When Stopping Competition with A Temporary Injunction, It Pays To Be Precise

ArcherEven the best non-disclosure and non-competition agreements are not worth anything if not enforced correctly. A lot of times a company rushes to court asking the judge to stop a former employee or his new employer from using the company’s confidential information or soliciting its customers based on the agreements that the former employee had signed with the company.    

However, in an attempt to obtain quick relief at the courthouse, companies often end up using formulaic and boiler-plate language that is supposed to cover every possible violation such as: 

  • Plaintiff asks the Court to prohibit Defendant from soliciting or conducting business with Plaintiff’s customers or
  • Plaintiff asks the Court to restrain Defendant from using the company’s confidential information or trade secrets 

Such requests, while appearing very reasonable at first blush, are often rejected by the courts as not being specific enough to let defendants know what they can and cannot do. For example, how is the defendant supposed to know who the company’s customers are, especially, if there are thousands of them? Or, if the order does not define trade secrets, how can the defendant know what is it that he is prohibited from using or disclosing? 

Defining the restrictions on competition in a precise manner while covering all possible violations is key to a successful injunction; however, the required degree of specificity may very from court to court. For example, recently, a court of appeals in Super Starr Int’l, LLC, et al v. Fresh Tex Produce, LLC, et al., dissolved an injunction issued by the trial court and remanded (sent) the case back to the trial court instructing it to reissue the temporary injunction order that defines “soliciting” not to include mass advertising, as well as redraft restrictions by defining “customers,” “accounts,” “trade secrets” and “confidential information.” 

BOTTOM LINE: When seeking a temporary injunction in a case involving unfair competition, non-compete or non-disclosure agreement breaches, shooting for the moon so you can land on the stars is not a good approach.  Rather, the party seeking an injunction should aim as closely as possible at the particular star on which it wants to land.   

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.

Why Trade Secrets Protection is Even More Important in the Strong Economy

downloadIt is a well-known fact that when the economy improves, employee mobility rises as well. The most valuable employees – those with a specialized skill set and many years of experience in a particular industry – tend to stay within that industry while moving among competitors. Since such employees are usually given access to confidential information as part of their job duties, their move to a rival company often raises a concern of whether they will be sharing that information with their new employer. 

As 2016 was drawing to a close, a number of nationally known companies filed lawsuits to prevent their former employees from working for their competitors and/or sharing their confidential information. In December, Carolina Herrera sued Oscar De La Renta for hiring Herrera’s former Senior VP of Design despite her 6-month non-compete with Herrera. In January, Aria sued its Las Vegas rival, Cosmopolitan, and a former executive, alleging that she took confidential information about Aria’s high-roller clients in order to solicit them for Cosmopolitan. Earlier that month, Zynga, a mobile app gaming power house and creator of Farmville, sued two of its former employees for allegedly taking 14,000 files related to a new game Zynga was developing before going to work for its competitor. These are just a few examples that have received attention in the media.  In reality, similar situations develop all over the country on a daily basis.

In short, in the current market, any successful business, regardless of its size or industry, may be subject to trade secret theft not from foreign entities, but from its own departing employees. To prevent theft, or minimize the inherent damage that it carries with it, companies must have a process in place for protection of trade secrets and a plan of action for when theft is detected.

I have previously written about the simple steps any company can take to protect its trade secrets. In addition to these preventative steps, companies should be prepared to act quickly if a trade secrets theft is detected or suspected as time is of the essence, and not only from the practical standpoint of preventing dissemination of trade secrets, but from the legal standpoint as well. The more time passes between a company’s discovery of trade secret theft and any legal action, the less likely is the company to obtain an order from the court prohibiting the thief from using or disseminating the information.  Thus, being prepared to act quickly and having the resources to do so, can make e a difference in the company’s ability to stop the thief from sharing its confidential information with others.

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.

Are Non-Compete Agreements Enforceable in Texas?

kkGenerally, Texas allows non-compete agreements between employers and employees as long as they are reasonable in scope, geographic area, and term, and meet a few other requirements. See my previous posts about those requirements here, here, and here

Practically speaking, however, whether a particular non-compete agreement is valid depends heavily on the exact language used in the agreement.  Just as with any other contract, Texas courts will usually look at the precise language of a particular employment agreement to determine what the parties had in mind when they entered into it. 

Last year, a hospitalist group in Houston learned the above principles the hard way when it attempted to enforce a non-compete covenant against a physician who went to work for a competitor and discovered that the non-compete did not prohibit the physician from doing so. 

