Defendants Lose Motion To Dismiss Antitrust Class Action Over No Poach Claims

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Michael DeMarino

Duane Morris Takeaways – In Borozny, et al, v. Raytheon Technologies Corp, Pratt & Whitney Division et al, No. 3:21-CV-1657, 2023 WL 348323 (D. Conn. Jan. 20, 2023), Judge Sarala Nagala of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut declined to dismiss private civil class action claims against Raytheon’s Pratt & Whitney division, a leading manufacturer of civil and military airline engines, and the other defendants named as outsource suppliers for skilled aerospace labor. The decision in Borozny is an important one for companies because it serves as a reminder that even agreements to restrain trade amongst non-competitors can be treated as a per se antitrust violation and thus make it easier for Plaintiffs to obtain Rule 23 class certification.

Background Of The Case

In Borozny, et al, v. Raytheon Technologies Corp – an antitrust putative class action – eight named Plaintiffs alleged, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, that six corporate Defendants engaged in a conspiracy to restrain trade in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, by secretly agreeing to restrict their competition in the recruitment and hiring of aerospace engineers and other skilled workers in the jet propulsion systems industry.

Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants’ alleged conspiracy not to hire or recruit each other’s employees was kept secret from Defendants’ employees due to its illegality and negative impact on the compensation and career options of Defendants’ employees. Plaintiffs further alleged that once any Defendant hired any aerospace worker, no other Defendant could recruit or hire that same employee, and that this agreement allowed Defendants to artificially suppress the market rate for aerospace workers. According to Plaintiffs, this alleged conspiracy impacted the market for aerospace workers by suppressing labor competition and, in turn, compensation.

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that that Plaintiffs had failed to allege conduct that is appropriately deemed a per se antitrust violation and failed to plead an alternative rule of reason claim.  The Court denied Defendants’ moutons to dismiss.

The Court’s Ruling

Defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint on the basis that it failed to allege a per se antitrust violation and also failed to allege in the alternative a rule of reason violation.  Defendants’ core contention was that they had a vertical, rather than a horizontal, relationship with each other, such that any agreements amongst them cannot be per se violations of the Sherman Act.  As the Court, explained, “the difference between a horizontal restraint on trade and a vertical restraint on trade is that . . . [r]estraints imposed by agreement between competitors have traditionally been denominated as horizontal restraints, and those imposed by agreement between firms at different levels of distribution as vertical restraints.”’ Id. at *6.

The Court rejected Defendants’ argument, and agreed with Plaintiffs that Defendants were focusing on the “wrong market.”  Id. The Court opined that the relevant market is not, as Defendants suggested, the market for aircraft engines or the “greater aerospace industry at large,” but rather the labor market for aerospace workers.

Because the complaint alleged a “conspiracy to restrain competition in the aerospace labor market” the Court concluded that “all Defendants . . . participate in that market horizontally, and they are all alleged to have participated in the market division conspiracy horizontally, and thus, per se treatment could be appropriate.”  Id. at *7.

The Court similarly concluded that Plaintiffs sufficiently alleged a rule of reason violation. To state a claim for a rule of reason violation, Plaintiffs must “allege[s] a plausible relevant market in which competition will be impairedand an adverse impact on that market.  Id. at *8.  Plaintiffs alleged that they could not easily transition to work outside of aerospace engineering firms, given the specialized training they obtained by working for Defendant.  Based on these allegations, the Court found “it reasonable, at least for purposes of a motion to dismiss, for Plaintiffs to limit the proposed market to the aerospace industry and to exclude other potential positions for people with Plaintiffs’ qualifications.”  Id.  As such, the Court held that Plaintiffs adequately alleged a plausible market for purposes of alleging a rule of reason violation.

The Court also concluded that Plaintiffs had alleged an adverse impact on the relevant market. Plaintiffs alleged that the agreement not to hire each other’s employees allowed Defendants to keep wages artificially low, due to the decreased competition in the market for aerospace workers. The Court found these allegations, “adequately stated an effect on the market.”  Id. at *13. Thus, the Court concluded that “Plaintiffs have adequately, although inartfully, pleaded an antitrust claim under the rule of reason.” Id.

On these bases, the District Court denied Defendants’ motions to dismiss.

Implications For Companies Facing Antitrust Class Actions

The ruling in Borozny highlights the ongoing battle in antitrust no-poach class actions to plead a per se violation. Indeed, in the class action context, whether the court analyzes the no-poach agreements under the per se or rule of reason test is often the critical issue driving the outcome of whether plaintiffs can satisfy Rule 23’s class certification requirements. This is because a per se violation (unlike a rule of reason violation) relieves a plaintiff from having to define the market where antitrust harm occurred, which often involves individualized inquiries that overwhelm the commonality necessary for class certification.

Employers should understand that their risk for no-poach claims extends broader than a potential alleged conspiracy with their competitors.  Borozny is a reminder that even agreements amongst non-competitors in vertical relationships (i.e., at different levels of the market structure) can be treated as a per se violation if they are horizontal competitors in the labor market.  Corporate defendants are well-advised to analyze and vet their vendor agreements and staffing contracts to look for potential restraints on competition.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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