Defending Non-Compete Agreements in Court – What Evidence Does an Employer Need?

Last week, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a case involving a non-compete agreement between a legal services company in Texas and its former marketing director. While the facts and arguments made by the parties were pretty ordinary, the Court’s opinion was instructive regarding what evidence employers and employees might need in these types of cases to sway the court in their favor.

Rodriguez worked as a marketing director for Republic Services– a court reporting, process services, and record retrieval services firm – for six years before she went to work for a competitor. While at Republic Services, her duties included making calls to existing and prospective customers, assisting in the pricing of jobs, and assisting other employees in providing customer service.

Rodriguez’s employment agreement with Republic Services contained the following rather standard non-solicitation and non-competitions clauses:

For a period of twelve (12) months after termination of her employment under and pursuant to this Agreement, whether with or without cause, the Employee will not . . . (ii) approach, contact, cause to be contacted, or communicate with any customer or account, for whom Company performed services at any office where Employee performed any duties during the two years immediately preceding Employee’s termination of employment with Company.

* * *

For a period of twelve (12) months after termination of her employment, under and pursuant to this Agreement, whether with or without cause, the Employee will not (i) solicit, divert, or accept orders for record retrieval, court reporting, and other related services for or on behalf of any individual or firm, from any customer for whom Company performed services at any office where Employee performed any duties for two years immediately preceding Employee’s termination of employment with Company or (ii) own any interest in, be an employee of, be an officer or director of, be a consultant to, or be associated in any way with a competitor of the Company within the county, or counties, where Employee worked while employed hereunder. . . .

After Rodriguez went to work for Cornerstone Reporting, Republic Services sued her and her new employer for breach of employment agreement, tortious interference with prospective business relationships, civil conspiracy, and tortious interference with Rodriguez’s employment relationship (against Cornerstone only).

Rodriguez and Cornerstone filed a partial summary judgment motion and argued that the non-compete covenant was unenforceable as a matter of law for two reasons: (1) it contained an industry-wide restriction, which imposed a greater restraint than necessary to protect the business interests and goodwill of Republic Services; and (2) Republic Services failed to provide adequate consideration to make the non-compete enforceable. The trial court agreed with Rodriguez that the non-compete covenant was unenforceable and dismissed all the claims, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that although Rodriguez claimed that the covenant imposed an industry-wide restriction on her, she “offered no evidence about the industry at issue.” In contrast, Republic Services provided evidence regarding specific companies in Harris County that were not its competitors within the “legal services” or “legal support services” industry and for whom, presumably, Rodriguez could have worked despite the covenant not to compete. Thus, Rodriguez failed to conclusively establish that the covenant was an industry-wide prohibition.

Second, the Court of Appeals found that Republic Services provided evidence of adequate consideration to make the non-compete enforceable. It showed that it gave Rodriguez customer and pricing information, trained her on how to use RB8 software, and gave her access to Republic Services’ goodwill. Interestingly, even though RB8 software is not proprietary to Republic Services and can be bought by any company, the fact that Republic Services trained Rodriguez on such software via webinars was sufficient to support the non-compete covenant. This poses an interesting question of whether providing training on Microsoft Suite, for example, or any number of software programs that are not proprietary to the employer who provided the training, is sufficient in itself to establish an adequate consideration for an enforceable non-compete.

Also interesting is the fact that the Court specifically emphasized that Rodriguez often invited her contacts at various law firms to lunches with her boss at Republic Services, which, according to the Court of Appeals, showed that she was provided and took advantage of the company’s goodwill. The natural question here is whether allowing an employee to use the company’s suite or an expense account to entertain potential clients creates sufficient consideration to support a non-compete restriction.

CONCLUSION: An employer should always be able to explain why and how its geographic restrictions, time restrictions and restrictions on the scope of activity of its former employees are necessary to protect its business interests and goodwill. It should also be able to show why such restrictions are reasonable. Documenting what sort of confidential information, training or goodwill has been shared with a particular employee is key to enforcing non-compete agreements. Also, being able to provide evidence about the industry in which the employer operates, its competitors, and companies that are not in competition, can be crucial to defending non-compete restraints.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of EMPLOYERS and EMPLOYEES in a variety of industries, and knows how such disputes typically play out for both parties. If you need advice regarding your non-compete agreement, contact Ms. Dolghih for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@GodwinLewis.com or (214) 939-4458.

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