Disgruntled AstraZeneca sues former executive Luke Miels for jumping to GlaxoSmithKline post

Back in February, as his company’s executives were departing for posts with other biopharma players, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot called the exodus a compliment from his rivals—“very pleasing,” in fact. But when it comes to Luke Miels, the head of AZ’s European business who left to lead GlaxoSmithKline's pharma division, the British drugmaker isn’t so pleased after all.

AstraZeneca is fighting Miels' departure in court, asserting breach of contract, the company said Tuesday. It has "issued proceedings seeking an order confirming that Mr. Miels is required to abide by the terms of his contract of employment," a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Incoming GSK CEO Emma Walmsley had recruited Miels to take the place of Abbas Hussain, who resigned as Miels was hired. Miels decamped after AZ oncology SVP Mondher Mahjoubi left AstraZeneca for another job in December.

RELATED: Glaxo pharma chief Hussain joins sea of departing execs, with AZ's Miels to step in

After giving AZ notice in January, Miels left his position immediately and was placed "on garden leave for the duration of his notice period," she said. Since then, though, he's "indicated that he intends to begin working for GSK in breach of his contract of employment." 

News of a hold-up to Miels' arrival came to light on GSK’s first-quarter earnings call last month, when Walmsley called him “a very important addition ... who should be with us in due course.”

“We're still in discussion with his previous employer,” she said, when pressed by UBS analyst Michael Leuchten. “I hope we will get to some resolution on that, and he'll be able to join the company as soon as possible.”

The details behind the delay aren't public, however. When asked Tuesday which terms Miels had breached, the AZ spokeswoman said the company didn't comment on contractual specifics. A GSK spokeswoman said only that Miels was a "very talented individual" whom the company looks "forward to welcoming in due course."

RELATED: AZ cancer head Mahjoubi departs to helm Innate Pharma

AstraZeneca has changed its tune since its fourth-quarter earnings call, when Soriot portrayed rivals scouting AZ’s talent as a good thing.

“It makes me very proud” that the company’s execs who recently chose to exit—including Miels and Mahjoubi, who accepted a CEO stint at France’s Innate Pharma—"could get such great jobs” elsewhere, Soriot told investors.

“It’s part of the businesses we are in,” he added, noting that it’s “really certainly very pleasing to see some of our peers in the industry feel they need to come and recruit some of our talent for jobs they have to fill.”

Glaxo, meanwhile, has seen a series of executive departures of its own. Since CEO Andrew Witty announced last year that he would be turning over the reins this March, both vaccines chairman Moncef Slaoui and ViiV head Dominique Limet decided to bid the company farewell.

Walmsley, for her part, has been busy developing strategy in Miels’ absence. Last month, the CEO signaled to investors that, like predecessor Andrew Witty, she’d be keeping the company’s three-unit structure intact—a decision that riled key investor and breakup advocate Neil Woodford, who decided to exit his position in the drugmaker accordingly.