Court blocks J.B. Hunt from recruiting certain drivers

In a decision that could ultimately dampen some of the industry’s most aggressive driver recruiting tactics, a federal judge in Oklahoma has issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting J.B. Hunt from recruiting and hiring drivers known to be within the primary term of their employment contract with CRST Van Expedited.

Judge Stephen Friot of the Western District of Oklahoma said that based on the record in the litigation between the carriers, J.B. Hunt will continue to recruit CRST contract drivers unless it’s blocked from doing so. The injunction only covers recruiting of drivers under contract. “Injunctive relief should not tread on the freedom of Hunt to make and implement business decisions except as is clearly necessary to prevent Hunt’s ongoing tortious conduct,” Friot said in the Feb. 14 order.

CRST trains most of its drivers at its own school. Because it was losing many of its newly trained drivers to other carriers, the company several years ago asked that drivers undergoing commercial driver’s license and finishing training at CRST’s expense sign employment agreements of up to one year. In an Oct. 20, 2003 letter, CRST notified J.B. Hunt of the employment contracts, saying that Hunt had solicited first-year CRST drivers in an attempt to avoid significant training costs. The letter warned Hunt that an attempt to hire drivers under contract would be deemed interference with the contractual relationship and that CRST would seek reimbursement of its training costs.

In addition to the general notice, CRST also sent similar notices when Hunt requested records from CRST on individual drivers that still were working under employment contracts. The letter acknowledged that federal regulations bound CRST to provide the information, but CRST also warned Hunt that it planned to pursue legal remedies if Hunt hired the driver during the contract term. The record in the litigation includes 148 of those letters from 2004 and 2005.

In his 39-page order, Friot outlined some of the tactics J.B. Hunt used to recruit CRST drivers. A CRST driver trainer testified about a Hunt recruiter aggressively trying to recruit a trainee at a truck stop once learning of his status as a student. Hunt also tried to recruit CRST by cold-calling the pay telephone in CRST’s driver trainee lounges, according to the record in the case. Alfred Harper, J.B. Hunt’s chief operating officer, admitted in the litigation that the carrier had chosen not to inform its recruiters of CRST’s objections to the recruiting of first-year drivers.

Between January and November 2005, J.B. Hunt hired more than 200 drivers who were still in the primary term of their employment contract with CRST, and the vast majority of them started with Hunt in the month they left CRST or the month after. “These numbers standing alone do not, of course, prove the cause of the departure of each individual driver, but, in the aggregate, they provide persuasive evidence of the success of Hunt’s efforts to recruit CRST drivers without regard to the status of their contracts with CRST,” Friot said.

Friot granted CRST’s request for an injunction primarily on the grounds of a likelihood of success on the merits and irreparable harm to CRST. But he also took into account the larger issues affecting the trucking industry. “Moreover, at a time of serious and chronic driver shortages, there is a social interest in protecting the lawful means by which industry competitors, such as CRST, have implemented driver development and training programs which enlarge the pool of available drivers and make attractive training and employment opportunities available to individuals who could not otherwise afford to pay the cost of entry into the pool of available long-haul drivers.”

In the litigation, J.B. Hunt’s Harper contended that the employment agreement is a relationship between CRST and the driver. “What we are after is being sure that every driver in America knows that they have an opportunity to come to work for what many would say is the safest truckload carrier in the United States of America and can provide a living for their family and not accept lesser wages,” Harper testified.

At deadline, J.B. Hunt had not returned a telephone call seeking comment for this story.