Sunday, November 11, 2018
In a recent case, employment agency Robert Half International, Inc. (“Robert Half”) brought suit against a former employee, Nicholas Billingham, and Billingham’s current employer, Beacon Hill Staffing (a competitor of Robert Half) for actual and anticipatory breach of contract. Billingham’s contract with Robert Half included the agreement that Billingham would not compete with or solicit clients from Robert Half if leaving the company. Nonetheless, Billingham accepted employment with Robert Half’s direct competitor where he stated that he intended to “add to my team quickly and take market share from Beacon Hill’s competitors.” Robert Half brought suit. Billingham and Beacon Hill moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.
Billingham first defended himself arguing that unilateral contracts cannot be anticipatorily breached since they technically seen do not arise until the actual performance has been rendered. He argued that his contract was unilateral since his remaining obligations were not yet due. (Strangely, he did so although he had already terminated the relationship himself.) The court corrected him on this point, noting that a unilateral contract is one that “occurs when there is only one promisor and the other party accepts, not by mutual promise, but by actual performance or forbearance.” (Quoting Williston § 1:17). To help my students distinguish accepting by beginning of performance in bilateral contracts from offers for unilateral contracts, which is sometimes confusing for them, I tell them that they must scrutinize what type of acceptance is sought by the offeror: if onlythe actual performance, then there is a truly an offer for a unilateral contract. If this is not clearly the case, there is an offer for a “regular” bilateral contract. In this instance, the contract between Billingham and Plaintiff was bilateral, not unilateral. Robert Half promised to employ Billingham in exchange for Billingham's promise to abide by the restrictive covenants in the Agreement. Billingham's promise included the prospectiveagreement that he would refrain from certain activities upon departing the company. Billingham was thus not correct that the agreement “became unilateral” after his resignation. That is a legal impossibility. His obligations to forbear from the non-competitive agreements became due the moment he left Robert Half. As with many other contractual issues, unilaterality and bilaterality are examined at the point of contract formation, not by looking at what actually happened thereafter.
The court thus found that plaintiffs had sufficiently pled a claim of anticipatory, if not actual, breach of contract.
Plaintiffs also stated a claim for unjust enrichment. Defendants argued that Robert Half has not actually “conferred” any benefits on Beacon Hill and would thus not be liable for compensation under that theory. The court noted that this is wrong. Beacon Hill received a “benefit” from Billingham's employment through the revenue that he generates, his professional training, his relationships with customers and candidates, and his industry knowledge. Beacon Hill's retention of these benefits is “unjust” as they are benefits that Billingham is barred, by the agreement, from conferring on Beacon Hill.
The case is Robert Half International Inc. v. Billingham, 317 F.Supp.3d 379, 385 (D.D.C., 2018).