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.

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. 

 

 

Top 5 Non-Compete Cases in Texas in 2017

yearendAlthough the weather outside suggests otherwise, it is, indeed, December – a time traditionally reserved for reflection upon the year’s achievements.  So, let’s take a look at the top five most important non-compete cases in Texas in 2017.

  1. BM Med. Mgmt. Serv., LLC v. Turner (Tex. App.–Dallas, Jan. 10, 2017)*

Held: The employer failed to show a probable, imminent, and irreparable injury in breach of a non-compete case, as the employee had returned his computer and testified that he did not possess any papers or electronic files related to the employer’s business.

Why it made the Top Five list:  Early in each non-compete breach / trade secrets theft case, an employer may have an opportunity to examine the departed employee’s devices and confirm that its confidential information is no longer there.  This case demonstrates that taking advantage of that opportunity may result in the denial of a temporary injunction as it eliminates the probability of imminent and irreparable injury since the employee no longer has the employer’s confidential information.

2. In re Pickrell (Tex. App.–Waco, April 19, 2017)

Held: The employer failed to produce evidence necessary to obtain a Rule 202 pre-suit deposition to investigate whether its former employee had  honored his non-compete obligations.

Why it made the Top Five list:  A party contemplating a lawsuit in Texas may sometimes depose the potential defendant to determine if it has a legal claim against him/her.  This procedure is called a pre-suit or Rule 202 deposition.  In re Pickrell shows that an employer cannot depose a departed employee for the purpose of investigating whether he/she honored his non-compete agreement based on the employer’s suspicion that the employee may be violating the agreement solely because he is now working for a competitor. 

3. Sanders v. Future Com., Ltd. (Tex. App.–Fort Worth, May 18, 2017)

Held: Requiring an employee to repay training costs is not a covenant not to compete and is not subject to the requirements of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act.

Why it made the Top Five List: This case establishes that Texas employers can deduct reasonable training expenses out of employees’ salaries if they leave before the employer is able to recoup its training costs.  Any overreaching, however, by employers may result in a violation of the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act.  See, for example, Rieves v. Buc-ee’s Ltd. (below). Additionally, any deductions need to be structured to comply with other laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, and must be verifiable and not speculative. For more information, look here.

4. Rieves v. Buc-ee’s Ltd., (Tex. App.–Houston, Oct. 12, 2017)

Held: Requiring an employee to repay a portion of her salary upon termination is a “restraint on trade” in violation of the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act. 

Why it made the Top Five List:  The Court’s decision shows that any provision in the employment agreement that restricts employee’s mobility must be analyzed through the lens of the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act, not just non-compete clauses. For more information, look here.

5. Horizon Health Corp. v. Acadia Healthcare Co. (Tex.  2017)

Held: The employer failed to establish that the departed employee’s actions caused it lost profits because it could not prove that the customer that went with the departed employee would have signed a contract with the employer. 

Why it made the Top Five List:  Texas courts require that a company seeking damages based on lost profits produce evidence establishing that prospective customers would have done business with the company absent the defendant’s misconduct.  In this case, the company failed to show that a customer that it claimed it lost due to the departed employee’s actions would have signed a contract with that company had it not signed with the departed employee’s new company.

*Keep in mind that any decisions by the Texas Courts of Appeals may be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which may ultimately disagree with their findings.  Therefore, employers should always consult with a qualified employment lawyer to determine the current status of the law applicable to their particular dispute.

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

 

 

Is a Non-Compete Agreement Without Geographical Restriction Enforceable in Texas?

imagesThis exact question is currently being decided by the Texas Supreme Court, which earlier this month held oral arguments in Horizon Health Corp. v. Acadia Healthcare Company, Inc. 

Under the Texas Noncompete Act, a noncompete agreement is enforceable in Texas only if it is:

Ancillary to or part of an otherwise enforceable agreement at the time the agreement is made to the extent it contains limitations as to time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained that are reasonable and do not impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee.

