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In a situation called “very rare” by many in the legal staffing industry, a top agency has filed a trade secret complaint against one of its rivals. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Robert Half International Inc. says Ajilon, and its parent company Adecco Inc., have “targeted dozens” of its personnel since at least 2004 with the intent of hiring them away to help “steal” its clients and business. A complaint filed Sept. 1 in Santa Clara County Superior Court follows a wave of employee defections from Robert Half over the summer. The news has surprised many in the legal staffing industry. “It’s probably a really ugly suit,” said Karen Whitaker, branch manager of Legal Ease, a staffing firm in San Jose. “It’s surprising that [Robert Half is] pushing this.” Ajilon is surprised too. In court filings responding to the complaint, the company says that “[Robert Half's] circumstantial arguments are too fragile to withstand opposition.” According to Robert Half’s employment agreements, employees who leave the company must “refrain from directly or indirectly soliciting” Robert Half clients on behalf of a competitor for at least a year. The company alleges that this agreement was violated by a number of former employees who had access to Robert Half’s “substantial” database, which lists information for hundreds of prospective and actual clients. Employees agreed to “safeguard such trade secrets [and] not disclose them to others,” according to the complaint. The complaint didn’t specify how many former employees are suspected of joining the competition in an effort to steer business away from Robert Half. It also doesn’t say how much money Robert Half has allegedly lost as a result of Ajilon’s “intentional, willful and malicious” business behavior, nor does it provide any specific examples of the allegations. Reesa Staten, a spokeswoman for Robert Half, declined to publicly discuss any aspect of the pending litigation. “We don’t want to influence” the outcome of the case, she said. “This is a matter for the courts.” The case is Robert Half International v. Adecco, 1-05-CV 048248. The complaint is not seeking a jury trial, but Staten wouldn’t say how Robert Half — which reported net income of $140.6 million last year — is hoping to settle the matter. The next court date is set for Oct. 18. Charles Crompton, a partner with Latham & Watkins’ San Francisco office, which is representing the European-based Ajilon and Adecco, said the case is a “fairly routine business dispute.” Robert Half has filed seven counts in its complaint against Adecco and its subsidiary Ajilon — which reported net income of about $388 million in 2004 — including misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty and duty of loyalty. The company is demanding that the defendants be ordered to stop using information and materials belonging to or obtained through Robert Half. It is asking a judge to award damages against the defendants “in an amount to be proved and which includes, at a minimum, [Robert Half's] lost profits and the amount by which defendants have been enriched by their conduct.” The company is also seeking unspecified punitive damages, according to the complaint. Steven Gomez, who left Robert Half in June to work for a division of Ajilon in San Francisco, is one of the two named defectors in the complaint. When reached by phone Monday, he also declined to discuss the case. “It’s really sensitive,” he said. In addition to Gomez and Scott Baker, who also left Robert Half in June to join Ajilon, the court document lists 10 John Does believed responsible for some of the actions alleged in the complaint. “Adecco and Ajilon have relied, in large part, on former [Robert Half] employees and others to personally recruit — via phone calls, letters, e-mail and other methods — [Robert Half] employees, including Gomez and Baker, and induce them to breach their employment agreements.” But Ajilon responds in the complaint, “When Steven Gomez and Scott Baker left Robert Half … three months ago, they left empty-handed. They came to Ajilon Legal and started contacting Ajilon Legal’s pre-existing clients, finding new clients on the Internet, announcing their move and placing ads. In short, they did everything right.”

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