Most states will enforce reasonable non-competition agreements, but what is “reasonable” and how the courts reach that conclusion varies. In Texas, there are some rules of thumb as to what is generally considered reasonable. A recent opinion from a federal court in Austin illustrates these rules as well as what happens when an employer attempts to enforce an overbroad, i.e., “unreasonable” non-competition agreement.
In this case, a company that provides management services to amenity facilities, spas, and health clubs, sued its former employees for breaching their non-compete agreements after they went to work for a competitor. Among many claims that the company brought in the lawsuit, it specifically asked the Court to enforce the non-compete agreements and enjoin (i.e. prevent) the former employees from competing with it for 12 months.
The employees’ non-compete agreements prohibited them from being “employed in a business substantially similar to or competitive with” the company for a year after leaving its employment. The agreements were not limited in their geographic scope or in the scope of activities to which they applied. The court stated that the company prohibited its former employees from working for its competitors anywhere in the country, even if a competitor was based outside the geographic area where the employees worked. It also barred the employees from working for a competitor “in any capacity” and, therefore, was not related to the employees’ duties while they worked for the company.
The court explained that in Texas, “the hallmark of enforcement [of non-compete agreement] is whether or not the covenant is reasonable.” Generally, a reasonable area for purposes of a covenant not to compete is considered to be the territory in which the employee worked. Furthermore, noncompete agreements barring an employee from working for a competitor in any capacity are invalid. To be valid, the restrictions on the scope of the employee’s activities at a new company have to bear some relation to the activities of the employee at the old company. In the case above, the court specifically noted that the company failed to “articulate how [its] broad non-compete agreements [were] necessary to protect its business interests,” which is another requirement for an enforceable non-compete agreement in Texas.
The company in this case will get another chance to address the above issues and produce some evidence supporting the reasonableness of its restraints at the temporary injunction hearing in a few weeks. However, the court’s denial of the company’s request for a temporary restraining order means that the employees in question remain free to continue to work for the company’s competitor until the hearing.
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to non-compete agreements, “reasonableness” is the name of the game, and while employers often want to err on the side of safety and put in longer and larger restrictions thatn what might be necessary, doing so can backfire when an employer has to enforce its agreement in court. Setting non-compete restrictions should not be done off-the-cuff, but should be a strategic and well-thought-out decision supported by legitimate business reasons.
Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice. Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation. You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.