The non-compete agreement in Horizon Corp. v. Acadia Healthcare did not contain an express geographical limitation, but barred employees from:

  • seeking work in, or independently establishing, a psychiatric contract management company;
  • being employed by “company clients, hospital affiliates or hospital joint venture partners,” or
  • engaging in any business relationship with those hospitals for 1 year after the end of employment. 

Horizon argued that the non-compete agreement is not enforceable because it does not contain an express geographical limitation.  Acadia argued that because the agreement is limited to certain identifiable set of companies or clients, it did not need to have a geographical limit to be enforceable under the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act.  The parties presented their oral arguments to the Texas Supreme Court on March 1, 2017. 

BOTTOM LINE:  Until there is a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court resolving the issue of whether noncompete agreements must contain an express geographical limitation, to be safe, companies should include such limitation in the agreements in additional to any limits on client solicitation.  Stay tuned to learn how the Texas Supreme Court rules on this issue. 

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of COMPANIES and EMPLOYEES in a variety of industries, and knows how such disputes typically play out for both parties. If you need assistance with a non-compete or a trade secret misappropriation situation, contact Leiza for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108. 

Non-Compete and Confidentiality Issues to Watch in 2017

Non-Compete Issues to WatchIn 2016, there have been some major developments involving confidentiality and non-compete agreements law, which are likely to have some repercussions in 2017. Here’s a summary of the most important issues that companies should be aware of going into the new year.

1. The Federal Defend Trade Secrets Act.  This statute, enacted in May 2016, creates a federal question jurisdiction for misappropriation of trade secrets, allows companies to seize their trade secrets out of the hands of competitors in some circumstances, and provides whistleblower protection to employees when certain conditions are met.  In 2017, as companies begin to take advantage of the statute, the courts will begin creating a new body of law interpreting its provisions.

2. SEC Enforcement. The SEC will continue to go after the companies whose confidentiality agreements and policies they may find to violate the SEC’s whistleblowing rules.  Making sure that confidentiality agreements include the language specified in the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act may help with SEC’s scrutiny.

3. Choice of Law Issues.  Choice of law issues in interstate non-compete and confidentiality disputes will continue to be of major concern to companies who have out-of-state employees. A number of states in 2016 passed statutes dramatically limiting non-competes and California passed a statute that prohibits application of other states’ laws to its employees’ non-compete agreements. Business owners should make sure that their non-competes are enforceable in the jurisdictions in which they intend to enforce them.

4. Disclosure of Trade Secrets During Litigation.  This will continue to be a major point of dispute in trade secrets and non-compete lawsuits. For example, earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court addressed what a trial judge must consider before allowing a competitor’s corporate representative in the courtroom during the testimony that might reveal the adverse party’s trade secrets. Thus, in 2017, those companies that are engaged in trade secrets misappropriation litigation in Texas will need to consider how this balancing test will apply in their particular circumstances. Many other states’ courts faced a similar issue in 2016 and have fashioned their own rules regarding when the disclosure of trade secrets in litigation is appropriate. 

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicLeiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of COMPANIES and EMPLOYEES in a variety of industries, and knows how such disputes typically play out for both parties. If you need assistance with a non-compete or a trade secret misappropriation situation, contact Leiza for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

Will Ban the Non-Competes Movement Lose Its Momentum During the Trump Administration?

donald_trump_rnc_h_2016It’s no secret that the Obama administration made a push, especially towards the end, towards limiting the use of non-compete agreements by employers around the country. The White House commissioned not one but two reports on this topic, both of which concluded that non-compete agreements stifle innovation, reduce job mobility, and negatively impact economic growth.  

Several states around the country seemed to join the White House’s view on non-compete agreements in passing statutes limiting their use. Illinois, for example, recently enacted the Illinois Freedom to Work Act, 5 ILCS § 140/1 et. seq., which prohibits private employers from entering into non-competition agreements with “low-wage employees.” Utah passed the Post-Employment Restrictions Act, Utah Code § 34-51-101 et seq., in March 2016, restricting non-competes’ length to 1 year.  Massachusetts tried to pass a similar legislation this year, but failed. And New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he will propose legislation in 2017 to limit the use of non-compete agreements in New York.  

