Government

Legal options to stop RAGBRAI rival appear limited

Ride director who quit says there was no noncompete proviso

Cyclists roll into Troy during RAGBRAI on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Riders trekked 66 miles from Centerville to Fairfield on day five of the annual ride. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Cyclists roll into Troy during RAGBRAI on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Riders trekked 66 miles from Centerville to Fairfield on day five of the annual ride. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In declaring this week that RAGBRAI will continue its 47-year tradition despite staff resignations and the announcement those former employees are starting a rival ride, a spokesman for the Des Moines Register said the company is exploring “all legal options.”

Given that newly resigned RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz told The Gazette neither he nor his colleagues had noncompete provisions in their employment agreements with the Register, experts said Wednesday those legal options may be limited.

Avenues of recourse could include trying to argue trademark infringements or violations of fiduciary duties to their employer by the resigned employees.

Employees, for example, cannot use work time and company resources to pursue personal projects. They also are not allowed to solicit their employer’s customers, clients or employees before leaving the company, or steal their company’s trade secrets.

Juskiewicz said he began organizing “Iowa’s Ride” — a proposed new, alternative bike ride across Iowa scheduled for the same July 19-25 week as RAGBRAI — on his own time.

But the IowasRide.com domain was purchased Oct. 4, nearly two weeks before the resignations Tuesday. And the new website already is decked out with an Iowa’s Ride logo, Iowa’s Ride merchandise, details for charter services, ride amenities and plans for a specific route announcement next month.

Registration for Iowa’s Ride is open, costing $150 for adult weeklong riders and $100 for weeklong riders under 18.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Online registration for the 2020 Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa will open Nov. 15 and cost all weeklong riders $175.

University of Iowa law professor Robert T. Miller said if the former Register employees started planning and pursuing the rival ride before they left, “That could be bad.”

“If when they were supposed to be working for their employer they were collecting a salary and plotting against their employer, that could be bad,” he said.

But even if a judge sided with the Register and its Gannett parent company on that point, Miller said, he can’t imagine a court barring the staffers from organizing a new ride.

A judge might strip the former Register workers of wages they earned between the time they started organizing the new ride and the time they resigned.

“But they are not going to issue an order that enjoins these people from doing their own bike ride,” Miller said.

Employees also aren’t allowed to begin recruiting clients before leaving a company. They have to wait until they’re gone to compete fairly.

But because in this case prospective riders can be hard to nail down as just one entity’s customers, Miller said, the argument gets squishy.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s kind of hard to imagine stealing a client with a bicycle ride,” he said. “This isn’t high-tech stuff involving code.”

With the new name for a new ride, Juskiewicz appears clear of trademark violations, according to Miller, who stressed “concepts are not protectable.”

“They’re not trademarkable,” he said. “It’s a bike ride through Iowa. You can’t protect that. You don’t have a legal right to protect that. That’s like saying, ‘I want to be the only guy in town who does landscaping services.’ No, you don’t get to do that.”

Although UI law professor Jason Rantanen noted he has limited knowledge of the facts in the squabble, he said the Register might be considering legal theories related to employee duties, interference with contracts or prospective business advantages, trade secret misappropriation, trademark infringement or other types of unfair competition.

Iowa’s Ride is not registered as a business with the Secretary of State’s Office, and RAGBRAI doesn’t have an active registration separate from the Register.

Officials with the Register did not respond to questions Wednesday from The Gazette about what legal options they might pursue and whether they’ve moved forward with any so far.

In resigning Tuesday, Juskiewicz complained the Register and Gannett had refused to let him speak openly about the paper’s controversial news coverage of Carson King, who on a lark raised over $3 million for the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

In reporting a profile on King, 24, a Register reporter unearthed racist tweets King had posed while in high school.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

King apologized publicly, and thousands of his supporters slammed the Register for its reporting practices.

Juskiewicz said in his resignation he had wanted to make clear the Register does not speak for RAGBRAI, but higher ups quashed it.

“RAGBRAI’s parent companies … claim ‘we will uphold First Amendment principles,’ but they refused to offer me that same opportunity,” he wrote on Facebook.

In that the Register and Gannett are private and not public entities, Iowa State University First Amendment Specialist Julie Roosa said, they didn’t break any laws or do anything out of the ordinary.

“A corporation is going to operate in a fashion that suits its business interest, and whether we disagree or not is a different question,” she said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.