A Texas Court Refuses to Enforce a Non-Compete Agreement In a Case Involving Every Employer’s Worst Nightmare

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Last week, a federal court in Texas refused to enforce a company’s non-compete agreement against four key employees who started a competing business because the agreement was missing a key term – the end date.  The company argued that the court could rewrite the non-compete to add a reasonable end date (a procedure sometimes allowed in Texas) but the court refused to do it holding that it could not fix an unenforceable agreement. Thus, the four employees who started a competing business remain free to compete and solicit the company’s clients. 

The company argued that while the employees worked there, they, collectively, were exposed to all kinds of confidential information, including company-wide strategic plans, OEM relationships and pricing levels, details of written and oral contracts with customers, manuals, forms, techniques, methods and procedures at the company,  the Salesforce database that contained a list of all company customer contacts and point persons within the customer, as well as specific notes from customer visits and discussion points, cost of materials, and the company’s product margins.   The company also told the court that it allowed the departed employees to entertain customers and reimbursed them for expenses, and paid for their cell phones used to communicate with such customers.  

Nevertheless, because there was no evidence that the employees took any confidential information with them when they left and because the company admitted that its product manufacturers and customer information were not confidential, the company could not stop the employees from competing once the court declared the non-compete agreement not enforceable. 

BOTTOM LINE: The above situation can be avoided through simple practice of: (1) knowing what is in the company non-compete agreements; (2) making sure all the key provisions required by the relevant statutes are included; and (3) periodically updating non-compete agreements so that they are compliant with the relevant state law.   

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.

 

Client Non-Solicitation Agreements for Hair Salons, Med Spas, and Others in the Beauty Industry: Writing and Enforcing Them (Part I)

GreenTangerineMayKeratineventpageimgLast week, a famous New York tattoo artist, who’s tattooed the likes of Rhianna, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber, filed a lawsuit against a former staffer, claiming she began stealing his prospects while working at his iconic NYC tattoo parlor “Bang Bang.” The owner claims he fired her after “she’d begun secretly cancelling customer’s appointments and referring them to another unspecified studio, where she’d covertly begun working.” The owner is seeking $153,859 in damages, which given that a single sleeve tattoo at his shop can cost $20,000, is really not a big sum.  

The defendant, who herself is a well-known tattoo artist with more than 600,000 followers on Instagram, said she left Bang Bang because she disagreed with the owner “about the path [her] career should take.” 

The disputes over client poaching between business owners in the beauty industry (med spas, massage salons, hair salons, tattoo parlors, etc.) and their employees are very common.  Most of the time, they do not escalate to the lawsuit level because of one of the three reasons: (1) a business owner does not know the departed employee poached clients; (2) a business owner cannot prove that the departed employee poached clients; or (3) the former employee’s poaching of a few clients is just not worth the cost of litigation. 

The salon owners often feel that their employees benefit from being associated with the salon’s name and brand as well as the marketing campaigns that such salons often implement to attract new customers.  The owners also often train employees either personally or by sending them to various classes. The employees, however, often feel that their clients keep coming back to their salons because of their skills; not because of the brand behind them.  Both are usually right to a degree. In the beginning, a salon’s reputation and marketing can help a fledgling professional get access to a customer base, which they would never be able to reach otherwise. As an employee matures professionally and builds customer relationships, his or her clients are more likely to come back because of that employee’s particular skills rather than the salon brand. 

When an employment relationship terminates between a salon and its employees, a good non-solicitation and confidentiality agreement, combined with other key provisions, and smart business practices, can deter client poaching and preserve the relationship between the salon and its clients even in the face of its employees’ departure.  Some of the contractual provisions that can deter client poaching include the following:

Confidentiality – a strict confidentiality clause that explains to salon employees that certain information about clients is considered confidential and cannot be disclosed or used by the employees for their own benefit and/or after they leave. 

Social Media Ownership – many salons in the beauty industry now use Instagram as ways to market their services and often include the “before” and “after” photos of their clients. An employee agreement should specify who owns such images and what happens to them if the employee who performed the work and/or posted the images, leaves. 

