Connecticut Employment Law Blog Insight on Labor & Employment Developments for Connecticut Businesses

A Rare Look Into An Employee’s Duty of Loyalty to the Employer

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance

worker3After nine-plus years of writing about employment law in Connecticut, it’s getting to be pretty rare to find a topic that I haven’t at least touched upon, but here’s one: The Duty of Loyalty.

Indeed, a new Connecticut Supreme Court case is giving me the opportunity to do so.

The case arises from an employee who, while working for one employer, was secretly working as an independent contractor for a competitor.  The employer sued under a breach of the duty of loyalty claim.

The case, Wall Systems Inc. v. Pompa, officially released last week, can be downloaded here.

Lawyers will look at the case because it sets forth what types of damages are recoverable when a breach of a duty of loyalty claim is established.  In doing so, the court makes it clear that a trial court has some discretion in fashioning the appropriate remedy:

We agree with the plaintiff that the remedies of forfeiture of compensation paid by an employer, and disgorgement of amounts received from third parties, are available when an employer proves that its employee has breached his or her duty of loyalty, regardless of whether the employer has proven damages as a result of that breach. Nevertheless, the remedies are not mandatory upon the finding of a breach of the duty of loyalty, intentional or otherwise, but rather, are discretionary ones whose imposition is dependent upon the equities of the case at hand. Moreover, while certain factors, including harm to the employer, should not preclude a finding that the employee has committed a breach of the duty of loyalty, they nevertheless may be considered in the fashioning of a remedy. Here, because the trial court properly exercised its broad discretion when it awarded damages but declined to order forfeiture or disgorgement, we will not disturb its judgment on this basis.

But I think the more interesting point for companies is to understand the scope of the duty of loyalty.

In discussing the scope of this duty, the Connecticut Supreme Court reaffirmed principles that were last set forth in detail over 50 years ago in Town & Country House & Homes Service, Inc. v. Evans.  In that case, the court found an employee breached the duty of loyalty by soliciting employer’s customers for his own competing business while still working for the employer.

The court noted that an employee’s duty of loyalty includes “the duty not to compete … and the duty not to disclose confidential information”.  The court noted that this duty not to compete is during the employment relationship — not necessarily after — and is not dependent on the use of employer’s property of confidential information.

The court went on to say that the duty of loyalty “also includes the duty to refreain from acquiring material benefits from third parties in connection with transaction undertaken on the employer’s behalf.”  What does this mean? Essentially, it bars the collection of “secret commissions and kickbacks which might cause the employee to act at the expense or detriment of his or her employer”.

An employer may seek the forfeiture of an employee’s compensation for the period of disloyalty, but the court concludes that such a remedy is an equitable one and subject to the facts of the particular case.

But it’s always important to read the footnotes and here, in footnote 9, the Court inserted the notion that the duty of loyalty may not apply all employees.  “The scope of the duty of loyalty that an employee owes to an employer may vary with the nature of their relationship. Employees occupying a position of trust and confidence, for example, owe a higher duty than those performing low-level tasks.”

Still, the case is an excellent one for employers to keep in mind — particularly if the employer does not have restrictive covenants with its employees.  If the employees are engaging in competing work while still employed, the employer can use this case — and the theories behind it — to see the appropriate remedies.

With the appropriate employee, the employer can further strengthen its arguments, but including this in an employment agreement along with restrictive covenants.  In such a case, the court reminds parties that an employer could then terminate that agreement prematurely and seek recovery of damages directly attributable to the employee’s breach.

Employers should consider consulting with their favored outside counsel to see how this decision may apply to them.