The Fifth Circuit Refuses to Extend Title VII to Sexual Orientation or Transgender Status

downloadOver the past two years, the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits have construed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of either sexual orientation or transgender status.

Last year, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, when confronted with the issue, referenced the other circuits and ruled that it assumed that an employee’s “status as a transgender woman place[d] here under the protections of Title VII.”  See Wittmer v. Phillips 66 Co., 304 F. Supp. 3d 627, 634 (S.D. Tex. 2018). This past week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district’s grant of summary judgment against the transgender employee, but clarified that in the Fifth Circuit (which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi), Title VII affords no protections against discrimination by employers on the basis of transgender status or sexual orientation.

Specifically, the Fifth Circuit invoked its own opinion from 1979 stating that it remains the binding  precedent in this circuit.  See Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp., 97 F.2d 936 (5th Cir. 1979) (holding that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation).  Furthermore, despite the amicus briefs from the EEOC and the National Center for Lesbian Rights asking the Fifth Circuit to hold that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of transgender status, the court of appeals did not grant their request.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for Phillips 66 because the employee failed to present sufficient evidence to support a prima facie case of discrimination, and because the employee failed to present a genuine issue of material fact concerning pretext.  The evidence in this cased showed that Wittmer conditional job offer was revoked because the background check showed that she had been terminated by her previous employer, which contradicted her representations to Phillips 66 during her job interview.

BOTTOM LINE: The question of whether Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act covers LGBTQ employees continues to percolate in the courts, and at least three petitions involving this issue are pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.  While the law in this area continues to develop, it may be wise for companies confronted with this issue to take a cue from Phillips 66, which sidestepped the issue of transgender protections under Title VII and instead focused on the lack of evidence that the employee experienced any discrimination in its job application process and that the company had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason to revoke the job offer.

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.

What is a “Reasonable” Non-Competition Agreement?

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. 

 

 

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

imagesIn Texas, non-compete agreements are generally enforceable if they meet certain requirements. Specifically, they must be: (1) part of an otherwise enforceable agreement, (2) reasonable, and (3) not greater than is necessary to protect a legitimate business interest. 

Part of an Otherwise Enforceable Agreement

This simply means that a stand-alone non-competition agreement is not enforceable in Texas.  Instead, a promise not to compete with an employer must be part of another valid agreement. Most of the time, non-compete clauses are included in employment agreements, but they can also be used in confidentiality or restricted stock units (RSU) award agreements. 

Reasonable

Non-competition agreements in Texas must be reasonable as to the geographic area, duration, and scope of activity restricted. In court, employers have the burden of explaining why certain restrictions are reasonable, so they should be prepared to explain why the restrictions included in their non-compete agreements are reasonable for their industry, their business, and with respect to a particular employee against whom they seek to enforce the agreement. Not surprisingly, the reasonableness of the restrictions is one of the most hotly litigated issues in non-compete lawsuits and its resolution often depends on the industry, the type of the business involved, the duties of the employee, and several other factors.

Typically, geographic restrictions should be limited to the geographic area where the employee worked.  However, a larger restriction may be permissible in certain situations where the employee’s duties justify it.

As a general rule, two- to five-year duration is considered a reasonable non-compete term in an employment relationship (the rules are different for non-compete agreements related to a sale of business).

Finally, the scope of restricted activity must be reasonable in that an employee who goes to a competitor to work in a different capacity from what he or she did at the former company, should be able to do so.  Thus, the restraints should be related to the employee’s duties at his or her current place of employment.

Related to Legitimate Business Interest

Since Texas law places the burden on employers to show that their employment non-compete agreements are enforceable, employers must be able to explain why and how the restraints are related to their business interest. If the only explanation for a non-competition clause is that the employer wants to prevent competition from a former employee for a certain time period, such a “naked restraint” without business justification will not hold up in court.

Non-Ambiguous 

Non-compete agreements should be clear as to what they prohibit, when they end, and what territory they cover. If the language of the agreement can be subject to several interpretations, does not make sense, or is not clear as to the precise restraint parameters, an employer may have a hard time enforcing it in court.  Indeed, some courts refuse to order employees not to violate their noncompete agreements where the terms are not clear (an injunction order).  This is why a hastily written non-competition agreement, or one that is not well thought-through, may not be effective when the time comes to enforce it. 

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
  • Conducting Effective Investigations
  • What Is it Worth? How We Value Employment Cases 
  • Proving Up Attorney’s Fees
  • Structuring Settlement Agreements
  • Practical Applications and Q&A
  • Best Practices in Summary Judgment
  • Defining Harassment: Has it Really Changed in the #metoo Era
  • Effective Training: You Need More Than a Video
  • The Evolving Landscape of LGBTQ Protections
  • FMLA and FLSA Updates 
  • Social Media Evidence and Ethics 

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.

