A Texas Court Refuses to Enforce a Non-Compete Agreement In a Case Involving Every Employer’s Worst Nightmare

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Last week, a federal court in Texas refused to enforce a company’s non-compete agreement against four key employees who started a competing business because the agreement was missing a key term – the end date.  The company argued that the court could rewrite the non-compete to add a reasonable end date (a procedure sometimes allowed in Texas) but the court refused to do it holding that it could not fix an unenforceable agreement. Thus, the four employees who started a competing business remain free to compete and solicit the company’s clients. 

The company argued that while the employees worked there, they, collectively, were exposed to all kinds of confidential information, including company-wide strategic plans, OEM relationships and pricing levels, details of written and oral contracts with customers, manuals, forms, techniques, methods and procedures at the company,  the Salesforce database that contained a list of all company customer contacts and point persons within the customer, as well as specific notes from customer visits and discussion points, cost of materials, and the company’s product margins.   The company also told the court that it allowed the departed employees to entertain customers and reimbursed them for expenses, and paid for their cell phones used to communicate with such customers.  

Nevertheless, because there was no evidence that the employees took any confidential information with them when they left and because the company admitted that its product manufacturers and customer information were not confidential, the company could not stop the employees from competing once the court declared the non-compete agreement not enforceable. 

BOTTOM LINE: The above situation can be avoided through simple practice of: (1) knowing what is in the company non-compete agreements; (2) making sure all the key provisions required by the relevant statutes are included; and (3) periodically updating non-compete agreements so that they are compliant with the relevant state law.   

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 is a “Reasonable” Non-Competition Agreement?

Most states will enforce reasonable non-competition agreements, but what is “reasonable” and how the courts reach that conclusion varies.  In Texas, there are some rules of thumb as to what is generally considered reasonable.  A recent opinion from a federal court in Austin illustrates these rules as well as what happens when an employer attempts to enforce an overbroad, i.e., “unreasonable” non-competition agreement. 

In this case, a company that provides management services to amenity facilities, spas, and health clubs, sued its former employees for breaching their non-compete agreements after they went to work for a competitor.  Among many claims that the company brought in the lawsuit, it specifically asked the Court to enforce the non-compete agreements and enjoin (i.e. prevent) the former employees from competing with it for 12 months. 

The employees’ non-compete agreements prohibited them from being “employed in a business substantially similar to or competitive with” the company for a year after leaving its employment.  The agreements were not limited in their geographic scope or in the scope of activities to which they applied.  The court stated that the company prohibited its former employees from working for its competitors anywhere in the country, even if a competitor was based outside the geographic area where the employees worked.  It also barred the employees from working for a competitor “in any capacity” and, therefore, was not related to the employees’ duties while they worked for the company. 

The court explained that in Texas, “the hallmark of enforcement [of non-compete agreement] is whether or not the covenant is reasonable.”  Generally, a reasonable area for purposes of a covenant not to compete is considered to be the territory in which the employee worked. Furthermore, noncompete agreements barring an employee from working for a competitor in any capacity are invalid.  To be valid, the restrictions on the scope of the employee’s activities at a new company have to bear some relation to the activities of the employee at the old company.  In the case above, the court specifically noted that the company failed to “articulate how [its] broad non-compete agreements [were] necessary to protect its business interests,” which is another requirement for an enforceable non-compete agreement in Texas. 

The company in this case will get another chance to address the above issues and produce some evidence supporting the reasonableness of its restraints at the temporary injunction hearing in a few weeks. However, the court’s denial of the company’s request for a temporary restraining order means that the employees in question remain free to continue to work for the company’s competitor until the hearing. 

BOTTOM LINE:  When it comes to non-compete agreements, “reasonableness” is the name of the game, and while employers often want to err on the side of safety and put in longer and larger restrictions thatn what might be necessary, doing so can backfire when an employer has to enforce its agreement in court. Setting non-compete restrictions should not be done off-the-cuff, but should be a strategic and well-thought-out decision supported by legitimate business reasons. 

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. 

 

 

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.

A Famous Dallas Chef Defeats an Injunction Based on “Unclean Hands” Defense, Can Now Use His Name

Foodie or not, if you live in Dallas, you have probably been to one of Kent Rathbun’s restaurants.  And if you read Dallas Observer, you have probably read about Rathbun’s ongoing legal battle with a former business partner, which involves the right to use Rathbun’s name and likeness in the restaurant industry.  If not, this D Magazine article can you fill you in on why Rathbun’s name is a big deal, and this Dallas Observer article can catch you up on the acrimonious relationship and the arising legal woes. 

While the case is ongoing, this past Friday, the Dallas Court of Appeals issued a ruling in Rathbun’s favor on the basis of the “unclean hands” defense, which is often alleged, but rarely supported, in non-competition disputes.  

