The Fifth Circuit Rules Industry-Wide Noncompete Agreements Are Not Enforceable

static1.squarespace.comThe Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered whether a travel agency’s noncompete agreement with its employee was enforceable under Texas law.  It concluded that because the agreement did not have geographic limits, was not limited to the travel agency’s customers with whom the employee actually worked during her employment, and included the entire travel agency industry, the noncompete was unenforceable.

In analyzing the noncompete clause, the court in Karen D’Onofrio v. Vacation Publications, Inc., provided a useful refresher as to what types of noncompete agreements are legal in Texas and what types are illegal and, therefore, not enforceable.   The court confirmed that noncompete restraints that preclude employees from working in any capacity in a particular industry are not enforceable. Thus, when it comes to noncompete agreements, bigger is not always better.

What covenants not to compete are legal in Texas?

First of all, Texas law recognizes that reasonable covenants not to compete serve the legitimate business interest of preventing departing employees from “using the business contacts and rapport established” during their employment to take the employer’s clients with them when they leave.

Thus, a covenant not to compete is enforceable under Texas law if it is “ancillary to or part of an otherwise enforceable agreement at the time the agreement is made to the extent that it contains limitations as to time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained that are reasonable and do not impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee.”  Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).

In the case of personal services occupations, such as sales persons, the employer has the burden of showing the reasonableness of its noncompete agreement.  Thus, for example, an employer who is asking a court to enforce a 20-mile covenant not to compete, will have to establish why the 20-mile – as opposed to a 10-mile – radius is reasonable.

What types of covenants not to compete are illegal in Texas?

As a general rule, under Texas law, covenants not to compete that extend to clients with whom the employee had no dealings during his or her employment or amount to industry-wide exclusions are overbroad and unreasonable and will not be enforced by the Texas courts.  Similarly, the absence of a geographical restriction will generally render a covenant not to compete unreasonable and, therefore, unenforceable.

Was D’Onofrio’s covenant not to compete enforceable?

D’Onofrio’s noncompete agreement prohibited her — for a period of 18 months after her employment with the travel agency — from, among other things, working “in any capacity” for “any direct or indirect competitor of [the travel agency] in any job related to sales or marketing of cruises, escorted or independent tours, river cruises, safaris, or resort stays” or doing any business with “any person or entity” who had purchased a cruise or other travel product from the travel agency in the preceding 3 years.

According to the court of appeals, this covenant amounted to an industry-wide restriction, which prevented D’Onofrio from working in any job related to the sales or marketing of not just cruises, but also a host of other travel products—and was not limited as to either geography or clients with whom D’Onofrio actually worked during her employment.  Therefore, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that D’Onofrio’s covenant not to compete with her travel agency was unreasonable as written.

When a Texas court finds a noncompete agreement unenforceable, what does that mean for the employer?

If a court determines that a covenant not to compete does not contain reasonable time, geography, and scope limitations, but is otherwise enforceable, then the court shall reform, i.e. rewrite, the noncompete agreement to make it reasonable.  For example, a court can change a 50-mile radius in a non-compete agreement to a 20-mile radius or change an 18-month restriction to a 6-month restriction.  

Texas Bar Association Top TenBOTTOM LINE: In the D’Onofrio case, the court of appeals sent the case back to the lower court directing it to rewrite the agreement.   Texas employers should be aware that any time a court has to rewrite a noncompete because it is overbroad and unreasonable, there are negative consequences for the employer – more attorney’s fees, more time spent in litigation, and an inability to recover damages from the employee.  

Therefore, it is important to make sure that noncompete agreements are written properly from the beginning rather than rely on the courts’ ability to rewrite them during litigation.

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.

2018 Mid-Year Non-Compete Laws Update

Map_of_USA_showing_state_namesMore and more states are amending their non-compete statutes to make them more employee-friendly.  This trend, spurred by the White House report that highlighted the prevalence of non-compete agreements among low-skilled workers coupled with the revelation that some of the largest  employers, like Jimmy John’s and Amazon, were requiring their sandwich-makers and warehouse employees to sign non-compete agreements, has continued into 2018.  

Thus, on the heels of changes implemented in 2017 by California, Illinois and Nevada, which amended their non-compete laws to help protect employees’ right to change employers, in the first half of 2018, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado, enacted their own versions of employee-friendly laws.