Top 5 Non-Compete Cases in Texas in 2018

Top5Unlike many other states around the country, Texas did not see any drastic changes in its non-competition laws in 2018.  However, out of a 100 + cases involving non-competition disputes, the following handful stand out: 

  1. Thoroughbred Ventures, LLC v. Disman, Civil Action No. 4:18-CV-00318, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133697, at *10 (E.D. Tex. 2018).*

HeldA non-disclosure agreement that prohibits employees from using, in competition with the former employer, the general knowledge, skill, and experience acquired in former employment is similar to a non-compete clause and must meet the requirements of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act. 

Why it made the top five list: This is the first case in Texas to hold that certain non-disclosure clauses may have to meet the same requirements as non-competition agreements.  

Quote: “An agreement prohibiting a former employee in this field from disclosing his acquaintances would therefore be a non-competition agreement in disguise, and would be unenforceable as such. Some of the other categories of confidential information-for example, financial information-might present different problems, but the present motion does not accuse the Former Employees of disclosing anything other than information related to Clients and Contractors.’”

2. Fomine v. Barrett, No. 01-17-00401-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 10024, at *8 (App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 6, 2018)

Held:  A non-competition clause that covers a geographic area where an employer plans to extend its business in the future, without any concrete plans to do so (i.e. just the owner saying s/he is going to expand), is geographically overbroad.

Why it made the top five list: Employers will often include in their non-competition agreements areas of future business expansion.  This case demonstrates that unless the plans for future expansion are definite,  the employers should stick with the area where the business currently operates or where its employees currently work. 

3. Ortega v. Abel, No. 01-16-00415-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 6690, at *11 (App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Aug. 23, 2018).

Held: The right of first refusal in the asset purchase agreement, which prohibited a party from operating a business without first offering another party the right to be a partner in the business was a “restraint of trade,” subject to the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act. 

Why it made the top five list:  This case demonstrates that Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act applies to any restraint of trade, not just the plain vanilla non-competition and non-solicitation agreements in the employment or sale of business context. 

4. Accruent, LLC v. Short, No. 1:17-CV-858-RP, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1441, at *12 (W.D. Tex. 2018).

Held: A non-competition clause that prohibits employees from competing with their employer anywhere where the employer does business (as opposed to where the employees worked) can be enforceable against those employees who had extensive access to the company’s confidential information.

Why it made the top five list:  Generally speaking, an employer can only prohibit an employee from competing in the area where the employee worked. However, this case creates an exception to the rule where employees have extensive access to and “intimate knowledge” of highly confidential information of their employer. 

Quote: “Because Short was Lucernex’s senior solution engineer, he now has an “intimate knowledge of all Lucernex product functionality.” Short knows about Lucernex’s unreleased software and its roadmap for future product development. He knows the product functionalities requested by Lucernex customers. He knows Lucernex’s business development plans, its market research, its sales goals, and its marketing strategy. . . Given everything Short knows about Lucernex and its products, customers, and prospects, Short can help a competitor take business from Accruent in any state or country where Lucernex did business. It is therefore reasonable for the noncompete provision to extend to every state or country in which Lucernex did business.”

5. D’Onofrio v. Vacation Publ’ns, Inc., 888 F.3d 197, 212 (5th Cir. 2018)

Held: A non-competition clause that prohibits an employee from working for competitors of the former employer “in any capacity,” without geographic or client-based boundaries, is unenforceable. 

Why it made the top five list:  The Fifth Circuit confirmed, yet again, that an industry-wide restraint on a departing employee, which is not limited to a certain geographic area or the clients that the employee dealt with, is unenforceable under the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act.     

*Keep in mind that any decisions mentioned in this post may be appealed and their holdings may be overruled.  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.

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 Issues Its First Decision on the Defend Trade Secrets Act

trade secrets label on folder

Two and a half years after the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) became effective, the Fifth Circuit has issued its first opinion addressing the statute.  Earlier this month, the Court ruled that: (1) a party must “prevail” before it can recover any attorney’s fees under the DTSA and (2) a plaintiff’s dismissal of its claims without prejudice does not confer the “prevailing party” status on defendants. 

Dunster Live, LLC v. Lonestar Logos Management Company, LLC involved a situation where the plaintiff, Dunster, having lost an injunction hearing in a trade secrets case in federal court, wanted to dismiss the case without prejudice and refile it in a state court sans the DTSA claim.  Under 41(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, if a defendant has already answered the lawsuit or filed a motion for summary judgment, plaintiff is required to file a motion with the court asking for a permission to dismiss its claims without prejudice. The district court granted Dunster’s motion to dismiss, and the plaintiff proceeded to file an almost identical trade secrets lawsuit but without the DTSA claim in a state court.