Non-Competition – a classic non-competition clause will prohibit a former employee from working for a competitor within a certain geographic area of the salon. This area should be “reasonable” in light of the salon’s geographic reach and its clientele, and the role of the employee at the salon. 

Non-Solicitation – in addition, or instead of, a non-competition clause, salons should also have an agreement that prohibits employees from soliciting their former clients for a certain period of time after they leave. It may also need to address the social media “indirect solicitation” by former employees.  See my prior post here

Repayment of Training Costs – such provision in a contract allows a salon that provides a lot of training to its new hires to recover the training costs if an employee leaves before working for the salon for a certain period of time. 

Buy-Out Agreement – a salon can always include a buy out clause in the employment agreement, which will allow an employee to buy their non-compete and non-solicitation restraints if they wish to leave and continue to work in the area close to the salon or service their former clients. 

They key to drafting the above provisions is to make sure that they are reasonable, not overbroad, and clear to employees. 

In Part II, I will address what salons can do when they find out that a former employee has poached or is attempting to poach clients. 

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.

 

 

Texas Introduces 3 Bills To Curb Application of Anti-Slapp Statute in Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Litigation

The Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), enacted by the legislature in 2011, has been wrecking havoc in business and employment disputes due to the statute’s overbroad language, confusing and conflicting interpretation by the various courts of appeals and federal courts, and defendants’ persistence in invoking the statute’s dismissal process in trade secrets and non-compete lawsuits. 

In late 2018 and early 2019, at least two Texas Courts of Appeals issued scathing opinions criticizing the statute’s dismissal mechanism being used by defendants in the run-of-the-mill trade secrets and non-compete disputes.  It appears that the legislature heard the complaints from the bench and the business community, which is why in the past week, we have seen three new bills that seek to exempt trade secrets and non-compete disputes from the grasp of the TCPA.  

HB 3547  introduced by Rep. Joe Moody (D) on March 6, 2019:

SECTION 1. Sections 27.001(2) and (6), Civil Practice and Remedies Code, are amended to read as follows: 

(2) “Exercise of the right of association” means a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.  The term does not include a communication that is the basis of a claim asserting a misappropriation of a trade secret or a breach of a covenant not to compete.

SB 2162 introduced by Sen. Angela Paxton (R) on March 8, 2019 and HB2730 introduced by Rep. Jeff Leach (R) seek to amend the TCPA as follows: 

SECTION 8. Section 27.010, Civil Practice and Remedies Code, is amended to read as follows:

Sec. 27.010. EXEMPTIONS. [(a)] This chapter does not apply to:  …

(7) a legal action to enforce:
(A) a noncompete agreement;
(B) a nondisclosure agreement; or
(C) a non-disparagement agreement.

The bills contain many other amendments to the statute that are unrelated to trade secrets and non-compete litigation and they face tremendous opposition from the press. For example, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued a press release stating its concern that “HB 2730 and SB 2162  would, if enacted, significantly undermine key parts of TCPA and, therefore, speech protections in Texas.”  Therefore, their passage remains an open question. 

We will continue to monitor their progress through the legislature and will provide an update if they pass. 

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.

Can a “Friend Request,” a “Like,” or a New Job Announcement on LinkedIn Violate A Non-Solicitation Agreement?

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The growth of social media has been raising complex new issues for employers seeking to enforce their non-compete and non-solicitation agreements. For example, if a former employee connects with a company client or a former coworker on LinkedIn, can such connection result in a breach of the employee’s non-solicitation agreement? What if an employee announces on his LinkedIn profile that s/he has a joined a competitor and invites all the followers – many of whom are the former employer’s customers – to check out the new employer’s website? Could that be a violation of that employee’s customer non-solicitation agreement? 

The courts around the country have been grappling with these issues in the recent years and are yet to come up with a bright line rule.  However, they all seem to agree that the more “passive” the social media activity is, the less likely it is to constitute a prohibited solicitation of customers or employees, and the more “active” the posts are or the more akin they are to oral solicitations, the more likely they are to violate non-solicitation restrictions. In this post, I take a closer look at the various decisions from across the country and synthesize common themes. 

