Earlier this fall, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts transferred an employee’s declaratory judgment action to the Eastern District of Michigan pursuant to a forum-selection clause in a non-compete agreement over the employee’s argument that he had signed the agreement under duress because he was not told he would need to sign it until he had already spent the money and traveled all the way from India to the United States. The court also used the value of the employee’s annual salary, not just the damages the former employee was seeking to recover, to determine whether the minimum threshold for diversity jurisdiction had been satisfied, because his former employer was seeking to enforce his non-compete and keep him out of work. The case is Kurra v. Synergy Computer Solutions, Inc., No. 15-cv-13952-ADB (D. Mass.).

Summary of the Case. In January 2014, Rishi Vas Kurra entered into an agreement with an affiliate of Synergy Computer Solutions (“Synergy”), an IT staffing firm, while living in India, under which Synergy agreed to employ him in the United States for 18 months and to apply for an H-1B visa on his behalf. As part of the agreement, the Kurra agreed to start working for Synergy within 18 months, and if he were to leave Synergy within that time period, he would reimburse the company for his visa processing fees and travel expenses. Kurra alleged that when he arrived to the United States, Synergy required him to sign a non-compete agreement, despite never disclosing this agreement to him when he had agreed to move. Kurra signed the non-compete and was placed at a technology company (although he remained an employee of Synergy).

A few months later, the technology company offered Kurra a position as a full-time employee and to renew his H-1B visa, which he accepted. When Kurra told Synergy that he was going to work directly for the technology company, Synergy demanded that Kurra repay the $9,500 in visa and travel expenses it had paid to him under his agreement, and reminded him of his non-compete obligations.

In reaction to Synergy’s demand, Kurra filed a declaratory judgment action in the Massachusetts Superior Court, seeking to void the non-compete agreement, contending that he signed it under duress when he arrived to the U.S. after moving from India. Synergy removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and then requested a transfer of the case to the Eastern District of Michigan pursuant to a forum-selection clause in the agreement. In addition to opposing the transfer on the grounds of duress, Kurra sought a remand of the case back to state court, arguing that it did not meet the $75,000 amount in controversy requirement.

In determining whether to transfer the action to the Eastern District of Michigan, the court noted that while Kurra presented an affidavit in which he asserted that Synergy had forced him to sign the non-compete agreement once he landed in the United States, at which point he had no choice but to sign it, Synergy presented evidence showing that it had presented Kurra with the agreement while he still resided in India, and that he had in fact signed an earlier version of it prior to traveling to the United States. The court thus rejected Kurra’s argument that he entered into the non-compete agreement under duress and granted Synergy’s motion to transfer the case to Michigan.

Regarding the amount in controversy, the court reasoned that notwithstanding the fact that Kurra only sought to avoid paying $9,500 and void the non-compete agreement, he stood to lose his $110,000 salary should the non-compete be deemed enforceable. Therefore, the court held that the aggregate value of Kurra’s claims exceeded the minimum statutory threshold of $75,000.