UTAH – Now Restricts Use Of Non-Competes In Broadcasting Industry

In March 2018, Utah amended its non-compete statute to restrict the use of non-compete agreements in broadcast journalism.  Specifically, employers may enforce non-compete agreements against employee in the broadcasting industry only if: (1) the employee receives a salary of at least $913 per week or $47,500 a year; (2)  the non-compete clause is part of a written employment agreement with a term of less than four years; and (3) the employee was terminated “for cause” or he/she breached the employment agreement in a manner that resulted in his or her separation.

IDAHO – Has Modified Standard of Proof For Non-Compete Enforcement Actions

This March, Idaho repealed an 2-year old amendment to its non-compete law that was added back in 2016.  The amendment created a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm with respect to “key employees” and “key independent contractors,” thus putting the burden on these employees to prove that they had no ability to adversely affect the employer’s legitimate business interests as a result of their competitive employment.  

The 2018 bill repealed this rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm. Therefore, Idaho has effectively placed the burden back on companies to establish a likelihood of irreparable harm before an injunction in a breach of non-compete case can be issued.

COLORADO – Now Prohibits Physician Non-Competes for Rare Disease Patients

Colorado generally allows non-compete agreements with physicians when certain conditions are met.  The 2018 amendment to the non-compete statute added a paragraph to permit physicians to continue to treat patients with rare disorders without liability, even when providing such service would otherwise violate their non-compete agreements. Thus, the amendment protects physicians and their new employers from damages for providing care to patients with a rare disorder, as defined in accordance with the criteria developed by the National Organization For Rare Disorders, Inc., or any successor organization. 

Many other states are considering amendments to their non-compete statutes and we are likely to see more changes in that area of the law in the second half of 2018.  The days of one-size-fits-all non-compete agreements for multi-state employers are gone, and now companies need to make sure that their non-compete agreements are compliant in all the applicable jurisdictions. 

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.

 

 

What Are Acceptable Non-Solicitation Restraints for Sales Employees?

maguire_primIn Texas, it is common for sales employees in many industries to have a non-solicitation clause in their employment agreements, which prohibits them from soliciting company clients for a certain period of time after they leave the company’s employment.  Such non-solicitation clauses are enforceable under the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act as long as they are reasonable and supported by proper consideration.  What is “reasonable,” however, is often a major point of contention between the company and the sales employees or such employees’ new employers.  

A recent opinion from the Thirteenth Texas Court of Appeals provides a good illustration of what is not a reasonable non-solicitation restraint.  In Cochrum v. National Bugmobiles, Inc., a trial court entered an injunction against a pest control technician who left one pest control company to work for another. The injunction prohibited Cochrum from soliciting business from any of National Bugmobiles’ 19,700 customers on its client list compiled over the course of eight or nine years during which Cochrum worked there, even though the employee testified that he only serviced approximately 300 customers during his tenure with National Bugmobiles.

Cochrum argued that he cannot in good faith comply with the injunction because he has no idea who the 19,700 customers are.  The company argued that in order to comply with the injunction, he should ask any prospective customer whether they received services from National Bugmobiles, and if they had, refrain from soliciting their business.  While the trial court was satisfied with this approach, the Court of Appeals rejected it calling it “simplistic” and “fatally vague” in that the injunction order failed to identify the customers that Cochrum was prohibited from soliciting, as required under Texas law.

Thus, as far as the non-solicitation requirements were concerned, the Court of Appeals modified the temporary injunction by striking down the following language for being too vague:

  • Diverting any business whatsoever from Bugmobiles by influencing or attempting to influence any of the customers of Bugmobiles whom Cochrum may have dealt with at any time or who were customers of Bugmobiles on February 13, 2017 or had been customers of Bugmobiles thereto;
  • Servicing any client that was under contract with or was being serviced by Bugmobiles as of February 132017 by directly or indirectly owning, controlling or participating in the ownership or control of, or being employed by or on behalf of, or engaging in any business which is similar to and is competitive with the business of Bugmobiles.

Instead, the Court of Appeals left the following much more specific language in the injunction order prohibits the technician from:

  • Diverting any business by soliciting or attempting to solicit any of approximately 300 customers of Bugmobiles whom Cochrum dealt with at the time of his resignation from Bugmobiles on February 13, 2017.