1. Employees’ posts about starting a competing business or advertising job openings at their new place of employment on public social media pages. 

In H&R Block Tax Servs., LLC v. Frias, a former H&R Block franchisee promoted his tax services business on a publicly available Facebook page.  No. 4:18-00053-CV-RK, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25667 (W.D. Mo. Feb. 16, 2018). 

H&R Block argued that the Facebook posts were made with the intent of soliciting and influencing former H&R Block customers to visit Defendant’s new tax business. The vast majority of Defendant’s Facebook friends were his former H&R Block clients.  Many of the people who “liked” the post and commented on it were H&R block clients from the Defendant’s client list. Thus, H&R Block argued that posting to friends, who were former clients, was akin to sending them a direct message about Defendant’s new business. Moreover, Defendant actively engaged with H&R clients who commented on his post by telling them to call him.

Defendant argued that his posts on Facebook were just an electronic version of an actual physical sign stating “tax preparation,” which H&R Block had admitted would not be a breach of the non-solicitation agreement. 

The court did not buy H&R’s argument and denied the portion of the preliminary injunction application that sought to prohibit Defendant from posting on social media, requiring additional briefing from the parties on whether Facebook posts were “solicitations” under the Franchise Lease Agreement with H&R Block.  The case was subsequently resolved without the briefing. 

Similarly, in Enhanced Network Solutions Group, Inc. v. Hypersonic Technologies Corp., a subcontractor posted an open position for an outside sales representative on LinkedIn, which could be viewed by the members of a certain group, which included employees of a general contractor. 951 N.E.2d 265 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011).  The general contractor argued that the subcontractor’s post of an open position in a public group within LinkedIn violated the sub’s non-solicitation clause with the general contractor.  The court ruled that the post itself was not a solicitation even though it resulted in a particular employee contacting the subcontractor about the position: 

“The record clearly supports that Dobson made the initial contact with Hypersonic after reading the job posting on a publicly available portal of LinkedIn. In other words, Dobson solicited Hypersonic . . . . Pursuant to the terms of the Agreement, Hypersonic cannot solicit applications but the language does not prohibit Hypersonic from receiving applications from [general contractor’s] employees.”

2. Employees’ announcements of open job positions or advertising of their competing services in private groups where customers or employees are likely to see them. 

In Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. v. Cahill, the employer argued that a former employee’s posts providing general information about his new employer in several private Facebook groups that some of his former colleagues visited and posts about events related to his new employer on his personal Facebook page violated his non-solicitation agreement. 924 F. Supp. 2d 1281 (E.D. Okla. 2013).   Specifically, the plaintiff argued that the defendant’s posts about his new employer were meant to solicit his former co-workers to work at the defendant’s new place of employment because the defendant knew that his Facebook “friends” would see his posts. 

The court ruled in favor of the employee, finding that the posts on his publicly available page touting the benefits of his new employer’s products and his professional satisfaction with his new employer and postings in private groups which could be seen his former co-workers did not violate the employee non-solicitation agreement.   The court noted that: “[t]here was no evidence presented that Defendant’s Facebook posts have resulted in the departure of a single PPLSI associate, nor was there any evidence indicating that Defendant is targeting PPLSI sales associates by posting directly on their walls or through private messaging.”

3. Employees’ announcements of open job positions or advertising of their competing services on their own social media pages which their former customers and co-workers are likely to see. 

In Banker’s Life & Cas. Co. v. Am. Senior Benefits LLC, a former employee posted on his own profile a job opening at his new company and then sent connection requests to several employees at his former company, who would be able to see the job posting on his profile page after they had accepted his connection request. 83 N.E.3d 1085 (Ill App. (1st) (2017).  The court found that his activities did not violate the non-solicitation clause and explained it as follows: 

The generic e-mails [inviting connection from co-workers] did not contain any discussion of Bankers Life, no mention of ASB, no suggestion that the recipient view a job description on Gelineau’s profile page, and no solicitation to leave their place of employment and join ASB. Instead, the e-mails contained the request to form a professional networking connection. Upon receiving the e-mails, the Bankers Life employees had the option of responding to the LinkedIn requests to connect. If they did connect with Gelineau, the next steps, whether to click on Gelineau’s profile or to access a job posting on Gelineau’s LinkedIn page, were all actions for which Gelineau could not be held responsible. Furthermore, Gelineau’s post of a job opening with ASB on his public LinkedIn portal did not constitute an inducement or solicitation in violation of his noncompetition agreement.”