In Tummalla et. al. v. Total Inpatient Services, P.A., the non-compete clause between the hospitalist group and the physician stated the following:

6.2 NonCompete. In consideration for the access to the Confidential Information provided by [TIPS] and in order to enforce the Physician’s Agreement regarding such Confidential Information, Physician agrees that he/she shall not, during the term of this Agreement and for a period of one (1) year from the date this Agreement expires pursuant to Section 8.3 or is terminated by Physician pursuant to Section 8.6 (the “Restriction Period”), without the prior written consent of [TIPS], except in the performance of duties for [TIPS] pursuant to this Agreement, directly or indirectly within any Hospital in the Service Area or any other hospital in which the Physician practiced on behalf of [TIPS], in excess of 40 hours, within his last year of employment with [TIPS]:
6.2.1 Provide services as a hospitalist physician to any entity that offers inpatient hospital and emergency department services.
In a separate provision in the same agreement, however, it stated that the physician’s first 12 months on the job were to be considered an “introductory period” during which either party could terminate the employment relationship for any reason. The specific paragraph stated that it applied notwithstanding any other provision in the agreement and it failed to included or mention any non-compete restrictions. 

The court of appeals analyzed these various clauses in the contract and concluded that because the physician terminated his employment with the hospitalist group within the first year, i.e. the “introductory period,” the post-employment non-compete clause did not apply to him. Thus, he was free to compete with his former employer. 

TAKEAWAY FOR EMPLOYERS: Employers should have a qualified attorney draft and/or review their non-compete agreements.  While there are many forms out there, because non-compete agreements in Texas have to be catered towards each employer’s business and because courts will scrutinize the language when determining whether to enforce the agreement or not, using a standard form may result in the employer not being able to enforce it due to gaps in the language or failure to address specific termination situations.

TAKEAWAY FOR EMPLOYEES:  Signing a non-compete agreement without reading it first can result in a major headache down the road and severely limit employee’s career options.  Therefore, employees should always: (1) read the agreement; (2) request a clarification if something is not clear; and (3) keep a copy of the signed agreement for their records.

Leiza litigates non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits 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.

 

Fair v. Unfair Competition, or the Real Life Case of Globo Gym v. Average Joes

DodgeballWhile we patiently wait for a sequel to Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story to come out, a similar saga involving competing gym/spa establishments has been unfolding in Houston, Texas (minus the dodge ball tournament and shiny singlets) recently culminating in a lawsuit in the federal district court for the Southern District of Texas. 

In this lawsuit, Life Time Fitness sued its former regional vice president, his wife, who also worked for Life Time Fitness at various times, and their newly formed company – ReNew You LLC – alleging that the VP “pilfered” proprietary business information, duplicated Life Time’s business model, and used company personnel to open a competing business.  Life Time filed the complaint on January 16th and four days later obtained a temporary injunction order against the defendants ordering ReNew You to cease and desist all operations and barring it from offering or providing services provided by Life Time.  In sum, Life Time has succeeded in shutting down ReNew You for now. 

The complaint alleges that while working for Life Time, the VP used Life Time’s technology system, email and his personal assistant to:

(1) draft and revise detailed business plans, agendas and checklists for his new company;

(2) build proformas, budgets, forecast and financial models for his new company based on Life Time’s proformas, etc.;

(3) obtain quotes for or leasing equipment for ReNew You;

(4) develop logos for ReNew You;

(5) develop a website for ReNew You;

(6) negotiate a partnership agreement with his partner in ReNew You.

Life Time also alleged that the VP “egregiously and surreptitiously” breached the non-compete agreement by using Life Time’s time, resources, computers, proprietary information and employees to build the medi-spa and weight-loss business less than four miles away from one of Life Time’s facilities.

While the complaint doesn’t specify how Life Time eventually found out about the VP’s activities, it is clear that the VP was using Life Time’s email address to send much of communications related to establishing ReNew You.  Apparently, the VP was also using his Life Time computer to create and edit many of the ReNew You documents.  It is alleged that he also used his Life Time email address to email himself Life Time’s confidential information. 

The complaint contains nine (typical) counts: violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties, misappropriation of trade secrets, violation of the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA), tortious interference with prospective contracts, tortious interference with existing contracts, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duties.

The VP’s attorneys and the VP himself have denied any improper actions. 

TAKEAWAYS:  The allegations in this case (which remain to be proven) illustrate a typical former employee/employer dispute, which often arises when an employee decides to open a business that competes with his or her former employer.

The allegations raise an issue of when is the line between preparation to compete (generally allowed under Texas law) is crossed into competition with the employer while on employer’s payroll (not permitted).  In some situations, the answer to that question is clear, while in others, it requires a rigorous legal and factual analysis.

The line between fair competition and unfair competition is often in the eye of the beholder, frequently pushing the parties towards litigation as a forum for resolving what is fair.  While some disputes may not be resolved outside the courtroom, many may be avoided if employees planning to compete with their former employer follow two simple steps: (1) review their employment agreements to determine what obstacles, if any, they present to opening a competing business; and (2) avoid actually competing with the employer or using employer’s resources to plan the new business while on employer’s payroll. 

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.