Will this push to limit non-compete agreements continue during the Trump administration?  My prediction is that it won’t.  Of course, as with many other areas of the law, predicting what Trump will or will not do, is like reading tea leaves – nobody really knows. However, here are my top three reasons for thinking that the Trump Administration won’t pursue the same stance on non-compete agreements as the Obama Administration. 

First, Trump is a savvy businessmen and an employer. Therefore, he knows the value of non-compete agreements to employers and, without a doubt, has used them himself in his many businesses. 

Second, Trump has demonstrated that he is not above using such agreements in what some would view as overreaching situations.  For example, he did not shun from using non-compete agreements with the volunteers for his political campaign, even though the volunteers were not paid compensation for their services and probably performed tasks that did not involve any confidential information.

Third, Trump’s recent appointment of Andrew F. Puzder – the former CEO of a fast-food franchise – as the Secretary of Labor, suggests that his focus may not be on helping low-wage employees. Mr. Puzder had openly criticized the minimum wage increase that was supposed to go into effect this December and is commonly perceived as an ally for employers.  His position on ACA, minimum wage, and the joint-employer rule promulgated by the NRLB, is contrary to the position taken by the Obama administration. Thus, if he takes a 180-degree shift from the Obama administration’s stance on non-competes, such position won’t come as a surprise. 

Employers should stay tuned to see how the Trump’s policy on non-competes develops in 2017…

Leiza litigates unfair competition, non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of companies and employees, 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 Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

Five Non-Compete Agreements Myths in Texas for Employees

share-knowledge-715x400The old saying “ignorance is bliss” may be true in many situations, but not when it comes to non-compete agreements in Texas.  Over the years, I have identified five most common misconceptions about such agreements from my discussions with clients, friends, and even other lawyers.  It’s time to dispel these common myths once and for all:

Myth #1: Non-compete agreements are not enforceable in Texas.  This is absolutely false. In Texas, non-compete agreements are enforceable if they meet certain requirements spelled out in the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act.  Even if they do not meet those requirements, a lot of times, a judge can reform, i.e. rewrite, them to make them more “reasonable” and then enforce them.

Myth #2: Texas is a right to work state, so an employer cannot prevent employees from going to work for a competitor. This is also false. A “right to work state” simply means that employees in Texas cannot be fired for joining unions.   It has nothing to do with the enforceability of the non-compete agreements. So, while Texas is a right to work state, that doesn’t mean that the non-competes here are invalid. 

Myth #3: An employer threatening to fire an employee if s/he doesn’t sign a non-compete agreement makes such agreement invalid. This is false. Because Texas is an at-will employment state, an employer may change the terms of employment at any time, including adding non-compete restraints to an already-existing employment relationship. Thus, with rare exceptions, employers may force employees to sign non-competes under a threat of termination.

Myth #4: Since an employer never enforced its non-compete agreements, it won’t/can’t enforce it against a particular employee.  Again, this is false.  Employers typically consider many factors when deciding whether to enforce a non-compete agreement, so while they might decide not to enforce the agreement against one employee, they may be motivated to do so against another employee. 

Myth #5: If a non-compete agreement looks/sounds reasonable, there is no way to fight it. This is false. There are many defenses to non-compete agreements, and whether a particular non-compete agreement will hold up in court depends on the specific language of the agreement as well as employee’s job duties, length of employment, access to confidential information and a myriad of other factors.

The bottom line is that employees in Texas cannot afford to ignore non-compete restraints in their agreements and, when in doubt, should seek legal advice to understand the consequences of signing a non-compete agreement, or switching jobs or starting a competing business when subject to a non-compete.  Planning ahead is key when it comes to non-compete agreements in this state. 