Similarly, in Eva Scrivo Fifth Ave., Inc. v. Rush, a hairstylist announced on her own Instagram page that she had joined a competing business.  No. 656723/2016, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3075, 2017 NY Slip Op 31699(U), ¶ 12 (Sup. Ct., NY County Aug. 9, 2017) (Slip. Op.).  The former employer argued that her post violated the customer non-solicitation clause because the hair stylist had 94 clients as her Instagram followers, and, therefore, her Instagram posts announcing her new salon were solicitations of such clients.

The hair stylist argued that her Instagram announcement was the “industry standard,” her profile was public so anyone could see or “like” her posts, and she did not solicit salon clients to follow or like her Instagram account.  In her post, she made the following announcement: 

HI ALL MY BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE! I’m proud to announce that I am officially opening my book at Marie Robinson this Tuesday NOV 1st! I’m so excited to be joining such a wonderful team and couldn’t be happier.  I hope you will all join me at the new spot for a step up in luxury and al [sic] around cooler vibes! Thank you for the support! Inbox me or email … or call and book apt today with info in bio! CAN’T WAIT!

The court denied a preliminary injunction against the hair stylist and noted that “questions remain[ed] about whether [the hair stylist] engaged in any active solicitation” when she made the two Instagram posts in question and that this issue would have to be resolved at trial. In reaching that decision, the Court pointed to two factors: (1) that the hair stylist “advertised” her new job without referencing her old employer and (2) the only persons who received the information on Instagram were those who pro-actively and voluntarily followed the stylist’s personal Instagram site, only some of whom may have been her former clients.

However,  a district court in Minnesota in Mobile Mini, Inc. v. Vevea reached a different conclusions when it reviewed similar posts by an employee announcing on his page that he had moved to a competitor and encouraging customers to contact him about the new products.  No. 17-1684 (JRT/KMM), 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116235, at *13-14 (D. Minn. July 25, 2017). 

In this case, a former employee – a sales representation for a portable storage company violated – posted the following messages on LinkedIn six months after she had left Plaintiff’s employment:

I’m excited to have joined the City-Cargo Sales Team! We lease and sell clean, safe, and solid storage containers and offices.  We are locally owned and operated, with local live voice answer.  We offer same day delivery to the Metro, and have consistent rental rates with true monthly billing. Give me a call today for a quote. 651-295-2982, and 

Call me today for a storage container quote from the cleanest, newest, safest and best container fleet in the State of Minnesota.  Let’s connect! 651-295-2982.

The former employer argued that the defendant’s LinkedIn posts were visible to her 500-plus connections, including one or more of the employer’s customers, and at least some, if not all, of these connections may have received an email notification about the new posts. The employer also pointed out to the court that when the defendant worked for the plaintiff, her branch manager specifically discussed using LinkedIn to advertise the company’s products and services. 

The Court granted the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction against the defendant explaining it decision as follows: “Instead of merely announcing a job change, the language of the posts here demonstrates that Vevea’s purpose was to entice members of Vevea’s network to call her for the purpose of making sales in her new position at Citi-Cargo.”

4. “Friending” of customers after leaving employment. 

In Invidia, LLC v. DiFonzo,  a hair salon owner argued that a hair stylist violated non-competition and customer non-solicitation covenants in her employment agreement when she made a “public announcement” on her Facebook page, noting her new employment and “friended” at least eight clients of Plaintiff after she began working at the new hair salon. No. MICV20123798H, 2012 Mass. Super. LEXIS 273, 2012 WL 5576406 (Mass. Super. Ct. Oct. 22, 2012).  The defendant argued that being Facebook friends with customers did not qualify as a solicitation of such customers.  The plaintiff argued that Facebook was a significant channel of communication between plaintiff and its customers and the defendant’s posts meant to reach those customers.