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicCONCLUSION: While a non-solicitation clause that prohibits a sales employee from soliciting all company customers may sometimes be justified, most of the time it is much more reasonable to limit the non-solicitation restraint only to the customers and prospective customers with whom the sales employee directly interacted rather than every customer in the company’s database.  This is true, especially when the entire customer list is much larger than the subset of customers with whom the sales person dealt.  

When enforcing a non-solicitation clause, a company should always consult with an attorney to determine the scope of the enforcement given a particular sales employee’s area, the circumstances surrounding a his/her departure, and the size of the company customer list.

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.

A Texas Court of Appeals Explains Employees’ Fiduciary Duties in Texas

Employees Duty of LoyaltyThe Eighth Court of Appeals recently analyzed the question of whether regular non-executive level employees in Texas owe fiduciary duties to their employers and answered that question with a resounding “yes.” While the scope of the rank-and-file employees’ fiduciary duties may not be as broad as those of a CEO or CFO of a company, they still owe a duty of loyalty to their employer and may not:

  1. appropriate company trade secrets
  2. solicit away the employer’s customers while working for the employer
  3. solicit the departure of other employees while still working for the employer
  4. carry away confidential information.

Employees can, however, plan to go into competition with their employers and may take active steps to do so while still employed, but cannot cross the line of preparation into actual competition until after they leave (assuming no post-employment restrictive covenants).

In Heriberto Salas, et al. v. Total Air Services, LLC, Salas opened and operated a company that directly and actively competed with his employer – Total Air Services – while still working for the employer.  He submitted bids on the same jobs as his employer through his own company, distributed his company’s business cards while giving out flyers for Total Air Services, and solicited Total Air Services’s customers to do business with his own company.   

Bottom Line:  Even those employees who do not have non-compete or non-solicitation agreements with the employer still owe a duty to the company not to divert business or use the company’s confidential information to benefit themselves while drawing a paycheck there.  

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.

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in Texas with an Injunction Requires Proper Timing

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in TexasCompanies often contact me wanting to know what they can do to stop a former employee from competing in violation of his/her non-compete agreement. One of the available remedies that can provide an immediate relief to the company is a temporary injunction (state court) or a preliminary injunction (federal court).

An injunction is a court order that can require an employee to comply with his or her non-compete restraints while the parties litigate their case.  Its purpose is to provide an immediate and temporary relief and prevent any irreparable harm that a company may suffer if its employee is allowed to compete.

What a lot of companies do not realize, however, is that if they wait too long to ask for an injunction after finding out about their employee’s competitive activities, a court may deny their request simply because they waited too long. 

A recent opinion from the U.S. District Court in the Western District, where the judge denied the company’s request for a preliminary injunction, provides a perfect explanation of why waiting too long to seek an injunction in a non-compete lawsuit can backfire:

“The company waited almost six months after it found out that its former employee was working for a competitor to file a lawsuit.  They waited another month to file a brief in support of the injunction and another month after that to set a hearing on the injunction. When the Court set the hearing, they requested a delay of the hearing for another two months.

[The company’s] delay in seeking injunctive relief is fatal to their request for a preliminary injunction. To the extent they have suffered any harm as a result of the events underlying their claims, much of that harm will have already occurred due to the delay; the appropriate remedy is therefore damages. The delay exhibited by [the company] in seeking a preliminary injunction also casts doubt upon the supposed irreparability of the harm alleged.”

Thus, while the company could proceed with the case and attempt to recover damages caused by the employee’s competition in violation of his breach of the non-compete agreement, the company’s ability to obtain an order prohibiting the employee from competing while the case was being litigated had evaporated due to the company’s delay in asking for it.

Embarcadero Techs., Inc. v. Redgate Software, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-444-RP, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191317, at *1 (W.D. Tex. 2017).

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicBOTTOM LINE: A company should act as soon as possible after finding out that a former employee may be violating his or her non-compete agreement if the company wants to prevent the employee from competing. The wait-and-see approach to obtaining an injunction can result in the forfeiture of that legal remedy. 

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.

 

5 Tips for Minimizing Trade Secrets Theft by Clients, Contractors and Vendors

Watching YouThe business world is littered with the carcasses of companies which, after they shared their confidential information and trade secrets with a non-competitor, such as their client, supplier, or vendor, were undercut by that party, who all of a sudden realized that they could profit from the information by cutting out the middle-man.

