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.

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.

What Are Acceptable Non-Solicitation Restraints for Sales Employees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

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.

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.

Top 10 Mistakes Employers Make With Non-Compete Agreements

good-wifeWhile helping hundreds of companies enforce their non-compete agreements and advising many employees on how to get out of them, I noticed that most companies make the same mistakes when it comes to drafting and enforcing their non-compete agreements. In this post, I share the top ten mistakes that often end up costing business their clients, goodwill, and a ton of legal fees:

  1. Not signing non-compete agreements with 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 employees with non-compete agreements, and employees will still remain free to work in their chosen field after leaving the employer, subject to a reasonable geographic limit. 
  2. Having restrictions that are too overbroad. Overreaching in non-compete agreements can backfire in that employees feel like they have no choice but to violate them in order to make a living and courts are not likely to grant a temporary retraining order or a temporary injunction on a non-compete that is clearly overbroad. 
  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.  An hourly employee, such as a sandwich-maker or a mechanic, is not going to have access to any confidential information or specialized training.  Thus, most of the time, there would be no legitimate business interest in having such employees subject to a non-compete. Therefore, before asking an employee to sign a non-compete agreement, employers should ask, “What specific business interest am I trying to protect?”
  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 having new consideration.  When asking an already-existing employee to sign a non-compete agreement, employers must provide new consideration for such agreement.  For more information, see my previous post here.
  7. Not enforcing non-compete agreements. Once the 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 the agreements. 
  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 employee.  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 or take them.

BOTTOM LINE:  Spending some money at the front end of an employment relationship to make sure that the company is protected with a valid non-compete under Texas law can save a company ten times that amount in legal fees when the times comes to enforce the non-compete agreement.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries in federal and state courts. For a consultation regarding a dispute involving a noncompete agreement or misappropriation of trade secrets, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

A Texas Company Loses a Non-Compete Battle Against California Employees

Texas-vs-CaliforniaCalifornia and Texas differ in many respects, including how they treat non-compete agreements.  While Texas enforces non-compete restraints that are reasonable, California has declared such agreements unenforceable.  Recently, a company headquartered in Texas attempted to enforce its non-compete agreements against two California employees.  The agreements specifically stated that they “shall be governed and construed in accordance with the substantive laws of the State of Texas,” that the company is based in Irving, Texas, and that the agreements are to be partially performed in in Irving, Texas. Despite this language, the trial court and then the Dallas Court of Appeals applied California law and ruled the agreements unenforceable in Merritt, Hawkins & Associates, LLC v. Caporicci, et al.

The Court of Appeals explained that in a situation like this, where two states have a relationship with the parties and the transaction, i.e., employment, it will apply the law of the state that has “clearly more significant” relationship to the parties and the transaction. The court then concluded that the relationship to California was more significant than to Texas because: (1) both men interviewed for the jobs in California; (2) completed their employment agreements and the jobs in California; (3) the employees lived in California and traveled to Texas infrequently; and (4) the gist of their employment agreements was performance of services in California.

The Court of Appeals also looked at whether California or Texas had a “materially greater interest” in determining whether the non-compete agreements were enforceable.  Although the company was based in Texas, the two employees performed services in California, and after they left the company, it had to close its California offices.  Based on these facts, the Court of Appeals concluded that while Texas shared a general interest in “protecting the justifiable expectations of entities doing business in several states, that [did] not outweigh California’s interests in this case.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals concluded that the enforcement of the non-compete agreements would be contrary to a “fundamental policy of California,” which was the final nail in the coffin of the company’s argument that the agreements should be enforced under Texas law.

Takeway:  Although a company may state in its employment agreement that the law of a certain state will apply, Texas courts may choose to apply the law of another state if that state has a more significant relationship with the parties or the employment agreements.  The legal analysis depends on a multitude of factors and will vary depending on where the company is located, where its employees are located, what their job functions are, as well as the public policy of the other states in question.  Texas companies that have employees in other states should keep that in mind when hiring or recruiting executives in other states.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of COMPANIES and EMPLOYEES in a variety of industries, and has advised hundreds of clients regarding non-compete and trade secret issues. If you need assistance with a non-compete or a trade secret misappropriation situation, contact Leiza for a confidential consultation at LDolghih@GodwinLaw.com or (214) 939-4458.