The court ruled in favor of the hairstylist and explained its reasoning as follows: “[O]ne can be Facebook friends with other without soliciting those friends to change hair salons, and Invidia presented no evidence of any communications, through Facebook or otherwise, through which Ms. DiFonzo has suggested to these Facebook friends that they should take their business to her [new place of employment].”

5. Social media posts inviting the readers to check out the new employer’s website. 

In BTS USA, Inc. v. Executive Perspectives, LLC, a webpage designer, updated his LinkedIn account to reflect his new job after he had joined a competitor and authored a post  encouraging his contacts to “check out” his new employer’s website.  No. X10CV116010685, 2014 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2644, 2014 WL 6804545 (Conn. Super. Ct. Oct. 16, 2014) (unpublished order). His former employer filed a lawsuit alleging that the defendant’s LinkedIn activities violated the non-solicitation clause in his employment agreement.

The court rejected the employer’s argument nothing in the employee’s employment agreement with his former employer prohibited him from using social media and that “[i]t would be difficult indeed to find liability for such incidental contacts, when the parties to whom they are directed can choose to receive them or not.”  The court further emphasized the importance of addressing social-media solicitation prohibitions in employment agreements:

The court notes that the use of social media, whether it is Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or some other forum, has become embedded in our social fabric.  Absent an explicit provision in an employment contract which governs, restricts or addresses an ex-employee’s use of such media, the court would be hard pressed to read the types of restrictions urged here, under these circumstances, into the agreement. Indeed, such an expansive interpretation of the employment contract would likely render it unenforceable as overly broad.

6. Announcements by sellers of their companies about their new competing businesses. 

As a general rule, the courts are more inclined to enforce non-compete and non-solicitation restraints that accompany a sale of a business (as opposed to an employment agreement).  In Coface Collections N. Am. Inc. v. Newton,the court entered a preliminary injunction enforcing non-compete and non-solicitation clauses in the asset purchase agreement and prohibiting the seller of the business from posting on LinkedIn about a competing business he formed subsequent to the sale. 430 F. App’x 162, 164-5 (3d Cir. 2011)

In this case, the seller of the company agreed to a non-compete and non-solicit covenants with the buyer, but formed and began operating a new company prior to the covenants’ expiration. He updated his LinkedIn profile with his position at a newly-formed competing business, and posted on Facebook to announce that his “non-compete ends on 12/31/2010″ and “I have decided that the USA needs another excellent, employee oriented Commercial Collection Agency,” and invited “experienced professionals” to apply for a job.  He also sent friend requests on Facebook to current employees of the new owner of the company, asking to view the posted notice of job openings at his competing business.  The court found that such activities violated his restrictive covenants with the buyer of his previous company. 

Similarly, in Joseph v. O’Laughlin, after defendant sold his veterinary clinic to plaintiff and agreed to a non-competition and non-solicitation covenants, he formed a limited liability company with named “O’Laughlin Veterinary Services,” created a Facebook page, and posted a link that advised followers that the clinic was “coming soon” and, when activated, directed users to the business’s location on a map. 175 A.3d 1105, 2017 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3191 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017).  Although the defendant argued that his Facebook post about the clinic “coming soon” and announcement of its location was merely “preparatory,” the court entered a permanent injunction prohibiting him from operating a veterinary clinic within the non-compete radius and engaging in any activity that would violate the asset purchase agreement.  Notably, the Court explained its ruling as follows: 

“Upon review of the [fifty-six page exhibit that memorialized the three-month of entries on the Facebook page], it is obvious that, collectively, the posts, “coming soon” announcement, and map directions, are tantamount to a solicitation of [] clients in contravention of the non-compete clause. . . . There is but one reason for O’Laughlin to create the O’Laughlin Veterinary Services Facebook page and maintain contact with former clients: to solicit their business.”3

BOTTOM LINE:   Employers who are concerned about their employees’ ability to solicit customers or employees on social media after they leave should write express prohibitions on such activities into their non-compete and non-solicitation agreements and explain and define how and when the restraints will apply.  Absent such express language, the courts are not likely to enforce non-solicit or non-compete clauses absent aggravating circumstances such as repeated and aggressive client solicitation, social media posts aimed solely at the customers of the business, or a combination of social media posts with other evidence of direct and in-person customer or employee solicitation. 