By way of background, back in 2009, Rathbun assigned the rights to his name and likeness to an entity he co-owned with his then-business partner. After they parted ways, Rathubun filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration from the Court that the assignment was a “covenant not to compete” and was unenforceable because it failed to comply with the requirements of the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act (see my previous post on the requirements here). 

In response, the former partner sought an injunction from the Court prohibiting Rathbun from using his name or likeness while the parties litigated their dispute based on the assignment agreement. During the temporary injunction hearing, Rathbun introduced (1) deposition testimony of his former business partner regarding his knowledge of Rathbun’s lack of business sophistication and his fiduciary duties owed to Rathbun and (2) deposition testimony that the company to which Rathbun assigned the rights to his name might have assumed some liabilities without full disclosure to Rathbun, even though he was a part-owner at that time.

The trial court denied the injunction, allowing Rathbun to keep using his name as long as he did not disparage his former partner, and the Dallas Court of Appeals upheld the denial. While it refused to consider whether the assignment agreement was a “covenant not to compete” covered by the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act, it did find that the deposition testimony described above presented sufficient evidence to support the “unclean hands” defense asserted by Rathbun. 

The unclean hands defense “allows a court to decline to grant equitable relief, such as an injunction, to a party whose conduct in connection with the same matter or transaction has been unconscientious, unjust, or marked by a want of good faith, or one who has violated the principles of equity and righteous dealing.”  Here, the Court found that there was some evidence that the company that was now trying to enforce the assignment acted inequitably when it failed to fully disclose to Rathbun that it had assumed certain liabilities, which burdened him as a part-owner of the company.  Consequently, its unclean hands prevented it from obtaining an injunction against Rathbun.

BOTTOM LINE: While the Court of Appeals’ ruling in this case is not a final decision on the merits of this defense and can still be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, it does provide a glimpse into what type of behavior by a party who seeks an injunction may rise to the level of “unclean hands” such that the party is prevented from getting injunctive relief. 

Companies should be aware that when they seeks to enforce a non-compete agreement, their own behavior can often be scrutinized for any signs of unfair or bad faith conduct that may be used to deny the injunctive relief.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries. If you are a party to a dispute involving a noncompete agreement in Texas, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108 or fill out the form below.

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.

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in Arbitration in Texas

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When it comes to enforcing non-compete agreements, companies usually want to stop the bleeding right away.  This is usually done by obtaining a temporary injunction in court, which preserves the status quo and prevents the departed employee from competing with the former employer while the parties sort out whether the agreement is enforceable against that employee, whether its restraints are reasonable, and what damage has been caused by the employee’s competition in violation of the non-compete agreement.

For those companies that have arbitration agreements with their employees, a noncompete violation will usually have to be arbitrated.  And while an arbitration may generally provide a faster, cheaper, and more confidential route for resolving a noncompete dispute than litigation, it can be an inferior process when it comes to obtaining a temporary injunction in a situation where time is of the essence.

While the relevant arbitration rules usually allow an arbitrator to grant a temporary injunction or enter some sort of preliminary relief, a company that wishes to obtain such relief must first select an arbitrator and then schedule a hearing.  These steps can result in a loss of precious time – days or weeks during which the departed employee has the time to ramp up the competition, destroy relevant evidence and cover his tracks.  In contrast, the same company may obtain a temporary restraining order in court the same day it files a suit to enforce the non-compete agreement.

For that reason, every arbitration agreement should have a carve out for injunctive relief – the clause that allows a company to obtain a temporary restraining order as soon as it learns of a violation of the non-compete agreement.  Once the company has the court order in hand, it may safely proceed with an arbitration and take its time to investigate the violation and lay out its case. 

In deciding whether to arbitrate a non-compete dispute, seek a temporary restraining order from a court, or both, companies should consider the following  issues:

  1. Does the company arbitration agreement have the necessary language to allow the company to obtain a temporary relief in court?
  2. Will the company be waiving the arbitration clause by obtaining emergency relief in court? Hint: A recent case from the Houston Court of Appeals held that seeking injunctive relief in court does not waive an arbitration clause if its purpose is to simply preserve the status quo.  See Fisher v. Carlile, et al.
  3. Should the company file a claim of arbitration first and then seek an injunction in court or vice versa?

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits in a variety of industries in federal and state courts. If you are a party to a dispute involving a noncompete agreement or misappropriation of trade secrets, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108. 

Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements in Texas – The Issue of Consideration

noncompeteFor an employer to enforce its noncompete agreement in a Texas court, it must show that it gave something to an employee in return for that employee’s promise not to compete. That “something” may differ from state to state. Some states want the employer to pay an employee $$$ for the specific promise not to compete. Other states find that just a simple promise of a employment, even the kind that can be terminated at any time, is an even exchange for an employee’s promise not to compete.  

