Even before local businessman Brent Gilbert lost 47 sales accounts as a distributor of graduation supplies to schools in Alabama, he thought something wasn’t right.
An Alabama jury agreed, awarding a $3.1 million judgment to Gilbert, supplier Herff Jones, and against Minneapolis-based Jostens, Inc. and two former distributors of Herff Jones products.
The judgment was handed down recently in Mobile County Circuit Court. Jostens has the right to appeal.
The jury concluded that Jostens conspired and stole confidential and trade secret information, and used that information to work with former Herff Jones distributors to breach an employment agreement with Brent Gilbert and Herff Jones and flip clients to Jostens.
“What the jury heard was they hatched a plan, came down and picked off two (Herff Jones) sales reps, and started communicating with each other through wives’ emails because they knew they weren’t supposed to be sharing this information,” said Dothan attorney Harry Hall, part of the legal team for the plaintiffs. “It’s a local guy in a small office that just got absolutely attacked by a very big company.”
According to the lawsuit, Gilbert opened an office in Mobile and subsequently hired defendant John Wiggins to assist in the solicitation of orders from schools for graduation supplies including caps, gowns, diplomas and various “motivation” items including letterman jackets. The sales area included most of South Alabama and part of the Florida Panhandle.
Court documents indicate Wiggins signed a non-compete clause as part of his employment agreement that barred him from competing with Herff Jones for one year after separation of employment.
The suit alleged Wiggins and Jostens began negotiating an employment relationship in the fall of 2015 while Wiggins still worked for Gilbert/Herff Jones. Wiggins resigned from Gilbert’s company April 1, 2016.
The suit alleged that, almost simultaneously, Gilbert employee Chris Urnis began negotiating with Jostens. Urnis resigned from Gilbert’s company May 31, 2016. The suit alleged Jostens and/or another defendant in the case hired five other employees from Gilbert’s company to solicit orders.
Those orders came pouring in soon. Gilbert lost 47 accounts throughout South Alabama following the two defections.
“In handing down this multi-million dollar verdict in favor of Herff Jones, the jury clearly delineated between acceptable, competitive business activities and the outright theft of trade secrets and confidential information,” Herff Jones president Jeff Drees said in a written statement. “We appreciate the jury's passionate deliberation and the message it sends to employees, sales partners as well as companies across the nation; namely that doing the right thing, being accountable, and conducting oneself fairly and honestly are virtues that should be at the heart of any good business."
In response to a request for a statement by the Dothan Eagle , Jostens said it is weighing options.
“Jostens is currently reviewing its options related to the verdict. In the meantime, our focus remains on continuing to provide the high quality of products and services that schools have come to expect from Jostens, which is no way impacted by the verdict in this case,” the company said.
The jury award included damages suffered because of the conduct, attorney’s fees incurred in pursuing the claims, and punitive damages.