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.

 

 

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.

Buc-ee’s Repayment Provision in the Employment Agreement Is Declared Unlawful, Likened to Indentured Servitude

Buc-ees 2Last month  I wrote about how Texas employers can require employees to repay the employers’ training expenses related to those employees, even if that means repaying an equivalent of 1/3 of an employee’s salary.   I culminated my article cautioning the companies to make sure that their repayment requirements in the employment agreements do not violate the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act of 1983. 

Later the same week, the Houston Court of Appeals found that Buc-ee’s did just that by requiring its assistant manager to repay more than $66,000 in salary for leaving her at-will job to go work for another company, which was not even a competitor of Buc-ee’s. 

Here’s a quick look at what Buc-ee’s did, what the Court of Appeals thought of it, and the lessons that Texas employers can take away from this case.

Buc-ee’s’ Employment Agreements

In 2009, Rieves came to work as an assistant manager for Buc-ee’s. The wages arrangement was such that 70% of her salary would be paid on hourly basis and 30% would be paid in flat fee, translating into $14 an hour and a fixed monthly bonus of $1,528.67 (the “Additional Compensation”).

This 2009 Employment Agreement specifically said that Rieves was an “at-will employee” but also stated that she was “required to work” for Buc-ee’s a minimum of five years and had to provide the employer with a 6-month written separation notice.  If she failed to meet these two requirements, regardless of the reason, she had to repay all of the Additional Compensation.

In 2010, Rieves entered into a new employment agreement with Buc-ee’s that contained similar requirements (4 year term and 6-month separation notice) and stated that if Rieves left before 2014, she had to repay a portion of her salary under the 2010 Employment Agreement and the Additional Compensation under the 2009 Employment Agreement. Thus, under the 2010 Employment Agreement, the longer Rieves worked for Buc-ee’s, the more of  her salary she would have had to pay back. 

The Court of Appeals’ Analysis

In looking at the employment agreements, the Court first and foremost noted that Rieves was an “at-will employee,” which, under the long-standing doctrine in Texas, meant that her employment could be terminated by her or Buc-ee’s for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all. 

Furthermore, the repayment provisions in Rieves’s employment agreements imposed a severe economic penalty on her if she exercised her right as an at-will employee to leave Buc-ee’s.  Therefore, these provisions had to comply with the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act in order to be enforceable.  They did not.

The repayment provisions penalized Rieves even if Buc-ee’s fired her without a cause and they were not related to Buc-ee’s legitimate business interest because they penalized Rieves even if she went to work for a company that was not Buc-ee’s competitor.  Therefore, the repayment provisions were an unfair restraint of trade in violation of the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act and were not enforceable.

The Lessons for Texas Employers

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicWhile Texas recognizes the freedom of parties to contract, employers cannot enter into contracts that are illegal.  Under the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act, “every contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce is unlawful.”  Non-competition agreements that are reasonable and are designed to protect a legitimate business interest are an exception to the rule.  Any other restraint in an employment agreement that prohibits an at-will employee from leaving his or her current employer or restricts such employee’s ability to sell his or her skills in the marketplace is likely to violate the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act.

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.

Is Your Non-Compete Agreement Enforceable?

stevecarelEvery state has its own rules about the enforceability of non-compete agreements, with many technical requirements, carve outs for certain industries like medical and technology, and various presumptions or public policy-driven rules regarding employers’ ability to limit competition from former employees.

Recently, I’ve been receiving a lot of inquiries from Texas employers or companies that are moving to Texas regarding: (1) whether non-compete agreements are enforceable in Texas?  (2) what types of non-compete agreements are enforceable in this state?  and (3) when should I enforce my non-compete agreement against a departed employee? Many of these companies already have non-compete agreements with their employees, but are worried about their enforceability in Texas courts. 

I have previously written about how to enforce non-compete agreements in Texas, here, here, and hereSo, the answer to the first question is a resounding “Yes, non-compete agreements are enforceable in Texas.”

The answer to the second question is that, generally, only non-compete agreements with reasonable geographic, time and scope restrictions are enforceable in Texas. 

Assuming a positive answer to the first two questions, the answer to the third question depends on the circumstances of a particular departed employee and the answer to the following questions:

  • What position is the employee in at your company? C-Suite? Sales? Another position that gives him or her access to sensitive information within the company?
  • What special skills the employee has and what specialized training the employee has received in that position? 
  • Is the company where the employee is going a competitor of your company?
  • What position is the departed employee going to take at his or her new place of employment? Is it the same or similar position to what he or she was doing at your company?
  • How likely is it that the employee will use the confidential information he learned while working for you at his new job?
  • What activities does your non-compete prohibit the employee from doing?
  • For how long?  Remember, it must be reasonable.
  • What area does it cover? Reasonableness is key. 
  • Did you provide the right type of consideration for the employee’s promise not to compete?
  • Do you have a non-solicit agreement that will protect your company without having to enforce the non-compete agreement?

