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September 22, 2019Cart

Business

by Westchester County Business Journal
by WCBJ

Mt. Vernon mango mavens sue former manager for $3 million

The mango mavens of Mount Vernon are suing a former manager for $3 million for allegedly stealing their trade secrets.

International Harvest Inc., operated by Karesse Grenier and Robert Sterling, sued their former chief operating officer, Justin Young, his wife, Daniela, and their company, It’s Good Organics Inc., Aug. 15 in Westchester Supreme Court.

“In a well-organized and planned manner in the months leading up to his termination,” the complaint states, Justin Young “surreptitiously helped himself to confidential information, solicited existing customers and suppliers, and remained at (International) for enough time to gain as much information as possible and pass on to (It’s Good Organics).”

The Youngs did not reply to emails asking for their side of the story.

Grenier and Sterling formed International in 1991, inspired by a single fruit, the Hunza apricot from northwest Pakistan. Now the company has 65 employees and offers more than 200 products — including dried foods, nuts, trail mixes, and granolas — all certified as organic, gluten-free, vegan and kosher and sold in markets such as Whole Foods.

Justin Young joined the company in 2009 to handle logistics and manage the warehouse. By 2012, he was the chief operating officer and oversaw human resources. By 2015, he was a certified quality control supervisor.

Young claims he was instrumental in increasing revenue from $14 million to $36 million, according to his LinkedIn profile, and transformed sales by focusing on the firm’s “flagship mango product.”

But in late 2017, customers were complaining about the dried mangos supplied from Mexico by Damaya.

Young, as quality control supervisor, helped Grenier prepare for a trip to Mexico to fix the problem. When Grenier got there in January 2018, Damaya’s owner allegedly told her that he did not need International because It’s All Good, another New York company, wanted to buy its mangos.

Grenier could not identify any mango importer by that name, the complaint states, “and thus wrote if off as puffery in the negotiation.”

It’s Good Organics, the correct name, was formed in January 2018, according to a state record, and registered at the Youngs’ address in Katonah.

In late February 2018, Young allegedly notified the company that he was sick, but the roaming charges on his cellphone indicated he was in Mexico.

International began hearing that It’s Good representatives were contacting its suppliers. Meanwhile, Young was allegedly urging Sterling to “let go of” a lease on a Mount Vernon warehouse that had developed humidity problems.

Sterling met with the warehouse owner and was told, according to the complaint, that Young had expressed interest in leasing the warehouse because he wanted a more convenient location for mangos he was storing in Texas.

In July 2018, Grenier took over HR responsibilities from Young and discovered, according to the complaint, that most of the personnel files were missing and confidentiality agreements for all managers were gone.

Young allegedly disclaimed responsibility for the disappearance of files “in a locked office to which he was one of the few individuals who had access.”

International says Young knew or had access to its business strategies, contracts, details about clients, costs, prices, and margins. The company says it discovered numerous incidents of Young sending confidential information to his personal email account, including a three-year history of all sales.

The company also accuses Young of buying a Dell computer with company money and having it shipped to his home in Katonah, and of failing to pay more than $11,000 in premiums for employee health care.

International issued a cease-and-desist letter in September 2018. The Youngs’ attorney allegedly denied that Justin Young was employed by It’s Good. But his LinkedIn profile, the complaint states, lists him as co-founder. The profile also shows his start date as November 2018, but the company’s state registration was filed on Jan. 31, 2018.

International lost its contract with Damaya, its primary mango merchant, decreasing its supply last year by 500,000 pounds and costing $2.5 million in sales and $1 million in profits before taxes.

The loss of its main mango supply allegedly hurt International’s business with Made In Nature, its biggest mango buyer.

International says Young agreed to mediate the dispute, but says he then delayed and abandoned the process while continuing to solicit its suppliers and customers.

The lawsuit charges Young with misappropriation of trade secrets and confidential information, breach of duty, unfair competition and interference with business relations and contract.

It claims damages of $3 million, demands the return of its property and asks that It’s Good be precluded from “operating their competitor business.”

International is represented by Adam G. Guttell and Alexandra T. Faver of Jackson Lewis PC, Melville.