A federal jury acquitted denver-based DaVita Inc. and its former chief executive Kent Thiry for all charges on Friday, a resounding defeat for public prosecutors who had pursued an unprecedented criminal conspiracy case targeting the dialysis giant’s deals with rival companies for not poaching each other’s employees.
Federal prosecutors had argued that the agreements hampered competition and hindered employees’ opportunities to advance in their careers; Lawyers for DaVita and Thiry responded that there was no evidence that the agreements were entered into to bring meaningful competition to an end.
The verdict – which fell after two days of deliberation – is expected to have significant consequences for how the 132-year-old Sherman Anti-Trust Act is used to regulate free competition in the United States.
The juries found that DaVita and Thiry were not guilty in three cases of conspiracy to restrict trade to assign employees.
“Congratulations to the accused, condolences to the government,” said U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson as jurors were fired from the courtroom in Denver.
The two-week lawsuit attracted widespread attention when it was the first time a top executive and a company were accused of non-poaching deals under the Antitrust Act of 1890.
“We appreciate the jury’s decision and are grateful to put this case behind us,” DaVita said in a statement late Friday afternoon. “We remain committed to working with integrity and maintaining the highest standards of law.”
In his own statement, Thiry – who resigned as DaVita’s CEO in 2019 – first thanked the jury for its “diligence in performing its solemn duty.”
“Secondly, it would be impossible to exaggerate the joy I feel for my family and all those I work with,” Thiry said. “The jury confirmed that this case should never have been brought. I want to thank the community that has provided so much support through this difficult time.”
DaVita had faced a maximum penalty of $ 100 million per year. cases if convicted while Thiry faced a fine of 1 million. dollars pr. case and up to 10 years in prison.
Federal prosecutors argued in their closing arguments Wednesday that Thiry was a vengeful, controlling leader who established agreements with former leaders leading rival companies not to recruit each other’s workers.
The result, the government argued, was that employees would not receive recruitment calls from these other companies, giving them little opportunity to move around as they wanted.
Thyry’s personal defense lawyer made the allegations during Wednesday’s trial as a “witch hunt”.
DaVita’s lawyers, meanwhile, acknowledged that although the former CEO’s behavior and language did not look good, the agreements did not end meaningful competition, as the prosecution claimed.
Ann M. O’Brien, a lawyer and head of the BakerHostetler firm’s Cartel and Government Antitrust Investigations Task Force, attended the trial in Denver as an observer and said in an email to The Denver Post that the case was well-tested by both sides.
The prosecution from the Justice Department’s antitrust department was an attempt to push the boundaries of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to frame non-poaching agreements as directly punishable acts, she said.
Lawyers for DaVita fitted a “rule of reason” defense, she noted, meaning they argued that such agreements should only be considered illegal if they serve to restrict trade unreasonably.
“The jury seemed attentive and intelligent,” she wrote. “In the end, the jury had the last word, and justice was done.”
A federal grand jury last year charged DaVita and Thiry with three counts of conspiracy.
The indictment alleges that the dialysis giant and three other companies – Surgical Care Associates, Hazel Health and Radiology Partners – agreed not to recruit each other’s staff at different times between 2012 and 2019, which violated antitrust law. All three companies were led by former DaVita executives.
Surgical Care Affiliates face their own criminal case as accomplices.