How can companies prevent this from happening? Here are the five basic tips on avoiding being blindsided by your own business partners:

  1. Never share your entire confidential information or trade secrets with anyone, no matter how sure you are that they won’t compete with you in the future.  This is a no-brainer, but limiting the access to the confidential information on a “need-to-know” basis is the easiest, yet the most underutilized, protection measure.
  2. Only disclose the information once the vendor/supplier/client signed a non-disclosure agreement. Simply put, do not share any sensitive information under you have a signed NDA in hand.  The NDA should state, among other things, that the vendor/supplier/client will make sure its employees are bound/will obey the NDA.
  3. Only share the information through a virtual data room, which allows you to track who accessed the information, when they did so, and what they did with it.  Some virtual data rooms allow you to set alerts for when a large amount of data is downloaded or printed. Such virtual data rooms also allow you to control the various permission settings to prohibit or limit the download or copying of the information and to limit access to certain individuals, rather than the entire companies or departments.
  4. Consider using software that allows you to track the information once it leaves the virtual data room. Some programs on the market allow you to track who has access to your information and what they do with it even after it leaves the virtual data room.  For extremely sensitive information, such measures may be worth the extra cost.
  5. Use data encryption when sharing confidential information outside the virtual data room. The encryption can now be done automatically and it prevents anyone who does not have an encryption key from reading the message – all they will see is a random collection of characters.

BOTTOM LINE:  In Texas, to claim trade secret protection, the owner of trade secrets must show that he/she took “reasonable measures” under the circumstances to keep the information secret. What constitutes “reasonable measures” is often a point of contention in lawsuits involving trade secrets misappropriation.  As the owner of trade secrets, you never want to be in a position where you cannot point to at least some measures you took to protect the confidential information.  Thus, the above steps are not only a great business practice, but they can also help in court if a company ends up suing its vendor/supplier/client for misappropriation of its trade secrets.

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.

 

Texas Companies Should Update Non-Compete Agreements with California Employees in Light of a New Statute

Texas California Noncompete AgreementsAny Texas companies that have employees who primarily work and reside in California should update their non-compete agreements with such employees to meet the requirements of the California Labor Code Section 925.  The statute, essentially, forces out-of-state employers to litigate any disputes with their California employees in California courts and apply California law, which prohibits non-compete agreements. Failure to comply with the statute allows employees to sue their company in California to declare their non-compete agreement unenforceable and get their attorney’s fees.  

1. To whom does Section 925 apply? It applies to all employers – regardless of where they are based (so, even Texas companies) – that employ individuals who “primarily reside and work in California.”  The word “primarily” suggests that the employees must both reside and work in California at least half the time.  It applies only to disputes between employers and employees that arise in California. 

2. What does the Section 925 say? It states: “An employer shall not require an employee who primarily resides and works in California, as a condition of employment, to agree to a provision that would do either of the following: (1) Require the employee to adjudicate outside of California a claim arising in California; (2) Deprive the employee of the substantive protection of California law with respect to a controversy arising in California.”

3. Is there anything a Texas company can do to avoid the restrictions of Section 925? The statute does not apply where an employee is represented by legal counsel in negotiating the forum selection clause (where any lawsuits will be litigated) or choice of law clause (what law will apply to such future disputes).  Section 925 does not apply to any voluntary agreements that are not a “condition of employment” such as, for example, a separation agreement.

4. How does this affect Texas companies’ ability to enforce non-compete agreements against California employees?  Prior to Section 925 becoming the law, many out of state employers used choice of law clauses to apply the law of those states that allow non-compete agreements in order to avoid California’s ban on non-compete agreements. Section 925 eliminates this option.  Therefore, Texas employers must rely on other protections such as air-tight non-disclosure agreements.  

BOTTOM LINE:  Texas companies with California employees who primarily reside and work in California should review their policies, handbooks, and employee agreements and make sure that any choice of law and forum selection clauses are compliant with Section 925. As far as negotiating individual employment agreements with key California employees, if Texas companies want for Texas law to govern those agreements (and enforce non-compete restraints) the companies should make sure that the individual employees are represented by counsel in the negotiation process in order to meet Section 925 requirements.

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.