Unlike many other states, Texas requires employers to give something more besides a job offer or money to an employee in order to extract a legally binding promise not to compete.  In this state, the consideration must have a “reasonable relationship” to the employer’s interest in restraining the employee from competing.  Simply restricting an employee from lawful competition for the sake of preventing competition will almost certainly fail. 

BOTTOM LINE: Texas employers should make sure that their non-compete agreements are supported by proper consideration under Texas law in order to enforce such agreements in court.  

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. 

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. 

A Texas Court Enforces an 18-month, 50-mile non-compete against a Texas Veterinarian

noncompeteThe Fort Worth Court of Appeals recently upheld an injunction enforcing an 18-month, 50-mile non-compete against a veterinarian, who accepted a job with a competing veterinary clinic within the 50-mile radius of her former employer.

In Bellefuille v. Equine Sports Medicine & Surgery, Weatherford Division, PLLC (ESMS), the veterinary resident signed a non-compete and non-disclosure agreement with ESMS, which prohibited her from competing with the company within a 50-mile radius within 18 months after her residence ended. The agreement also prohibited her from using or disclosing ESMS’s confidential information.

When Bellefuille was told by ESMS that she would not get a job offer after her residency ended, she accepted a job offer with ESMS’s biggest competitor within the non-compete’s geographic area.  There, she proceeded to treat some of the same animals she had previously treated at ESMS.

After accepting the new job, the vet filed a lawsuit asking a court to declare her non-compete with ESMS unenforceable and/or that her new employment did not violate that non-compete. ESMS counterclaimed and applied for a temporary injunction order, which the trial court granted and ordered Bellefuille not to compete with ESMS or use its confidential information. The vet appealed, arguing that the injunction was overbroad, but the Fort Worth Court of Appeals found that the trial court’s injunction was proper after striking some language as being too overbroad and vague because it did not trace the language used in the non-compete agreement.

Takeaway:  There is no magic formula for enforcement of non-competes in Texas.   The statute simply says that the restraints must be “reasonable” and no greater than is necessary to protect a legitimate business interest.  However, what is a reasonable term or a geographic area for a non-compete varies from case to case and depends on many factors, including, but not limited to, the nature of the business, the industry in which the business operates, the type of job performed by the individual subject to the non-compete, whether other employees have non-compete agreements, and many other factors. In this case, the length of the vet’s employment and the specific language of the restrictions played an important role in the court’s decision to enforce the agreement.

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 Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.

The Far-Reaching Claws of the Texas Non-Compete Statute

Wait-what-meme-rage-faceA recent case from a Texas Court of Appeals demonstrates that the Texas non-compete statute applies not only to the employment agreements or sale of business contracts, but to any contracts that contain provisions restraining trade.

In Wharton Physician Services, P.A. v. Signature Gulf Coast Hospital, L.P., the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals found that a liquidated damages clause in a recruiting contract was unenforceable under the Texas non-compete statute.

Gulf Coast hired Wharton to provide hospitalist services and to coordinate the hiring of individual physicians for Gulf Coast.  Their agreement contained the following clause that allowed Wharton to demand $100,000 in liquidated damages if Gulf Coast hired any of the physicians that Wharton had previously presented to Gulf Coast if the hiring took place within 6 months after Wharton’s contract’s termination:

If this Agreement is terminated by either party for any reason, then HOSPITAL [Gulf Coast] shall have the right to contract directly with all or some of the Hospitalist Physicians retained by GROUP [Wharton] to perform the services required by the terms of this Agreement . . . In the event that HOSPITAL, or any individual or entity otherwise affiliated with HOSPITAL, for work or services that would be provided at HOSPITAL, desires to contract directly with one or more of the HOSPITALIST physicians previously recruited retained, and presented to HOSPITAL by GROUP for hospitalist services at any time during the six (6) months period following the termination of this Agreement, HOSPTIAL shall pay to GROUP as liquidated damages in amount of $100,000 per physician.

The Court of Appeals applied the standard non-compete analysis to this liquidated damages clause finding that while the recruiting agreement itself was enforceable, the liquidated damages clause was not because it was a restraint on trade that was not supported by independent consideration.  The court explained its reasoning as follows:

“Gulf Coast promised to pay Wharton for services and Wharton promised to perform those services; however, none of those obligations amounted to additional consideration for Gulf Coast’s promise not to hire any physicians if the contract between Wharton and Gulf Coast was terminated.”

In sum, the court construed the liquidated damages clause “as a way to limit competition to Wharton from another company providing similar services.”  As such, it had to comply with the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act’s requirements, which it failed to do.

Takeaway: When entering into a contract in Texas, the parties should consider whether any contract provisions may be viewed as a restraint on competition and an attempt to enhance or maintain prices.  If that’s the case, then such contractual provision might have to comply with the Texas non-compete requirements in order to be enforceable.

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 Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.