Monday, September 17, 2012

Cowan Systems, LLC v. Jeffrey Shane Ferguson (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Filed:  August 3, 2012
Opinion by Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander

Held:  State law claims related to an employment agreement's confidentiality and non-soliciation provisions in the transportation industry are not preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act ("ICCTA") because the Act's preemption provision was created to ensure that the States would not undo federal deregulation with regulation of their own.

Facts:  Cowan Systems, LLC ("Employer"), a broker in the transportation industry, filed suit against Jeffrey Shane Ferguson ("Employee"), a former employee, for breach of his employment agreement, and Lipsey Logistics Worldwide, LLC ("Competitor"), also a broker in the industry, for tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, violation of the Maryland Uniform Trade Secrets Act, and civil conspiracy.

Employee entered into an employment agreement with Employer that contained confidentiality and non-solicitation provisions prohibiting him from from ever disclosing Employer's business secrets and from soliciting Employer's customers for one year post-termination.  Employee resigned from Employer and began working for Competitor, a direct competitor of Employer's, the next day.  Employer alleges that Employee violated his employment agreement by communicating and soliciting Employer's customers on Competitor's behalf before and after his tenure with the company.  Employer also claims that both Employee and Competitor are causing an immediate threat to Employer's business.

Competitor filed a motion to dismiss based on the premise that state law claims are preempted the ICCTA which provides in part, "a State...may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier...or respect to the transportation of property."  Employer opposed the motion.

Analysis:  The USDC for Maryland denied Competitor's motion following the ruling in Aloha Airlines, Inc. v. Mesa Air Group, Inc., No. 07-00007, 2007 WL 842064 (D. Haw. Mar. 19, 2007), which found that an intentional tort claim was not preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act ("ADA"), a federal law in which the Supreme Court has recognized as having a preemption provision with identical scope as that of the preemption provision of the ICCTA.  The Aloha Court found that courts have upheld state tort claims against entities subject to the ADA when those claims do not contravene the law's purpose to promote competition in that industry.  That Court concluded that to find otherwise would indeed undermine the purpose of the ADA which was to ensure the components of the transportation industry relied upon competitive market forces.  It found that the ADA's preemption provision was to prevent the States from superceding federal deregulation with its own regulation.

The Court denied Competitor's motion to dismiss finding that the same principles in the ADA apply to the ICCTA preemption provisions.  The purpose of the ICCTA preemption provision was to promote competition within the transportation industry and to free it from state laws and regulations that could interfere with interstate commerce.  The fact that Employer's claims against Competitor pertained to pricing information "should not serve to insulate Competitor from liability" because it engages in brokerage services.  Congress never intended to shield individual bad actors from "thwarting competitive enterprise."

The full opinion is available in PDF.