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.

What Employers Need to Know About Non-Compete Agreements in Texas (Part II)

imagesIn Part I, I described requirements for non-compete agreements in Texas. In Part II, I describe the common mistakes that employers make when it comes to non-compete agreements: 

1. Not signing non-compete agreements with key employees.  It seems like a no-brainer, but there are still a lot of companies out there that do not require their employees to sign any non-compete agreements. This is a mistake.  A reasonable non-compete agreement can benefit both the company and the employees. A company is more likely to invest into training of its employees if it knows that they will not leave to work for a competitor as soon as the training is completed, and fair geographic restriction will not prevent employees from finding future employment.

2. Having restrictions that are too overbroad. Overreaching in non-compete agreements can backfire in that employees end up feeling like they have no choice but to violate them in order to make a living and courts are less likely to enforce such overbroad non-compete agreements. 

3. Not having a legitimate business interest to protect. A Texas employer must share its confidential information or goodwill with an employee in order to create an enforceable non-compete agreement.  There is no legitimate business interest in tying up employees with non-compete agreements if they perform tasks that do not involve specialized training, confidential information or goodwill of their employer. 

4. Making all employees execute the same non-compete agreement. Requiring the same 2-year / 200-mile non-compete agreement for sales people, secretaries, and C-level executives raises a red flag that the company is simply trying to prevent competition and is not protecting a legitimate business interest.  Employees that perform different tasks or serve a different purpose should have different non-compete restraints depending on what they do in the company.

5. Not providing a proper consideration. Different states require different types of consideration for non-compete agreements. In some states, just a promise of future employment is sufficient. In other states, an employer must pay money to an employee in exchange for the promise not to compete.  Texas companies should make sure that their non-compete agreements are supported by the right type of consideration in the state where they plan to enforce the non-compete agreements.

6. Not providing new consideration.  When asking an already-existing employee to sign a non-compete agreement, employers must provide new consideration for the agreement.  For more information, see my previous post here.

7. Not enforcing non-compete agreements. Once proper non-compete agreements are in place, companies should make it a policy to enforce them.  Otherwise, the agreements lose their effectiveness with employees, who quickly learn from co-workers that the company never enforces its contracts. 

8. Not enforcing non-compete agreements fast enough.  This is one of the gravest mistakes for companies in terms of consequences. The longer a company waits to seek a temporary restraining order against an employee who is violating his or her non-compete agreement, the more likely the court is to deny the restraining order because the company cannot show an “imminent” and “irreparable” injury.   In other words, if the company has not tried to stop the bleeding, how bad could the bleeding really be and does the court really need to enter an emergency order?

9. Not providing confidential information. As mentioned above, a proper consideration for a non-compete agreement in Texas includes a company’s promise to provide confidential information to the employees signing the agreement.  Companies, however, must deliver on that promise and actually provide such confidential information in order to make their non-compete agreements enforceable.

10. Not saving an electronic version of the signed non-compete agreements.  Companies must make sure that they save an electronic signed version of their non-compete agreements in a location where employees cannot access and delete them.  

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.

Brace Yourself, Resignations Are Coming. Is Your Company Ready?

resignationAnyone who has been running a business for a while knows that January is a high turnover month for employees. And while companies cannot prevent employee turnover, they can take four steps this month to prevent employees from walking out the door with confidential documents and company trade secrets. 

1. Make Sure Key Employees Have Valid Non-Competition, Non-Solicitation and Confidentiality Agreements in Their Files. 

Conduct an audit of your employees files to make sure that: (1) all key executives, employees with access to confidential databases or documents, and sales people have signed non-competition, non-solicitation and confidentiality agreements in their files; (2) such agreements meet the requirements of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act; (3) the agreements are signed by a company representative; and (4) the company has an electronic version of the agreements so that if the hard copy gets lots, there is a back up.