 

 

 

 

Top 5 Non-Compete Cases in Texas in 2017

yearendAlthough the weather outside suggests otherwise, it is, indeed, December – a time traditionally reserved for reflection upon the year’s achievements.  So, let’s take a look at the top five most important non-compete cases in Texas in 2017.

  1. BM Med. Mgmt. Serv., LLC v. Turner (Tex. App.–Dallas, Jan. 10, 2017)*

Held: The employer failed to show a probable, imminent, and irreparable injury in breach of a non-compete case, as the employee had returned his computer and testified that he did not possess any papers or electronic files related to the employer’s business.

Why it made the Top Five list:  Early in each non-compete breach / trade secrets theft case, an employer may have an opportunity to examine the departed employee’s devices and confirm that its confidential information is no longer there.  This case demonstrates that taking advantage of that opportunity may result in the denial of a temporary injunction as it eliminates the probability of imminent and irreparable injury since the employee no longer has the employer’s confidential information.

2. In re Pickrell (Tex. App.–Waco, April 19, 2017)

Held: The employer failed to produce evidence necessary to obtain a Rule 202 pre-suit deposition to investigate whether its former employee had  honored his non-compete obligations.

Why it made the Top Five list:  A party contemplating a lawsuit in Texas may sometimes depose the potential defendant to determine if it has a legal claim against him/her.  This procedure is called a pre-suit or Rule 202 deposition.  In re Pickrell shows that an employer cannot depose a departed employee for the purpose of investigating whether he/she honored his non-compete agreement based on the employer’s suspicion that the employee may be violating the agreement solely because he is now working for a competitor. 

3. Sanders v. Future Com., Ltd. (Tex. App.–Fort Worth, May 18, 2017)

Held: Requiring an employee to repay training costs is not a covenant not to compete and is not subject to the requirements of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act.

Why it made the Top Five List: This case establishes that Texas employers can deduct reasonable training expenses out of employees’ salaries if they leave before the employer is able to recoup its training costs.  Any overreaching, however, by employers may result in a violation of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act.  See, for example, Rieves v. Buc-ee’s Ltd. (below). Additionally, any deductions need to be structured to comply with other laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, and must be verifiable and not speculative. For more information, look here.

4. Rieves v. Buc-ee’s Ltd., (Tex. App.–Houston, Oct. 12, 2017)

Held: Requiring an employee to repay a portion of her salary upon termination is a “restraint on trade” in violation of the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act. 

Why it made the Top Five List:  The Court’s decision shows that any provision in the employment agreement that restricts employee’s mobility must be analyzed through the lens of the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act, not just non-compete clauses. For more information, look here.

5. Horizon Health Corp. v. Acadia Healthcare Co. (Tex.  2017)

Held: The employer failed to establish that the departed employee’s actions caused it lost profits because it could not prove that the customer that went with the departed employee would have signed a contract with the employer. 

Why it made the Top Five List:  Texas courts require that a company seeking damages based on lost profits produce evidence establishing that prospective customers would have done business with the company absent the defendant’s misconduct.  In this case, the company failed to show that a customer that it claimed it lost due to the departed employee’s actions would have signed a contract with that company had it not signed with the departed employee’s new company.

*Keep in mind that any decisions by the Texas Courts of Appeals may be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which may ultimately disagree with their findings.  Therefore, employers should always consult with a qualified employment lawyer to determine the current status of the law applicable to their particular dispute.

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.

 

 

The Fifth Circuit Rules that Federal Law Preempts Unfair Competition Claim Under Texas Law

Preemption

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered whether the federal copyright and patent laws (rock!) preempt  Texas common law claim of unfair competition by misappropriation (scissors!). The question reared its head amidst a web of lawsuits involving a medical device company, ThermoTek, and its former distributor, in which the company accused the distributor of obtaining its trade secrets involving a medical device he sold for them and proceeding to use the information to manufacture his own line of competing devices.   

The Fifth Circuit explained that the federal Copyright Act preempts a state law claim where (1) the intellectual property rights at issue are within the subject matter of copyright and (2) the state law protects rights in that property that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright. Meanwhile, the federal patent statutes preempt a state claim where its aim is to protect “the functional aspects of a product” because such claim would likely obstruct Congress’s goals by offering patent-like protection to intellectual property that its owner chose not to protect with a patent.  

