Ruling in complex newspaper lawsuit weeks awayby Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio
A Ramsey County judge says he won't rule anytime soon on a legal battle involving the Twin Cities' two biggest newspapers. Testimony wrapped up Wednesday in the Pioneer Press's lawsuit against the Star Tribune. The two sides are debating whether Star Tribune publisher Par Ridder violated a non-compete agreement when he left the same job at the Pioneer Press, and whether he harmed the St. Paul paper by taking some of its data files with him. The answers to those questions are not obvious.
St. Paul, Minn. — Par Ridder's own father made a "virtual" appearance the last day of the court hearing. Tony Ridder, the former head of the Knight-Ridder newspaper empire, which included the Pioneer Press, appeared in videotaped testimony. Ridder said he believed his son Par had been released from his non-compete agreement by Knight-Ridder's then-vice president Art Brisbane.
Tony Ridder also said Par never actually needed permission from corporate management to ditch the non-compete agreement. He said Par had adequate authority.
Brisbane, Par's former boss, also appeared via videotaped testimony. He said he didn't actually remember waiving Par Ridder's agreement. But Brisbane also said he was mostly unaware of which Pioneer Press executives had non-compete agreements.
Lawyers for the two sides would not speak on the record.
But Minneapolis employment attorney Linda Holstein says Ridder's argument hinges on an unusual claim-- that he and Brisbane agreed orally to ditch the agreement.
"It's possible you can have a personal agreement as an executive or a manager, someone with authority, to waive your non-compete but generally speaking that would be in writing" Holstein says.
One of the key questions in the case is whether Par Ridder received adequate compensation for signing his non-compete weeks after he was hired.
In Minnesota and more than a dozen other states, employees are entitled to what's called "independent consideration" if they sign a non-compete after they're hired. That "consideration" has to be something of value to the employee, like training or a bonus.
Twin Cities employment attorney Marshall Tanick says the law is in place to prevent employees from feeling forced into non-compete agreements. But in this case, Ridder actually asked to sign the non-compete agreement himself. And Tanick says that could complicate the picture.
"An argument can certainly be made that if someone requests and voluntarily signs a non-compete without any compulsion by the employer, that may relax the rule against independent consideration," he says.
Judge David Higgs will also have to decide whether two additional Pioneer Press executives, who followed Par Ridder to the Star Tribune, violated their non-compete agreements.
Another central issue in the case involves internal data on sales and other matters Ridder admitted taking from the Pioneer Press and sharing with Star Tribune executives. Ridder says he merely wanted the 18-20 spreadsheets in question to show Star Tribune managers his preferred means of displaying financial information.
Michael Riggs, Star Tribune senior vice president and chief financial officer, testified he was one of the employees who saw the data files Ridder brought. He said the numbers weren't detailed enough to reveal sensitive information such as the Pioneer Press's custom advertising rates.
Riggs also indicated Ridder gave instructions to limit the distribution of the files. Riggs recalled Ridder saying "I don't want people thinking I'm spreading Pioneer Press information around."
Another Star Tribune employee who took the stand said he built new spreadsheets and used "dummy" information in some instances to protect any Pioneer Press information that was proprietary.
The Pioneer Press contends it was harmed nevertheless in this process, because key Star Tribune employees had access to sensitive advertising information. The Star Tribune denies that's the case.
Employment attorney Marshall Tanick says the judge has to look beyond the question of whether the Pioneer Press has already suffered harm.
"Sometimes the degree of harm isn't manifested for some period of time. So, oftentimes the claimant will try to show there's a probability or likelihood of harm. And that's usually what the perspective of the court will be, looking in the future as to whether there's a likelihood of harm, a probability of harm," Tanick says.
The Pioneer Press is seeking to have Ridder and the two executives who followed him barred from working at the Star Tribune for a year.
The Judge says he probably won't rule before the end of the summer.
- Morning Edition, 06/28/2007, 7:50 a.m.