TalentBurst, Inc. v. Collabera, Inc., Civ. No. 08-10940-WGY (D. Mass. July 25, 2008).

A federal court in Boston has dismissed a complaint brought by information technology temp agency TalentBurst against competitor Collabera for aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty by TalentBurst’s former employee, who subsequently joined Collabera, on the ground that the employee owed no fiduciary duty of loyalty to TalentBurst.

Raj Mohan Pallerla was hired by TalentBurst as a systems administrator and, as a condition of his employment, was required to sign an employment agreement that included non-compete and non-solicitation provisions. While employed by TalentBurst, Pallerala performed work for one of Collabera’s clients pursuant to a consulting services agreement between the two firms. Immediately after resigning from TalentBurst, Pallerla became employed by Collabera where he continued without interruption servicing the same Collabera client he had serviced while employed by TalentBurst. In response to TalentBurst’s letter demanding that it enforce Pallerla’s restrictive covenant, Collabera asserted that TalentBurst had waived enforcement of the covenant by entering into the consulting services agreement with Collabera.

TalentBurst brought suit against Collabera alleging that Collabera aided and abetted Pallerla’s breach of his fiduciary duty to TalentBurst. The court, however, rejected this claim because Pallerla’s job title, duties, and the fact that he was hired out to clients while at TalentBurst demonstrated that he was a “worker bee” rather than a manager, executive, or officer. Thus, under Massachusetts law he owed no fiduciary duty of loyalty to his employer. The court concluded that because there was no predicate breach of fiduciary duty by Pallerla, and no direct fiduciary relationship between TalentBurst and Collabera, the claim must fail. 

Of particular interest, the court noted that TalentBurst failed to allege that Pallerla “was entrusted with confidential information or that other special circumstances existed such that he could be said to have occupied a position of ‘trust and confidence.’” In a footnote, the court further observed that “although it is clear that the employment agreement, including the Covenant, created contractual duties on Pallerla’s part, TalentBurst cites no authority for the proposition that the signing of a restrictive covenant also creates a fiduciary obligation.”

Based on this conclusion, the court also dismissed TalentBurst’s claim for tortious interference because the “aiding and abetting” was the sole basis upon which TalentBurst alleged that it had satisfied the element requiring improper means or motive. The court went on to consider whether Collabera’s interference with the restrictive covenant itself created a presumption that Collabera had an improper motive. Although other Massachusetts state court cases suggested this might be sufficient, the court found those cases distinguishable because in those cases the defendants obtained and used confidential information through the employee, whereas here there was no allegation that Collabera did anything more than simply hire TalentBurst’s employee. In addition, the court concluded that Collabera might have had a legitimate motive for hiring Pallerla, namely to save money by employing him directly.