After the dismissal, Lonestar sought to recover its attorney’s fees of over $600,000 on the basis that Dunster had brought its federal lawsuit in “bad faith.” The district court denied Lonestar’s request for attorney’s fees holding that a dismissal without prejudice of Dunster’s claims did not make Lonestar a “prevailing party” under the DTSA.

Lonestar furter argued that Dunster sought to evade paying attorneys fees by strategically seeking a dismissal without prejudice once it realized that its lawsuit was doomed, and that the DTSA’s “bad faith” provision supported a fee award even when a defendant had not officially prevailed.  The DTSA’s provision upon which Lonestar relied states the following:

[i]f a claim of the misappropriation is made in bad faith, which may be established by circumstantial evidence, a motion to terminate an injunction is made or opposed in bad faith, or the trade secret was willfully and maliciously misappropriated, [a court may] award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.  18 U.S.C. 1836(b)(3)(D).

The district court rejected this argument as well denying Lonestar’s request for attorney’s fees.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling finding that a dismissal without prejudice under the DTSA did not confer the status of a “prevailing party” on Lonestar, similar to other federal statutes that allow prevailing parties to recover attorney’s fees, such as the Equal Access to Justice Act, Patent Act, Civil Rights Act, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Court also rejected Lonestar’s argument that the DTSA only required a showing of “bad faith” by a plaintiff in filing a lawsuit and not a showing that a defendant was a “prevailing party.”  It explained that “[a]llowing bad faith alone to support a fee award would improperly read the concluding language of Section 1836(b)(3)(D) – ‘the prevailing party’ – out of the statute.”  Thus, a party seeking attorney’s fees under the DTSA must establish both: (1) that it is a prevailing party and (2) one of the three qualifying scenarios described in 1836(b)(3)(D).

TAKEAWAY:  With the DTSA becoming effective on May 11, 2016, plaintiffs in Texas now have a choice of whether to seek redress for trade secrets misappropriation in state courts or federal courts.  Dunster makes it clear that as long as plaintiff has brought its DTSA claim in good faith in federal court, it may have a chance to change the strategy down the road and explore its claims in state court without facing the penalty of having to pay defendant’s attorneys fees as the result of dismissing its federal lawsuit without prejudice.

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.

Non-Compete Agreements: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in TexasLast week, a Texas Court of Appeals ruled that a non-compete agreement between a transportation logistics broker and its freight carrier was unreasonable because it was not clear when the 24-month non-compete period would begin to run. This case serves as a reminder that a confusing, ambiguous, or imprecise non-compete agreement will yield poor results in court.  In other words: garbage in, garbage out. 

The covenant not to compete at issue was meant to ensure that the freight carrier would not take away the broker’s clients after the broker had revealed their identity to the carrier.  Thus, there was a legitimate business reason for the non-compete agreement.  However, the following language in the agreement created a problem: 

For a period of twenty four (24) months following the Carrier’s last contact with any client or client[s] of Broker the Carrier agrees it shall not either directly or indirectly influence or attempt to influence customers or clients of Broker (or any of its present or future subsidiaries or affiliates) for whom the Carrier has rendered services pursuant to this Agreement to divert their business to the Carrier or any individual, partnership, firm, corporation or other entity then in competition or planning to be in competition in the future with the business of Broker or any subsidiary or affiliate of Broker. 

The Court explained that there were two problems with this language that made it impossible to determine how long the restrictive covenant was going to last.  First, under the terms of the covenant not to compete, the 24-month restraint period would start from the date of the carrier’s last contact with “any” client of the broker, not just the clients that the carrier had provided services to.  Since the broker testified that its client list was a trade secret, the carrier would have no way of determining the date of its last contact with the clients whose identity it had no way of knowing.  Second, the non-compete would begin to run from the date of the last contact, regardless of whether the contact took place during or after the broker-carrier agreement had terminated, which meant that it could begin at any time. 

Consequently, the Court ruled that a covenant not to compete that extended for an indeterminable amount of time was not reasonable, and as a result, was not enforceable. It reversed the jury’s finding that the agreement had been breached and took away the damages the jury had awarded to the broker.

Texas Bar Association Top TenBOTTOM LINE:  There are plenty of “sample” non-compete agreement “forms” online, but there is a difference between a non-compete clause and a non-compete clause that is enforceable. Unfortunately, many companies do not find that out until they are in court trying to enforce their agreements that may not be enforceable.  Companies should avoid using “standard” non-compete clauses and make sure that their restraints are tightly drafted to address their specific industry, business model, and particular needs. 

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.