Law360 (July 30, 2020, 6:57 PM EDT) -- A Pittsburgh-area transportation company filed suit in federal court Thursday saying a competitor must be stopped from poaching school bus drivers it had trained and paid retention bonuses, claiming it already faces a potential driver shortage as the COVID-19 pandemic spurs retirements and reduces the number of passengers allowed on each bus.
Pennsylvania Coach Lines Inc., also known as PA Coach, says New Jersey-based Student Transportation of America LLC took over its contract transporting students for the Elizabeth Forward School District in the upcoming school year, and hired away some of the drivers who had trained with PA Coach, signed noncompete agreements and accepted retention bonuses.
"COVID-19 has caused many drivers who are over the age of 60 or who have health related concerns, to retire or leave their bus driving job for fear of getting sick. This has made it even more difficult to recruit and keep drivers," the complaint said. "Rather than invest the time and money in finding its own qualified drivers, STA has stolen PA Coach's drivers, knowing that to do so was wrongful and would interfere with PA Coach's rights under the agreements."
Elizabeth, Pennsylvania-based PA Coach makes claims for tortious interference with contracts and unfair competition, and is asking the court for a preliminary injunction barring STA from soliciting and hiring away its drivers.
The complaint says employees with commercial drivers licenses are a sought-after commodity, especially in Southwest Pennsylvania where many take jobs driving trucks for the oil and gas industry. To compete, PA Coach says it helps prospective drivers obtain their licenses with training and tutoring.
That competition for drivers was exacerbated by the pandemic, with older drivers retiring, the suit says. Though it is still uncertain how many districts will return to having in-school classes for the 2020-21 school year, it is likely that social-distancing guidelines will require more buses for districts that bring students to school.
"There are strong indications that most school districts will be required to reduce the number of students carried per bus," the complaint said. "This will likely require more buses and more drivers to service the same districts."
In June 2019, PA Coach offered its drivers two retention bonuses totaling $2,500 if they signed a noncompete agreement, which said they wouldn't work for a competitor within a year of leaving, and if they were still in good standing with the company six months after signing, according to the complaint. At least six of the drivers who signed the noncompetes and got both installments of their bonuses covered routes for the Elizabeth Forward School District, the suit says.
Even though STA replaced PA Coach as the transportation provider for Elizabeth Forward, the PA Coach drivers who had been assigned to those routes could have been reassigned to other districts the company retained, such as Pittsburgh Public Schools, the complaint says. But STA solicited the Elizabeth Forward drivers and others to come over to STA, despite PA Coach warning the company on at least one previous occasion that its drivers had signed noncompete agreements, according to the suit.
"Despite multiple warnings to STA, STA continues to solicit PA Coach drivers to breach their agreements, and STA continues to employ the solicited drivers, in violation of the agreement," the complaint said. "As a result of these actions, PA Coach is at risk of losing the investments it made to find, train, and retain the solicited drivers and its other drivers."
The company also could suffer harm if the drivers took their knowledge of the routes that PA Coach had planned for maximum efficiency using proprietary technology and gave it to STA, the suit says.
The company says it has suffered irreparable harm from the loss of its employees and is likely enough to succeed on the merits of its case to warrant an injunction against STA.
"As a competitor in the difficult school transportation industry, STA was well aware of the damage it would do to PA Coach by stealing a portion of its workforce and causing a breach of the agreements," PA Coach said in its motion for an injunction. "STA lacked a legally cognizable privilege or justification for interfering with PA Coach's contractual relationships with the solicited drivers. In fact, PA Coach several times warned STA of its wrongful conduct and demanded it stop."
Representatives of STA did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. An attorney for PA Coach declined to comment.
PA Coach is represented by Ray F. Middleman and Lindsey Conrad Kennedy of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC.
Counsel information for STA was not immediately available.
The case is Pennsylvania Coach Lines Inc. v. Student Transportation of America LLC, case number 2:20-cv-01139, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled an attorney's name. The error has been corrected.
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