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Hopes for a 'Dot-Com' Career Land in Court

Sales executive left his job at a traditional firm for a taste of the technology sector. Now he and his wife wish he had never bitten.


Over the last year, thousands of workers renounced high-paying jobs at traditional companies for a taste of the "dot-com" world. Now, some of those attracted to the technology sector, such as sales executive Charles Cohen, wish they had never bitten from the apple.

Cohen is suing, an Idaho Web development firm, for allegedly promising him a job in March and then dropping the offer after new management and Cohen's former employer intervened.

The resulting turmoil left Cohen, who had lived for a decade in Ocean City, Md., unemployed for months. He eventually found a job at an aviation training school in Houston--1,600 miles away from his wife and two children, ages 4 and 6.

"My life has turned upside down in four months," Cohen said in an interview.

The case, currently before a federal judge in Maryland, has not attracted widespread attention. But the issues it raises about making and accepting job offers in an uncertain market are playing out across the country.

"It's everybody's worst nightmare," said Robin Cockey, a Maryland lawyer who represents Cohen and his wife, Kelly, who is part of the lawsuit. "They were very cautious and it still went south."

An attorney for Entangible disputes the Cohens' account of the events but declines comment on the facts.

According to court papers filed by the Cohens, Charles had worked in sales at Baltimore's Holt Paper & Chemical Co. for nearly a year when he was approached by the chief executive of Entangible, which had done e-business consulting work for Holt.

Cohen said he traveled to Idaho in late March on Entangible's dime to talk about employment opportunities.

The company offered him $125,000 per year--a boost of $50,000 from his Holt salary--and benefits, including a corporate laptop and cell phone, according to Cohen's legal complaint. Cohen would have been allowed to work from his home in Maryland and travel frequently, and his wife would quit her $30,000-a-year post directing a local day-care center to look after their children, the complaint said.

Within hours of the conversation, a Holt official contacted Entangible to complain about the client's negotiations with a key employee. Then Cohen learned Entangible had reduced the salary offer by $25,000 because of concerns by managers at the dot-com company. Still, after Cohen received a written offer from the company, he accepted the position and resigned from Holt, according to court documents.

The next day, according to the Cohens' suit, Entangible told Cohen that the firm was about to be bought by a California company and that his title would be salesperson rather than sales manager. Cohen said he agreed but Entangible balked on a two-year salary guarantee, which would have allowed Cohen to be paid even if the firm's circumstances changed, before withdrawing altogether from the discussions.

In the wake of the failed talks, Cohen asked Holt for his old job back, to no avail.

"There's not a lot of opportunity on the Eastern Shore for mid- to senior-level managers," said Cohen, who had signed an agreement that prevented him from working for Holt's competitors in the region.

"This is exactly what we did not want," said Kelly Cohen. "Now I work more hours than ever because we're in such poor financial shape."

Cris Weals, a Washington lawyer who represents Entangible and Amphire Solutions Inc., the Mountain View, Calif., firm that bought Entangible last year, said there was never a binding employment agreement between Cohen and the company.

"The factual record is more complicated and the story is more complex" than the Cohens would suggest, said Weals, who declined to provide more details.

U.S. District Judge William Nickerson has allowed the Cohens' lawsuit for breach of contract, fraud and negligent misrepresentation to proceed.

Whatever the resolution, odds are that more of these disputes stemming from the once-heady promise of dot-coms in 2000 will make their way into courtrooms this year.

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