A California court has dismissed Westamerica Bancorp's unfair competition complaint against a longtime local banker, paving the way for him to open a new community bank in Auburn, Calif.
But San Rafael-based Westamerica is still seeking repayment from John G. Briner for a severance package it awarded him last April, after Westamerica acquired Mr. Briner's former employer, Vallicorp Holdings Inc., Fresno, Calif. Mr. Briner was regional president at Vallicorp.
A trial date has been set for Feb. 10-eight days after the scheduled opening of Mr. Briner's bank-in Placer County Superior Court in Auburn. In the most recent court filing, Westamerica has asked that the case be decided by a judge instead of a jury, a motion that Mr. Briner's attorneys will contest.
"This case is based on facts, and in California a jury gets to decide facts," said Patrick Becherer, an Emeryville, Calif., attorney representing Mr. Briner.
A hearing on that motion will be held Jan. 13.
Westamerica purchased Vallicorp last April for about $300 million. At the time, Mr. Briner was working as regional president for Vallicorp, which, one year earlier, had purchased Mr. Briner's former bank, Bank of Commerce, Auburn.
Mr. Briner was not offered a job by Westamerica. He was, however, awarded a severance package last April that included $120,000 in cash, stock options, and retirement benefits.
The dispute began after Mr. Briner filed applications to form Auburn National Bank last April 25, his last day working at Vallicorp. (The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. approved those applications last summer.) In court documents filed last June, Westamerica alleged that Mr. Briner used Vallicorp trade secrets and customer lists to advance his efforts to launch the competing bank.
Bruce A. Ericson, a San Francisco attorney representing $3.7 billion- asset Westamerica, said it is Westamerica's policy not to comment on pending litigation.
But Mr. Becherer, Mr. Briner's lawyer, said that Mr. Briner never signed a noncompete agreement when his original bank was sold to Vallicorp so he is under no obligation to Vallicorp's successor, Westamerica.
Though Westamerica is no longer trying to block the bank's formation, the company still maintains that Mr. Briner breached his contract and is seeking return of the severance pay.
Mr. Briner has countersued in an attempt to keep the money and other benefits.
Well-known in the Auburn community-he founded Bank of Commerce in 1983- Mr. Briner has raised about $4 million to launch Auburn National Bank. The bank is expected to open Feb. 2, a few weeks behind schedule.
Auburn National is one of at least three new banks being planned for the Sacramento area, and the first start-up in the region since 1985.
While Mr. Briner is busy organizing the new bank, Mr. Becherer said his client is anxious for the trial to begin. In fact, the attorney even filed a successful motion to have the trial date moved up from March 31 to Feb. 10.
"We want to get this over with so that it won't interfere with the opening of the bank," Mr. Becherer said.