Will Ridder's 'Absolute Confidence' Hold as He Takes the Stand?

Star Tribune publisher Par Ridder released a statement in April about the lawsuit his former employer, the Pioneer Press, leveled against him, saying he was "absolutely confident we will prevail."

But at the first day of hearings over a temporary injunction that could keep Ridder and other former PiPress executives from working at the Strib for a year or more, the source of that confidence might seem nebulous.

In a videotaped deposition aired in court Monday, Ridder called the data he took on Pioneer Press revenues, expenses, personnel and advertisers "sensitive information." He admitted to removing noncompete documents signed by himself and other executives he aimed to hire at the Strib, saying, "I was concerned that those documents could be used to slow my progress on to the Star Tribune."

And witnesses he might have expected to be friendly offered less than favorable testimony. Art Brisbane, a former vice president at Knight Ridder testified -- contrary to Ridder's claim -- that he didn't recall verbally releasing Ridder from his noncompete agreement. Brisbane said such a move would've been a serious (and memorable) decision, and added that he recalled other conversations about Ridder's desire to challenge noncompete clauses in the contracts of others, but not Ridder.

OhSang Kwan, a partner at Avista Capital Partners, testified that Ridder assured him his noncompete agreement had been repealed -- an overt untruth. And James Finkelstein, another Avista partner, said Ridder shouldn't have taken the information: "It was clearly a mistake."

Adding to Ridder's woes, a computer expert hired to analyze computers accessed by Ridder found that around 3,300 files were transferred from Ridder's Pioneer Press laptop to a portable USB drive on March 1 and 2; on March 6 -- the day after Ridder's hire -- those files were moved to Ridder's Star Tribune laptop. These files, which took up around 30 terrabytes of information, contained "vital contractual information for 3890 separate customers," said former Pioneer Press writer Brian Lambert, who was in the courtroom.

Ridder took the stand in his own defense at noon today. In his opening statement, he said, "I talk to a lot of people in this community and I think most of them know what this is all about. They see this as a competitive battle, an effort to vilify someone for competitive advantage."

Still, prospects for a Ridder win seems slight -- or at least not aligned with Ridder's initial confidence. Especially since many legal experts commenting in past news articles have already questioned  his chances. In April, Dennis Farley of the Intelligence Group, a company that investigates corporate espionage, said, the wholesale copying of competitor's files is a no-no. "For somebody to be that brazen and to leave with his whole laptop, and a competitor to feel that it's within the bounds of fair play to acquire all that information about their competitor really surprises me," he told the AP.

As Minnesota Lawyer reported last month, "noncompetes have teeth in Minnesota." Courts in the state have a national reputation for enforcing such agreements, the publication said:

Not only do noncompete agreements have relatively more muscle in Minnesota than in other states, but companies here can even impose them retroactively in some cases, thanks to the state's Uniform Trade Secret Act, which provides that confidential business information is protectable as long as the information can be shown to be classified as a trade secret.
And Minneapolis employment attorney Lee Watson made a prediction in an April AP story: "Mr. Ridder, being where he is in the company hierarchy, it's probably going to be enforced."

If today's hearing yields the kind of information yesterday's did, the case might have a swift conclusion. Lambert, now writing for The Rake, recalls this exchange yesterday:

During a break midway through the proceedings, I stopped Dean Singleton in the hallway and asked, "Have these guys [referring to Avista] offered to settle this thing? Because based on what I've just seen I'd be astonished if they haven't."

  Singleton, who walks with a cane, pivoted and looked at me. "I can't say anything about that. But if you're astonished you'd be right."

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