Stay tuned for part II to find out common  non-compete agreements myths for employers. 

Leiza litigates unfair competition, non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of companies and employees, 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 Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

 

You Got a Non-Compete Injunction, But Can You Make it Stick in Texas?

imagesLast month, the Dallas Court of Appeals ruled on two temporary injunction orders – one was affirmed (i.e. it continued to be enforce) and the other one was dissolved (i.e. it was declared void). What was the key difference? The first injunction, in HMS Holdings Corp., et al. v. Public Consulting Group, Inc., complied with all the requirements set out in the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, but the second injunction, in Medi-Lynx Monitoring, Inc., et al. v. AMI Monitoring, Inc., did not, so it was dissolved. This means that all the hard work, time and money that went into getting ready for the temporary injunction hearing and obtaining the order from the district court judge, was all for naught. 

Businesses often seek injunctions against former employees and competitors who have violated their non-disclosure agreements or non-competition and non-solicitation agreements. In such circumstances, a temporary injunction order from a court is ideal because, if granted, it prohibits a former employee or a competitor from engaging in competitive activities or using confidential information that was shared under the non-disclosure agreement while the lawsuit between the parties goes on. Thus, a temporary injunction, provides the wronged company with immediate relief and helps prevent further damage to its business by stopping the hemorrhaging of clients, employees, or confidential information. Needless to say, when a business is loosing money due to wrongful activities of a former employee or a competitor, such an injunction order can be of paramount importance. 

In Medi-Lynx Monitoring, the injunction order was declared void by the Court of Appeals because it did not set the case for trial on the merits – an express requirement under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendant against whom the order was entered, moved to dissolve it, and the Dallas Court of Appeals granted its motion finding that the trial court abused its discretion in granting a temporary injunction that did not set the cause for trial on the merits.  

In contrast, in Holdings Corp., the temporary injunction met all the requirements specified in the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and, therefore, was upheld by the Dallas Court of Appeals, event though it was challenged on other grounds.  

Takeway: A party seeking a temporary injunction from a Texas court in a non-compete or a trade secrets misappropriation case should make sure that the order contains all the bells and whistles required by the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. 

Leiza has handled multiple temporary restraining order and temporary injunction hearings and has assisted clients in all aspects of trade secret protection, from audits to litigation. Contact Leiza for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in Texas: A Temporary Injunction Must Have an End Date

miles-massey_lAs a company, the last thing you want to do is to spend thousands of dollars obtaining a temporary injunction against a former employee who is violating his or her non-compete or non-solicitation obligations, only to have the injunction reversed on appeal because it failed to contain all the necessary terms.

Schlumberger learned this the hard way when the Houston Court of Appeals reversed a temporary injunction issued by the trial court because it did not contain an expiration date. The court specifically stated that “Texas law does not permit a trial court to enter an open-ended injunction against competition.”

In this case, two of Schlumberger’s employees left the company, opened a competing business, and hired 11 Schlumberger employees, which actions, arguably, violated the numerous non-compete and non-solicitation provisions in these employees’ agreements with Schlumberger.  Despite having evidence – including admissions by the defendant employees – that they have been competing with Schlumberger, the company’s efforts to shut down the competing business were thwarted when the court of appeals found the temporary injunction invalid because it failed to state a specific expiration date.

TAKEAWAY FOR COMPANIES:  Having an enforceable non-compete agreement is only half the battle. Knowing how to properly enforce it and how to obtain an injunction that will stick on appeal, is equally as important.

TAKEAWAY FOR EMPLOYEES:  Some companies will use a threat of temporary injunction or a temporary injunction itself to stifle competition, even when such competition is justified or is not contractually prohibited. Knowing how to defend against or fight an improper injunction can make a difference between shutting down the newly fledged business and keeping its doors open.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits on behalf of COMPANIES and EMPLOYEES in a variety of industries, and knows how such disputes typically play out for both parties. If you need assistance with a non-compete dispute, contact Ms. Dolghih for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.