Judge proposes January trial in Silicon Valley employee hiring case

A jury trial might be preempted if a new settlement is reached

A federal judge on Thursday proposed a Jan. 12 start date for a jury trial in Silicon Valley's closely watched class-action employee hiring case, in which executives like Steve Jobs and Google's Sergey Brin are accused of conspiring not to hire each other's workers.

Judge Lucy Koh of the federal district court in San Jose, California, set the date in a court filing. A new trial would be preempted if there is a new settlement reached between plaintiffs and the companies. The judge estimated that a trial would last 17 days.

Last month Koh rejected a proposed settlement of US$324.5 million as being too low given the strength of the evidence to support a trial. A court document filed earlier this week said that mediation talks were under way toward a new settlement.

Attorneys have until Monday to file a joint statement with their positions regarding the proposed trial date. Alternatively, Koh also proposed a trial start date of March 9.

A case management hearing has already been scheduled for Sept. 10 in San Jose. During that hearing, attorneys are likely to discuss with Koh the status of the new settlement talks.

The plaintiffs in the case, suing on behalf of 64,000 technology workers, accuse executives at companies including Google and Apple of entering into secret agreements not to hire each other's workers, in an effort to protect their investments. Those agreements, plaintiffs allege, restricted their mobility and drove down their wages.

A major chunk of evidence in the case consists of emails sent between the executives.

"If you hire a single one of these people, that means war," Jobs told Google co-founder Sergey Brin at one point, according to a previous court filing.

Intuit, Lucasfilm and Pixar already settled with workers last year. Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe Systems comprise the remaining defendants.

If there is a trial, executives like Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin could take the witness stand, possibly revealing an ugly side of how hiring works in Silicon Valley. Google declined to comment. Officials at Apple, Adobe and Intel were not immediately available to comment.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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