My TCS column What Howard Stern Did Wrong:
CBS is suing Howard Stern for breach of contract and misappropriation. According to CBS Radio Inc.:
"Howard Stern repeatedly and willfully breached his written contract with CBS Radio over the last 22 months of that contract, misappropriated millions of dollars worth of CBS Radio airtime for his own financial benefit, and fraudulently concealed his interest in hundreds of millions of dollars of Sirius stock while promoting it on the air.
"That on or about January 9, 2006, Sirius paid over 34 million shares of stock, valued at approximately $220 million, to Stern and his agent because Sirius exceeded by the end of 2005 certain subscriber targets that were set in the Sirius-Stern contract. The complaint alleges that the Sirius-Stern contract provided that Stern was to receive this stock payment in 2010, but it had an acceleration provision that allowed Stern to receive the compensation as early as January 2006 if these subscriber targets were met. All of Stern's actions for which he received this expedited compensation occurred during the time that Stern was under exclusive contract with CBS Radio, when the Sirius payment terms to Stern were kept secret.
"This contract thus provided a compelling incentive for Stern to do all that he could to help Sirius reach the subscriber targets by the end of 2005 so that he could receive his Sirius stock payment as soon as possible while Sirius's stock was extremely valuable. Without the accelerated payment, Stern would risk the decline of the Sirius stock value. By taking action on CBS Radio's airtime in 2004 and 2005, Stern assured himself of immediate access to $200 million in assets that could be readily converted to cash.
"By engaging in continuous promotion of Sirius on CBS Radio airtime without any payment by Sirius to CBS for these advertisements and by pocketing over $200 million dollars for his personal benefit, Stern misappropriated millions of dollars worth of CBS Radio airtime for his own financial benefit and the financial benefit of Don Buchwald, his agent, and Sirius in contravention of repeated directives by CBS Radio."
Without having seen Stern's contract, I can't speak to the breach of contract claims. The misappropriation and fraud claims, however, raise basic and generic issues of an agent's fiduciary duties. Under those principles, it looks like CBS has a very strong case.
As the Washington Post reported last fall, Howard Stern's audience had cratered during the last few months of his terrestrial radio broadcast show, which many observers attributed to Stern's incessant on-air "railing against alleged censorship by" CBS radio and his incessant promotion of his upcoming "move to satellite radio" on Sirius. He even held a public event at which he gave away free Sirius radios and promoted satellite radio as the "future."
Analytically, the initial issue is whether Stern is an agent of CBS. According to the American Law Institute's Restatement (Second) of Agency:
"An agency relationship exists if you have a manifestation of consent by one person (the principal) that another person (the agent) act (a) on the principal's behalf; and (b) subject to the principal's control; and (2) the agent's consent to so act."
The employment contract between Stern and CBS for him would suffice to demonstrate the requisite consents.
As an agent, Stern was entitled to begin preparing to compete with CBS. The Restatement (Second) of Agency provides that an agent can make arrangements to compete with his principal even before the termination of the agency, but that he cannot properly use confidential information peculiar to his employer's business and acquired therein.
"Thus, before the end of his employment, he can properly purchase a rival business and upon termination of employment immediately compete. He is not, however, entitled to solicit customers for such rival business before the end of his employment nor can he properly do other similar acts in direct competition with the employer's business." (Emphasis supplied.)
Because promoting Sirius on the air and at his website almost certainly will be deemed an effort to solicit customers, Stern is in a clear breach of fiduciary duty.
In addition, Stern's show includes a number of side-kicks, whom he has solicited to follow him to the new show on Sirius. Again, Restatement (Second) of Agency is relevant:
"The limits of proper conduct with reference to securing the services of fellow employees are not well marked. An employee is subject to liability if, before or after leaving the employment, he causes fellow employees to break their contracts with the employer. On the other hand, it is normally permissible for employees of a firm, or for some of its partners, to agree among themselves while still employed, that they will engage in competition with the firm at the end of the period specified in their employment contracts. However, a court may find that it is a breach of duty for a number of the key officers or employees to agree to leave their employment simultaneously and without giving the employer an opportunity to hire and train replacements."
To the extent Stern induces the sidekicks to break their own employment contracts, there clearly would be a problem. In addition, courts are much less forgiving of employee solicitation when the solicitor has a supervisory role vis-à-vis those who are solicited. On the whole, however, this strikes me as a much less clear cut case than the problem of soliciting customers of terrestrial radio to shift to satellite.
On that latter issue, however, the question may be: why did CBS wait so long? My guess is that they didn't want to offend Stern's fans, but once so many of those fans followed Stern to Sirius and Stern's terrestrial radio replacements bombed, CBS no longer had anything to lose.