eaton said he believes the lawsuit has already changed the way Silicon Valley handles the hiring and solicitation of employees and that the ripples from the case hiring beyond California.
"This is not limited to Silicon Valley," Eaton added. "This phenomenon potentially appears in any industry where there is a concentration of intertwining executives and a relatively small number of major players."
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