The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) recently suffered significant losses in two criminal trials involving alleged criminal wage-fixing and related “no-poach” agreements by and between competitors. These were the first cases ever where the parties have proceeded to trial after the DOJ pursued criminal charges under Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act predicated on such conduct. The Sherman Act includes penalties for criminal violations of the statute that can reach up to $100 million per violation for companies, and individual defendants can face $1 million fines and up to 10 years in prison. While the DOJ’s trial setbacks raise legitimate questions regarding the efficacy of its aggressive antitrust enforcement agenda — particularly in labor markets — the primary federal agency tasked with enforcing criminal violations of federal antitrust laws shows no signs of pulling back on similar investigations and prosecutions in the future.
Non-compete agreements between employers and their employees traditionally are governed by state law. But that did not stop the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) from recently filing a statement of interest encouraging a Nevada state court to consider federal antitrust principles to invalidate non-compete agreements between a large medical group and its physician-employees. Taken together with other recent actions by the president and federal enforcement agencies, the DOJ’s decision to file this statement signals a more aggressive approach to non-compete enforcement at the federal level.
On October 20, 2016, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals” regarding antitrust prohibitions of agreements that restrain competition for employees’ services. (Click the following links for a copy of this guidance, and the accompanying press release.) The guidance addresses business-to-business agreements regarding employee non-hiring and recruitment, and is intended to both remind HR professionals that these agencies have challenged such types of understandings over the past several years, and warn employers that the DOJ, in particular, intends to begin prosecuting at least some employers criminally in the months and years ahead.
The overall message is that employees are entitled to all of the benefits of competition for their services and that the FTC and DOJ are now increasing scrutiny of all practices that may impede those benefits. Some examples are formal or informal “wage-fixing,” “anti-poaching” and exchanges of compensation information generally. Over the course of the past several years, both agencies have challenged some of these practices in a variety of industries, particularly within the high-tech and healthcare sectors, as “per se” antitrust violations. These government actions have been followed by private class actions seeking treble damages, which in some cases, have resulted in judgments for hundreds of millions of dollars. As noted above, the DOJ now intends to treat at least some of these practices as felony criminal violations of the antitrust laws.