2. Conduct Confidentiality Training. 

Set aside an hour or two to talk to employees about the importance of maintaining confidentiality of certain company information, go over the confidentiality policy, and answer any questions employees may have.  This way, if they leave, the policy will be fresh in thier minds and they will be more cautious in what they can and cannot share with their new employers. 

3. Verify That Company’s Document Management Systems and Databases Have Security Features Turned On. 

Task your IT person or department to look into what ERP, CRM, and document management systems the company is using and make sure all the security setting are turned on.  Such settings often include the following: (1) alerts when a large amount of data is downloaded; (2) restrictions on what can be printed or downloaded; (3) access restrictions for different employees within the system based on the need-to-know basis; (4)  back up features that allow the company to restore any emails or documents deleted by employees; (5) alerts when information is shared by employees outside the authorized company systems, and many others. 

4. Remind Employees During the Exit Process of Their Continuing Obligations to the Company.

Finally, when you do get a resignation notice, as soon as possible, meet with the employee to remind him or her about any non-competition, non-solicitation and non-disclosure requirements in their employment agreement and make sure the employee returns all of the company equipment and documents prior to leaving the company.  If you find out or suspect that the resigning employee might be going to a competitor, preserve their email accounts and devices issued by the company while you analyze whether their move may violate their restrictive covenants. 

Texas Bar Association Top Ten Legal Blogs in TexasAt Lewis Brisbois, we help companies design proper confidentiality procedures and policies, draft enforceable non-competition, non-solicitation and non-disclosure agreements, conduct confidentiality training with employees, and if trade secrets theft is suspected, help investigate it and prosecute it in courts around the country. 

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.

 

The Rise in Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants Litigation – Live Presentation

screenshot_20190107-093330_instagram-01I will be presenting with Stanley Santire of Santire Law Firm on the The Rise in Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants Litigation on January 17th at 2:30 p.m. at the Texas Bar Advanced Employment Law Course in Dallas, Texas.  You can get a copy of our paper by registering to attend the event (registration link here).

This is a fantastic course for employment lawyers in Texas, which offers 15 hours of CLE credit over two days.

Additional presentations will include:

  • State Law Update
  • Anti-Slapp Update
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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.

Three Key Factors in Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements

What distinguishes those companies that are successful in enforcing their non-compete agreements from those that are not?  Generally speaking, just three “no-brainer” factors:

1. They have good agreements.  A non-compete enforcement lawsuit is a breach of contract case.  Thus, those companies that have good agreements – the ones that set out reasonable restrictions, are clear and unambiguous, are signed by all the necessary parties, and are supported by proper consideration – have an advantage in court.  

The courts around the country scrutinize the language of non-compete agreements before deciding whether to restrict employees’ activities based on that language.  The more vague, incomprehensible, unreasonable the restraints in the agreements are, the less the likely the courts are to order employees to comply with them. 

2. They have evidence of violations.  Suspicions, rumors, or fear that an employee might be violating a non-compete agreement are not enough to support an injunction in court.  Those companies that are successful in enforcing their non-compete agreements usually come to court with some evidence that an employee either has already violated the agreement or intends to imminently do so.  The evidence does not have to be direct, i.e., employee admitting to someone that they are violating the agreement, and it may be circumstantial, but an application to enforce  an agreement must be supported by some evidence and not just a fear or speculation.

3. They move quickly.  Those companies that are successful in enforcing their non-compete agreements do not wait around to see how far an employee will go or what s/he employee might do.  Once they have evidence of a violation, they file a lawsuit within days of obtaining such evidence.  A swift action impresses upon a judge that the business is going to suffer irreparable harm unless the court steps in and enters an order preventing an employee from violating his or her non-compete agreement.

Keep in mind that all is not lost for those companies that do not have signed non-compete agreements with their employees as employees have certain duties to their employers even in the absence of an employment contract restricting their post-employment activities. 

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.

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.

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.