USA: Trial judge suggests Ford trying to hard to keep Leach from rival carmakers - report
A federal judge on Friday sparred with a lawyer for Ford over whether the carmaker was trying too hard to keep the former head of Ford Europe from working for another carmaker, Reuters reported.
The report noted that Ford contends Martin Leach resigned as president of Ford Europe in August after getting an offer to become chief executive of Fiat Auto, contingent on Ford waiving Leach's noncompete clause, while Leach claims he was forced out and sued Ford arguing the automaker was illegally keeping him from working in the car industry.
Reuters said the dispute centres on an August 7 meeting Leach called with David Thursfield, the head of Ford's international operations and a Ford human resources executive during which told the two executives he believed he was on the verge of being forced out of Ford and had no choice but to seek work elsewhere.
The news agency noted that Ford has said Thursfield and the other executive repeatedly asked Leach if he was certain and Leach told them he had made up his mind - Thursfield took Leach's statements as a resignation, but Leach contends he thought Thursfield and the other executive were talking about starting negotiations over modifying his noncompete agreement.
Reuters said both sides have asked US District Judge Paul Borman for injunctions as to whether Ford can enforce Leach's noncompete agreement. Ford attorney Thomas Kienbaum reportedly told Borman that, in addition to the noncompete agreement, Leach would inevitably disclose Ford's trade secrets if he worked in a similar position at another carmaker.
"Ford has no interest in precluding someone from employment," Kienbaum said, according to Reuters, adding: "The auto supplier market is a vast market that Mr. Leach should explore."
The news agency said Borman however questioned Ford about what rights they had if Leach was found to have been fired, which would void his noncompete agreement.
"He's a car guy. It's his life," Borman reportedly said, citing testimony Leach gave earlier in the day. "You're saying fine, get another life."
Kienbaum reportedly replied: "He has announced he wanted to compete directly with Ford."
Borman also questioned whether by arguing that Leach would inevitably disclose trade secrets, Ford was changing the terms of the noncompete agreement, Reuters said.
"He signed it. Ford drew it up," Borman reportedly said. "In terms of inevitable disclosure, aren't you rewriting his contract?"
According to Reuters, Kienbaum said it was Leach who first argued that his noncompete was unenforceable in the August 7 meeting, as part of a negotiating strategy by Leach that Kienbaum called "cockamamie."
Borman said he would issue a ruling later in the case, Reuters added.