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 employees 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?

linkedin-new-job-announcement

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.

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.

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.

A Broken Promise of Whoppers “For Life”: Why the Oregon Man’s Lawsuit Against Burger King Is Going Nowhere

A man wants free whoppers for life after getting locked in a Burger King bathroom and he has filed a lawsuit to get them. He claims that a local manager promised to provide him free hamburgers to compensate for a traumatic experience of being stuck in a bathroom for “well over an hour,” but the regional manager reneged the offer after the man began frequenting the location on the daily basis.

Mr. Brooner wants the court to force Burger King to keep providing him with one free whopper a week for the next 22 years (his projected life expectancy until he is 72) or, alternatively, award him close to $10,000 in damages, which is the price equivalent of the 22-years’ worth of weekly whoppers.

Normally, I would read something like this chuckle and move on, but this particular scenario raised many of the same questions that I get from my clients in some of the most complicated contractual disputes, so I thought I’d address some of them here:

Since the promise to provide burgers “for life” is not in writing, is it even enforceable?*

Probably yes. Certain contracts are enforceable even if they are not in writing. Typically, contracts that can be performed within one year are enforceable even if they are not in writing. Since Mr. Brooner’s life could end at any time, including within 12 months from the promise made by the manager, the contract to provide burgers “for life” could terminate within 12 months.  Thus, an oral contract to provide burgers “for life” is probably enforceable.

Can Burger King be responsible for a promise made by an employee without authority to make such a promise?

Probably not.  An employee of a company can bind the company only if a “reasonable” third party would understand that the employee had the authority to act the way s/he did on behalf of the company.  It is unlikely that a “reasonable” person would believe that a manager of a fast food restaurant had the authority to offer free burgers “for life” to a customer on behalf of the company. While in this case it appears to be a clear-cut issue that is likely to cost Mr. Brooner his claim, an agent’s authority to enter into contracts on behalf of his or her employer is often a hotly-litigated issue in contractual disputes.

What if the manager did not mean to offer burgers “for life” but said something like “any time you come in, the burgers are on us”? 

This is a tough one. For a valid contract to exist, there must be “a  meeting  of the minds,” i.e., both people should be on the same page as to what the terms of the agreement are.  As you can imagine, countless lawsuits arise out of the parties disagreeing over what the contract is  supposed  to  accomplish.  In such situations, a court will  typically  look  at  the words  of  the  contract, first, to determine the meaning.  If  those  are  ambiguous,  then the court will  take  in  evidence  from  both  parties  to  determine  their  intent in entering into the agreement.  Here, if the court determines that the manager’s promise was ambiguous, the  testimony  of  the  manager  about  what  he intended to offer to Brooner will be key.

Since Brooner did not promise anything in return for getting free whoppers, there was no valid contract, right?

Not really. There is an argument here that Brooner gave up his right to sue the restaurant or leave  negative  comments about  it  on  social  media  in  exchange  for getting free whoppers, as giving up a right to do so something in exchange for money or  other  consideration  can  create  a  contract.  Indeed,  employees  constantly  give  up  their  right  to  sue  the  employer  in  exchange  for  a  severance payment.

Can Brooner really get  the  damages  he  wants  on  the  assumption  that  he  will live 22 more years?

Probably not.  Generally speaking, a person seeking contract damages, must prove them with “reasonable certainty.”  In a complicated contractual dispute, expert witnesses would testify about what is reasonably certain.  In this case, Mr. Brooner’s health condition, average life expectancy, his lifestyle, how long this particular location of Burger King is expected to remain open, and many other factors can play a role in whether he can establish that he is reasonably certain to take advantage of free burgers for the next 22 years.

And there you have it.  Next time you get locked in a bathroom of a restaurant, get an executive level person on the phone to authorize a life-time supply of meals, or better, call me to negotiate and paper the deal for you.

*This is a discussion of general legal principles and not a legal advice, as each state has  somewhat different contract laws and exceptions and each contractual dispute involves its own set of facts that may affect claims and defenses available to the parties involved in such a 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.