Current and former employees of Total Quality Logistics say they are closely following a former colleague’s two legal actions involving the nation’s second-largest freight brokerage.
Ex-TQL broker Jacob Patterson has been embroiled in a battle against his former employer for nearly 17 months after the freight brokerage sued him in May 2021, alleging he had violated the terms of his noncompete agreement when he went to work for one of TQL’s suppliers, a small trucking company, PBJ Express, in Joplin, Missouri.
In mid-August, Patterson lodged his own suit against Cincinnati-based TQL, claiming his former employer had harmed his job prospects after he entered into employment discussions with a large insurance brokerage, USI Insurance Services. TQL is a longtime client of USI.
On Oct. 14, TQL filed suit against Patterson’s former employer, PBJ Express, separately just weeks after Clermont County, Ohio, Judge Kevin T. Miles denied the freight brokerage’s motion to amend its complaint against Patterson to add the trucking company to the noncompete lawsuit.
“If the court allows TQL to amend the complaint at this point in the case, the litigation process would effectively begin anew,” Miles said in the ruling. “This case is impacting [Patterson’s] ability to work and provide for himself, making the need for its expeditious resolution all the more urgent.”
TQL attorney Chris Brown did not return FreightWaves’ request seeking comment.
Some TQL employees equate the brokerage’s aggressive litigation tactics over noncompetes to being held hostage by a company they no longer want to work for but are afraid to leave.
“I am rooting for Jacob as I’ve been wanting to leave TQL for years and have been pretty miserable here in regard to work-life balance issues,” a TQL employee, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation, told FreightWaves. “I know there are plenty of current and former TQL employees that are on [Patterson’s] side. That noncompete basically traps us here unless we totally want to change industries for a year. After being in the industry for several years, I feel like I know it pretty well and would like to stick to what I’m good at, ideally at a different company, but that’s just not an option.”
One former employee described the work culture at TQL as “toxic.” In early August, Ken Oaks, chief executive and co-founder of Cincinnati-based TQL, sent out a companywide email, asking employees to either be “ALL IN” in order to achieve another “record year” or receive a $2,000 incentive to resign.
“To accept the offer, you must (1) reply to this email and (2) notify your manager of your intention to resign by midnight tonight, Wednesday, August 3rd, and an HR representative will contact you,” Oaks said in the email, which was reviewed by FreightWaves.
The former TQL employee said “there were plenty of employees that took the $2,000 payout but the noncompete was still in effect.”
“Leaders don’t push people to quit, they push them to be better than they ever thought they could be,” the former TQL employee, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation, told FreightWaves.
TQL now suing PBJ Express
Although TQL is suing PBJ Express, owner Patrick Brown says he doesn’t have any regrets about hiring Patterson as vice president of operations. Patterson resigned from PBJ in August after discovering that TQL intended to bring the trucking firm into the litigation over his noncompete, but it was too late.
“He [Patterson] is just one of the best people that I’ve ever known,” Brown told FreightWaves. “It was a big loss for us losing him but he felt like it was the right thing to do to try to protect PBJ and me. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter what you do. You can’t make TQL happy.”
Brown said that during Patterson’s 15 months at PBJ, he helped the trucking company grow from three employees and 14 trucks to 10 employees with 35 trucks.
Brown’s trucking company once booked 75% of its loads through TQL, but he said it was the freight brokerage’s decision not to work with PBJ Express after Patterson joined the company as a 1099 contractor.
While his business took a substantial financial hit at the time, Brown said it recovered after developing strong relationships with other brokerages.
“I really don’t have any mud to sling at TQL — they’ve never done anything wrong to me until now, by suing me,” Brown said. “I know we’ve done nothing wrong, but it’s going to be expensive to fight them.”
Some current TQL employees looking to move on from the freight brokerage claim some companies refuse to interview them for potential jobs for fear of being sued for violating a noncompete.
One TQL employee said he was looking to switch jobs a few years ago and sent a copy of his noncompete to an attorney of a competing 3PL to review. He wasn’t considered for the job.
“I was so fed up, I thought about taking a risk and going to work where I could make $20,000 per year more at a similar position,” the TQL employee told FreightWaves. “The attorney read it and basically said I shouldn’t have even sent it to them.”
Attorney Pete Patterson, a partner at Washington-based boutique litigation firm Cooper & Kirk, is representing his brother, Jacob Patterson, in both Jacob Patterson’s suit against TQL and TQL’s suit against him.
“We looked at the docket of Clermont County Court of Common Pleas for the last five years and there are between 400 and 500 cases with TQL as the plaintiff,” Pete Patterson told FreightWaves. “Now, I don’t know if all of those are over noncompetes; I haven’t looked at the complaints in those cases. But I suspect that the majority, if not the vast majority, of them are.”
The freight brokerage’s language in the noncompete is so expansive that it would prohibit him from even driving for DoorDash, the lawsuit claims.
“We’re not contesting the ability of TQL to have a noncompete or to enforce the noncompete, but the key issue with respect to the noncompete is just that it’s so overbroad that nobody can look at it and say, OK, I can’t do X and I can’t do Y,’” Patterson said. “Then, there’s the one-way fee shifting, which really is inequitable. The contract says if TQL sues you and they win, you have to pay TQL’s legal fees, but if you win and TQL loses, TQL doesn’t have to pay your legal fees.”
Alleged job prospect interference
Pete Patterson said TQL recently filed a motion to dismiss Jacob Patterson’s suit against the freight brokerage giant.
The suit, filed in Clermont County, alleges the case “demonstrates the extraordinary measures TQL will take to harm the career prospects of an employee who has the temerity to leave the company.”
According to court filings, Patterson started looking for employment outside the transportation industry in early August and entered employment discussions with Justin Austin, who was recently promoted to Midwest regional select practice leader/partner for USI Insurance Services.
Austin also worked at TQL for seven years, according to his bio on LinkedIn. A month after leaving TQL in December 2020, Austin started working at USI as vice president of transportation and logistics in its property and casualty division.
USI, headquartered in Valhalla, New York, is one of the largest insurance brokerage and consulting firms in the world, according to its website.
However, employment talks with Patterson ended two weeks later after Austin spoke with Chris Brown, TQL’s general counsel. According to court documents, Austin was told that hiring Patterson would “hurt [USI’s] business relationship” as TQL is a 20-year client of USI.
Pete Patterson said he has filed an amended complaint to include additional allegations against TQL.
“TQL argued that Jacob didn’t have enough of a prospect for employment there and that the person he met with [at USI] didn’t have hiring authority or anything like that,” Patterson said. “We allege that the meeting he was going to have with USI was supposed to include a visit with a VP of the company.”
A status hearing in the case is set for Nov. 4.
“Jacob isn’t currently working and everything remains in limbo until these cases are resolved,” Pete Patterson said.
Do you have a story to share? Send me an email here. Your name will not be used without your permission in a follow-up article.