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Silicon Valley giants tied up in wage fixing suit
Four of the world’s largest technology companies hit the headlines recently when they settled a class action brought in the US by over 64,000 employees for the eye-watering sum of $324 million, but the settlement was later overturned in the Courts.
The claim was lodged in the US on behalf of engineers, programmers, digital artists and other technical staff employed by Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe Systems.
The employees alleged that between 2005 and 2009 the firms had secretly agreed not to solicit (or even hire) one another’s staff, in order to prevent a salary war from escalating in Silicon Valley. The Employees claimed that this restricted their ability to move between the companies, reducing competition and in suppressing wages.
Such “employer cartels” are illegal in the US due to the effect that they have on workers’ freedom to compete. The employees sought a total of $3 billion in damages against the four companies in respect of lost earnings.
The companies eventually professed to having made some no-hire agreements, but strongly disputed that their intention was to keep wages down. However, one of the more telling pieces of evidence uncovered was an email from Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive Chairman) in which he stipulated that any ‘no-cold call’ agreements they had with competitors shouldn’t be written down, implying some awareness that the agreements were not legal.
The case was closely watched by the media (in the US and abroad), particularly as the companies were facing damages of up to $9 billion under US antitrust laws if the courts found against them.
The parties almost reached an agreed settlement of $324.5m in May 2014, a few weeks before the hearing was due to take place – this worked out at roughly $5,500 per employee, which is fairly trivial when you consider the savings made by the companies in terms of wages between 2005 and 2009.
However, US Judge Lucy Koh rejected the settlement deal, saying it fell "below the range of reasonableness". In her view, the tech companies should pay the employees at least an extra $50 million more than the proposed settlement sum.
Many will now been watching this space, to see whether the Silicon Valley giants decide to raise their settlement offer or face a trial.
It would be interesting to see whether such a claim could get off the ground in the UK. Whilst we’ve not seen a claim like this to date, changes in class actions and to competition laws mean that such claims could be easier in the future. It’s also interesting to consider that if the companies had been based in the European Union they could been fined as much as 10% of their entire global turnover (which is roughly $60 billion combined) under European competition laws, making $380 million seem, in the grand scheme of things, like a pretty good deal.
To make matters more complicated, the estate of Apple founder Steve Jobs is now being sued directly by the company's shareholders – they are claiming that he damaged the value of the company by striking these controversial hiring agreements with the other organisations. The amount being sought by the shareholders has not yet been reported, but given that Apple's stock is currently near an all-time high it’s hard to see how they will be able to show any significant losses resulting from his actions.
For further information please contact Kathryn Dooks.