In applying the above tests, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the various aspects of the unfair competition by misappropriation claim in ThermoTek’s case against its former distributor were preempted either by the federal copyright or patent laws. 

The Copyright Act preempted the claim to the extent that ThermoTek alleged that the distributor misappropriated its written materials related to the medical device – here, manuals, reports, billing information, and other written documents – because such materials fell within the subject matter of copyright and the unfair competition by misappropriation claim did not qualitatively differ from a copyright claim.  Meanwhile, the federal patent law preempted the unfair competition claim to the extent it sought to protect the medical devices themselves or their functional aspects because the claim substantially interfered with the public’s enjoyment of unpatented aspects of the devices that ThermoTek publicly disclosed. 

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicBOTTOM LINE:  On a very basic level, the doctrine of preemption allows federal claims to preempt state law claims if they concern the same subject matter. If not analyzed strategically and addressed in the pleadings, this doctrine can wreak havoc on a party’s litigation strategy in a trade secrets lawsuit.  For example, in the ThermoTek lawsuit, the jury found in the company’s favor awarding it $6,000,000.00 in damages on the unfair competition claim. However, after the trial, the court found that the unfair competition claim was preempted by federal law and dismissed it leaving ThermoTek with $0.  In conclusion, trade secrets claims do not exist in a vacuum, but should be analyzed in the context of the existing intellectual property framework along with other types of IP.

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.

 

A Famous Dallas Chef Defeats an Injunction Based on “Unclean Hands” Defense, Can Now Use His Name

Foodie or not, if you live in Dallas, you have probably been to one of Kent Rathbun’s restaurants.  And if you read Dallas Observer, you have probably read about Rathbun’s ongoing legal battle with a former business partner, which involves the right to use Rathbun’s name and likeness in the restaurant industry.  If not, this D Magazine article can you fill you in on why Rathbun’s name is a big deal, and this Dallas Observer article can catch you up on the acrimonious relationship and the arising legal woes. 

While the case is ongoing, this past Friday, the Dallas Court of Appeals issued a ruling in Rathbun’s favor on the basis of the “unclean hands” defense, which is often alleged, but rarely supported, in non-competition disputes.  

By way of background, back in 2009, Rathbun assigned the rights to his name and likeness to an entity he co-owned with his then-business partner. After they parted ways, Rathubun filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration from the Court that the assignment was a “covenant not to compete” and was unenforceable because it failed to comply with the requirements of the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act (see my previous post on the requirements here). 

In response, the former partner sought an injunction from the Court prohibiting Rathbun from using his name or likeness while the parties litigated their dispute based on the assignment agreement. During the temporary injunction hearing, Rathbun introduced (1) deposition testimony of his former business partner regarding his knowledge of Rathbun’s lack of business sophistication and his fiduciary duties owed to Rathbun and (2) deposition testimony that the company to which Rathbun assigned the rights to his name might have assumed some liabilities without full disclosure to Rathbun, even though he was a part-owner at that time.

The trial court denied the injunction, allowing Rathbun to keep using his name as long as he did not disparage his former partner, and the Dallas Court of Appeals upheld the denial. While it refused to consider whether the assignment agreement was a “covenant not to compete” covered by the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act, it did find that the deposition testimony described above presented sufficient evidence to support the “unclean hands” defense asserted by Rathbun. 

The unclean hands defense “allows a court to decline to grant equitable relief, such as an injunction, to a party whose conduct in connection with the same matter or transaction has been unconscientious, unjust, or marked by a want of good faith, or one who has violated the principles of equity and righteous dealing.”  Here, the Court found that there was some evidence that the company that was now trying to enforce the assignment acted inequitably when it failed to fully disclose to Rathbun that it had assumed certain liabilities, which burdened him as a part-owner of the company.  Consequently, its unclean hands prevented it from obtaining an injunction against Rathbun.

BOTTOM LINE: While the Court of Appeals’ ruling in this case is not a final decision on the merits of this defense and can still be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, it does provide a glimpse into what type of behavior by a party who seeks an injunction may rise to the level of “unclean hands” such that the party is prevented from getting injunctive relief. 

Companies should be aware that when they seeks to enforce a non-compete agreement, their own behavior can often be scrutinized for any signs of unfair or bad faith conduct that may be used to deny the injunctive relief.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries. If you are a party to a dispute involving a noncompete agreement in Texas, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.