(This story has been updated in a new story to reflect new information in the lawsuit, including a judge's dismissal of the case.)
Spotlight Graphics owner and president John Souza says he made a jarring discovery early this year when he went back to his office at night.
Souza, according to allegations in a lawsuit, found two of Spotlight’s most respected employees — Renee Phinney and Charles Zweil — removing a slew of items, from trade secrets to office supplies. The pair also removed client lists, client design files, propriety pricing information and previous job materials, Souza contends.
That night, Jan. 7, Phinney and Zweil also told their boss they intended to quit, Souza further alleges. The pair said they would provide a resignation notice later in the week.
Souza, who has owned Spotlight, a leading area graphic design and commercial and digital printing company, since 2015, now seeks redress in Sarasota County civil court. Souza, through Sarasota attorney Michael Fayard, filed a lawsuit earlier this year, in which he alleges unfair and deceptive trade practices, theft of trade secrets and other counts.
Souza refereed questions to Fayard. Fayard, with Fayard Law, declined to comment. An attorney for Phinney and Zweil, Jennifer Compton with the Sarasota office of Shumaker, Kendrick & Loop, also declined to comment on the case.
The allegations against Phinney and Zweil go deeper: Souza contends Phinney, a prominent figure in the Sarasota philanthropic community and social scene, “had been diverting Spotlight’s resources and company assets to her own benefit,” the lawsuit states. That includes “trading production work with certain clients for certain benefits,” the lawsuit also contends, including tickets to events and “other (financial) gains.”
The same week Souza made the nighttime discovery, another Spotlight employee, Diane Arends, turned in her resignation. Arends, the lawsuit sates, joined Phinney and Zweil in taking a job at Sarasota-based Palm Printing — a direct Spotlight competitor. Phinney, according to her LinkedIn profile, had been an account executive with Spotlight since June 1988. Zweil had been there since 2010, while Arends had been with Spotlight since 2003. Arends now works at N2 Publishing in Fort Myers, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Multiple Spotlight customers soon left the firm and became Palm customers, and Souza alleges Phinney and Zweil “used the materials and information from Spotlight in order to purchase some ownership interest in Palm.” Some of those customers, says Souza in the court documents, were Spotlight’s biggest clients, “generating well over $400,000 a year in revenues.”
Arends and Palm Printing are also defendants in the lawsuit brought by Souza. The lawsuit is currently pending in he 12th Judicial Circuit, including potential mediation hearings.
Compton, in a motion filed to dismiss several allegations, argues Souza’s lawsuit is unclear and fails to quantify what were trade secrets. The motion also contends Souza’s allegations fail to include any non-solicitation or non-compete agreements. “The allegations amount to nothing more than employees leaving one employer for another and business following the employees to their new employer,” the motion states, “since no expectation of future business or agreement to continue the business relationship has been alleged.”