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Ex-Palm Inc. CEO Ed Colligan wrote to Jobs in 2007: “Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other’s employees, regardless of the individual’s desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal,” the plaintiffs’ filing said.

In internal company communications, Intel CEO and Google board member Paul Otellini described a gentleman’s agreement between the two companies: “Let me clarify. We have nothing signed. We have a handshake `no recruit’” between himself and then-Google CEO Schmidt. “I would not like this broadly known.”

Defense attorneys contend the emails are being distorted by the plaintiffs and show nothing beyond legitimate one-to-one agreements. Apple declined to comment.

Intel disagrees with the allegations contained in the private litigation related to recruiting practices and plans to conduct a vigorous defense,” said Sumner Lemon, an Intel spokesman.

Adobe said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

The other companies named in the suit did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

Whichever side prevails, the case underscores the high wages talented tech workers can command in Silicon Valley, where the tech industry added thousands of jobs last year. According to federal labor statistics, mid-level tech workers in the region such as computer security specialists, web developers and network architects earn more money than anywhere else in the country, with average annual salaries topping $110,000.

Many of those workers could get thousands more if the case goes their way, lead plaintiff’s attorney Joseph Saveri said. Given the potentially tens of thousands of workers affected if the plaintiffs succeed in turning the suit into a class-action case, Saveri said the combined damages for the companies could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars if decided at trial.

Such penalties would sink many companies. But Apple recently reported cash reserves of more than $97 billion. Google also has billions in cash on hand.

One anti-trust attorney not involved in the case doubts the companies have much to worry about anyway.

Antitrust cases that revolve around hiring practices are difficult to win, said David Balto, a Washington, D.C.-based antitrust lawyer who investigated Microsoft as a staff attorney for the Federal Trade Commission in the 1990s. Among the legal challenges they face is defining who exactly makes up the class of workers harmed by the alleged violations, since people with different jobs have different employment options, he said.

“I don’t think anybody at these companies is losing a nanosecond of sleep because of this lawsuit,” Balto said.

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Marcus Wohlsen can be reached on Twitter: http://twitter.com/marcuswohlsen