How Enforceable is a Non-Compete? and Other Top Google Questions Answered

GoogleAccording to Google, the top four questions people want answered about non-compete agreements* are: (1) How enforceable is a non-compete? (2) Is a non compete valid if you are fired? (3) Do non-compete agreements hold up? and (4) How long does a non compete last?  I hear a lot of the same questions in person, so here are the answers:

1. How enforceable is a non-compete?  Generally speaking, non-compete agreements are enforceable.  There are only three states in the country that outright ban non-compete agreements – California, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. Additionally, some states now prohibit non-compete agreements for certain professions or employees who earn less than a certain amount per year or per hour.  The rest of the states will enforce some form of a non-compete agreement as long as it is reasonable.  

Now, if the real question is “How enforceable is my non-compete agreement?”, the answer to that depends on several factors, including the following: (1) the state in which the employee works; (2) the industry in which s/he works; (3) the precise language of the non-compete clause; (4) the responsibilities and duties of the employee at the company; (4) how long the employee has worked for the employer; (5) where the employee is going to work and what will be his/her duties and responsibilities there; (6) what the employee received in exchange for signing the non-compete agreement; (7) whether the employer performed his/her obligations under the agreement; and several other factors.  

2. Is a non-compete valid if you are fired? Usually, yes. However, some states have recently passed laws or have attempted to pass laws that would make non-compete agreements void if an employee was fired without cause or terminated as part of the reduction in force. Additionally, some employment contracts may specify when an employee may be fired, in which case, if the employee is fired in violation of their contract, that may make their non-compete clause unenforceable.  The norm across the United States, however, remains that the reason for separation from employment does not affect the enforceability of  a non-compete clause.  

3.  Do non-compete agreements hold up? When written correctly, yes.  If a non-compete agreement is written to comply with the appropriate state laws, is reasonable, and the employer has given its employees the required consideration in exchange for their promise not to compete, the non-compete agreement is likely to hold up in court, which means the court will order an employee to comply with it.   

However, similarly to the question one above, whether your particular non-compete agreement will hold up in court, depends on many factors, including where in the country and in which venue the employer will attempt to enforce it. 

4. How long does a non-compete agreement last? As a general rule, non-compete agreements that last two years or less are considered reasonable.  However, some states have specific provisions regarding the length of non-compete agreements that set a shorter period of time, and other states allow for much longer periods.  Additionally, employee-specific circumstances may make even a 2-year non-compete agreement unreasonable and, therefore, not enforceable in certain cases. 

*NOTE: Different rules may apply to non-compete agreements that are not employment-related, i.e. non-compete agreements that relate to the sale of business. 

BOTTOM LINEDifferent states have different rules about what non-compete agreements they will enforce. Additionally, whether a particular non-compete agreement is enforceable depends on the (1) language of the agreement and (2) the particular circumstances of the employee bound by that agreement.  

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

What 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 Case Demonstrates Why Using Stock Non-Compete Agreements May Backfire

picLast month, a Texas Court of Appeals denied an insurance agency’s application for a temporary injunction against its former President because it held that the non-compete agreement, as written, did not restrict the President from competing. The agency tried to enforce the non-compete and non-solicitation agreement to prevent the President from soliciting the agency’s clients for the purpose of selling or marketing any products or services that would compete with the agency, and it was able to obtain a temporary restraining order (TRO).  However, the trial court refused to convert the TRO into a temporary injunction.

The reason the company lost at the temporary injunction hearing is because both the non-compete and non-solicitation clauses in the agreement stated that the President could not compete with or solicit the agency’s clients “during the term of CMC Account Development Sub Agent Agreement, and for a period of two (2) years after the termination of the Agreement.”  However, the agency’s representative and the President both testified that he was never a sub agent (i.e. sales person) for the agency and that he did not have a CMC Account Development Sub Agent Agreement.  

Basically, the non-compete and non-solicitation restraints were tied to the length of a non-existent agreement between the agency and the President. In most likelihood, the language was left over from the standard contract form that the agency used for its sales representatives, and was included in the President’s agreement due to oversight.  As the result, the company was unable to stop the President from competing. 

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicTakeaway:  This case demonstrates why the  companies should conduct an audit of their non-compete and non-solicitation agreements at least once a year to make sure that (1) the agreements are enforceable, (2) they have a legible copy of the agreements signed by both parties, and (3) the agreements will adequately protect the company if they have to be enforced. 

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 Leiza for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

Non-Compete Agreements in Texas: The Devil is in the Details

Last week, the Fifth Court of Appeals of Texas in U.S. Risk Insurance Group, Inc. et al. v. Woods reminded us again that a non-competition agreement must be reasonable and must include a correct entity, or it will not be enforceable.

In Woods, an insurance broker signed an Employment, Confidentiality and Non-Compete Agreement (Agreement) when he began working for U.S. Risk Brokers, Inc. (USR).  Although Woods was working for and soliciting insureds on behalf of USR, the Agreement was between Woods and USR’s holding company – U.S. Risk Insurance Group, Inc. (USRIG). USR was not a party to the Agreement.

The Non-Competition provision in the Agreement stated the following:

Additionally, for a period of ninety (90) days after the last day of Employee’s employment following Employee’s voluntary resignation from the Company provided that the Company elects to continue the Employee’s salary during the ninety (90) day period, Employee agrees that Employee shall not become associated with, employed by, or financially interested in any business operation which competes in the business currently engaged in by the Company or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates.  The phrase “business currently engaged in by the Company” includes, but is not limited to, the types of activities in which the Company was engaged during Employee’s tenure .

When Woods resigned and went to work for a USR’s competitor, USR filed a lawsuit against him alleging the breach of the Agreement.

The Fifth Court of Appeals found that the Non-Competition provision was unenforceable against Woods because it was unreasonable as to the scope of the restrained activity.  Not only did it prohibit Woods from engaging in the type of business activity that he had performed for USR, but it prohibited him from engaging in any business that USRIG, the holding company, engaged in.

The Court of Appeals also held that the non-solicitation clause in the Agreement was unenforceable by USR because the Agreement was between USRIG and Woods, and USR was not a party.   Thus, because the non-solicitation clause only prohibited Woods from soliciting “insureds” of USRIG, he was free to solicit any customers of USR.

CONCLUSION:  When drafting or enforcing a non-compete in Texas, remember these simple rules:

1.  The limitations as to time, geographic area, ans scope of activity restrained must be reasonable.

2. When applied to personal services occupation, a restraint on client solicitation is overbroad and unreasonable if it extends to clients with whom the employee had no prior dealings during his employment.

3. An industry-wide bar is unreasonable.

4. Make sure the non-compete agreement is with the correct entity or the entity is defined broadly enough to include its affiliates who employ the covered employees.

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.  His practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.