Non-compete disputes are common, but advisor Kristian Colvin feels the 14-month legal assault waged upon him by Charles Schwab & Co. defied reason.
"It was time consuming and it was worrisome," said Colvin of La Jolla, Calif. "The full extent of what they were alleging made me feel like the worst person in the world."
Colvin, 36, eventually won the case-Schwab was even ordered by Finra to pay his $218,000 legal bill-but he says the ordeal took a toll on his personal life and his business.
"They seem to give anybody who leaves and stays in the industry a little bit of grief," he said.
In an e-mailed response, Schwab spokesman Michael Cianfrocca said, "Schwab will pursue situations in which an employee leaves the firm and tries to solicit Schwab clients or otherwise violates the terms of their agreements with Schwab."
The case started simply enough. After working as an advisor at Schwab for more than 10 years, he decided to resign from Schwab in September 2009 and join San Mateo, Calif.-based Emerson Equity LLC by creating a La Jolla office for the broker-dealer. Eight days after he left, Schwab won a temporary restraining order against Colvin from California Superior Court, alleging he misappropriated confidential personal and financial information about Schwab clients and used the information to solicit Schwab customers.
It turned out to be the only victory Schwab would score in the case. A few months after the temporary restraining order was granted, a Superior Court judge denied Schwab injunctive relief, after concluding Colvin did not violate his employment contract and that Schwab was unlikely to prevail in the case.
Schwab then sought relief through Finra arbitration, but that also failed when a panel ruled unanimously in Colvin's favor. Finra, which ordered Schwab to pay Colvin's legal fees, totaling $218,881.85, also denied Schwab's request that the ruling be vacated.
The case finally ended in November, when Schwab agreed to pay the legal fees on the condition that Colvin not pursue any further legal action, Colvin said.
Colvin steadfastly claims he did not improperly solicit Schwab clients, stating that only 20, with about $20 million in assets, out of the more than 200 clients and $200 million in assets he handled at Schwab followed him to Emerson. He also noted that Schwab's case was built on hearsay, and that no clients testified on the company's behalf.
Though victorious, Colvin paid a price: The duration of the legal battle limited his ability to build up his new business. He and his wife were also raising an infant son as the court action started, during which they lived with the threat of a $1.5 million damages claim that was made by Schwab.
Colvin says to some extent, he understands why Schwab pushed the case. "I think this is a strategy they use," he said. "They need to make an example of people in the branches because their system is, these are Schwab's clients, not yours. They want people to know they take that seriously."
However, Colvin said that after watching Schwab pursue the case so aggressively, on such flimsy evidence, it suggests to him that there was a personal element to the action.
"I got the sense from the attorneys that parties within Schwab wanted this to go away, but there was at least one party who felt harmed by my actions," he said.