All of these factors will come into play if you decide to enforce a non-compete agreement in Texas. Additionally, you will need to consider where to file the lawsuit, the evidence that you will need in order to obtain a temporary restraining order against the employee, and a host of procedural and discovery issues that come along with litigating a non-compete case. 

Bottom Line: Enforcing non-compete agreements is as much of a business decision as it is a legal one.  Having a non-compete agreement that is legally enforceable, allows you to decide whether it makes business sense to enforce it against a particular employee.  Without a legally enforceable non-compete agreement, however, the business reasons may not even matter. 

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.

2017 Welcomes Changes in Non-Compete Laws

imagesThis year, California, Illinois and Nevada amended their non-compete statutes to help protect the employees’ right to change employers vis-à-vis the employers’ right to restrict unfair competition. Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington considered various amendments, but were unsuccessful in signing them into law, which means they will probably try again in 2018.   

California

An amendment to the California Labor Code, which became effective on January 1, 2017, prohibits employers from requiring employees to litigate or arbitrate employment disputes (1) outside of California or (2) under the laws of another state. The only exception is where an employee was individually represented by a lawyer in negotiating his employment contract.

Penalties apply to an employer who requires a California employee who primarily works and resides in California to sign “as a condition of employment,” an agreement with a provision that requires the employee to adjudicate disputes arising in California in a forum outside of California or under the law of another state.

Illinois

Illinois passed the Freedom to Work Act, effective January 1, 2017, which bars non-compete agreements for workers who earn less than the greater of the federal, state or local minimum wage, or $13.00 an hour.

Nevada

In June of this year, Nevada amended its non-compete statute to state that a non-competition covenant may not restrict a former employee from providing services to a former customer or client if: (1) the former employee did not solicit the former customer or client; (2) the customer or client voluntarily chose to leave and seek the services of the employee; and (3) the former employee is otherwise complying with the non-competition agreement.

The statute also now provides that if there is a reduction in force, reorganization, or similar restructuring, the laid-off employee’s non-competition agreement is only enforceable during the time in which the employer continues to pay the employee’s salary, benefits, or equivalent compensation to the employee.  

Finally, the statute now allows “blue-penciling” and gives the Nevada courts the ability to strike or modify unreasonable terms or provisions from a non-compete agreement and enforce the revised agreement.

More and more states are trying to strike a balance between the workers’ right to change employers and the companies’ right to protect their business interests and goodwill. The end result is a patchwork of non-compete statutes that impose different requirements on employers that operate in different states.  Companies that have employees in several states should consult with legal counsel to make sure that their post-employment covenants are enforceable with respect to all of their employees, regardless of the location.

Leiza represents companies in business and employment litigation.  If you need assistance with a business or employment dispute contact Leiza for a confidential consultation aLeiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

 

Can an Employee Prepare to Compete with His Employer While Still on the Employer’s Payroll?

non-compete-agreement-lawyer-philadelphiaIn Texas, employees have the right to resign from employment and go into business in competition with their employers (absent a non-compete agreement). There is nothing legally wrong in engaging in such competition or in preparing to compete before the employment terminates.

Thus, as a general rule, an employee can prepare to compete with the employer while still on the employer’s payroll.   There are several caveats to that, however:

  1. Employees cannot use their employers’ resources – such as company-provided computers – to engage in the preparatory activities.
  2. Employees cannot prepare to compete while on the clock.
  3. Employees cannot use their position within the company and their knowledge of the company’s trade secrets and confidential information to divert business to their new company or to create business opportunities for their new business.

Where an employee is discovered to have engaged in some activities in anticipation of his new endeavor while still working for his old employer, the question often arises whether he was preparing to compete or actually competing with the employer.

For example, registering a company with the Secretary of State is a clearly preparatory activity.  However,  advertising the formation of the company on social media or creating a website announcing that the company will be opening soon can be viewed as a competitive activity.  In illustration, the Pennsylvania Superior Court recently held that a company which set up a Facebook page announcing that it was going to open a veterinary clinic “soon” and provided a link to a map showing the location of the future clinic was not merely “preparing to compete” but was actually competing and soliciting customers.  The court explained that:

Upon review of that document, it is obvious that, collectively, the [Facebook] posts, “coming soon” announcement, and map directions, are tantamount to a solicitation of past or future clients in contravention of the non-compete clause. The resounding purpose of the Facebook page, and the attendant communications therein, was to inform the followers of the page, including former clients, that he intended to open a new clinic and to keep them apprised of his progress. 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. 

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicBOTTOM LINE FOR EMPLOYERS: While employees have the right to prepare to compete before their employment is terminated, they cannot cross the line and actually compete with their employers.  If you learn that your employee is announcing on social media or online that he or she is getting ready to go into competition with your company, it might be a good time to call an employment lawyer.

Leiza represents companies in business and employment litigation.  If you need assistance with a business or employment dispute contact Leiza for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.