When an employer sues a former employee who went to a competitor, the employer almost always claims breach of fiduciary duty.  But do employees really owe employers a fiduciary duty under Texas law?  If the employee is also an officer or director, the answer is yes.  But for ordinary employees, the answer is “sort of.”  Employees owe employers what I call Fiduciary Duty Lite.

A true fiduciary duty arises from certain relationships where a person trusts and depends on another person to act on his behalf.  The attorney-client relationship is the prime example.   It includes a duty of loyalty, duty of disclosure, and duty of care, but the essence of the duty is that the fiduciary must put the other person’s interests ahead of his own.

So, for example, as a trial lawyer I have a fiduciary duty to tell my client if accepting a settlement offer is the best move, even if I would like the client to reject the offer so I can make more money on litigation fees (not that any lawyer would ever think like that).

No one seriously thinks that all employees owe the employer that kind of fiduciary duty.  If employees had to put the employer’s interest ahead of their own, employees could never start looking for another job without telling the employer first.

But employees do sometimes act as agents of their employers, and generally an agent owes a fiduciary duty to her principal.  So Texas courts have reasoned that an employee who acts as an agent of the employer owes the employer a fiduciary duty.

But Texas courts also recognize limits on an employee’s “fiduciary” duty.  In Johnson v. Brewer & Pritchard the Texas Supreme Court said “courts have been and should be careful in defining the scope of the fiduciary obligations an employee owes when acting as the employer’s agent.”  The court agreed with other states that “an employee does not owe an absolute duty of loyalty to his or her employer.”[1]  In other words, Fiduciary Duty Lite.

*Caveat: A claim for breach of fiduciary duty based on misappropriation of trade secrets is preempted by the trade secrets statute, as discussed here.

Texas courts have defined certain things an employee can and cannot do.[2]  While still working for the employer, an employee cannot:

  • Use the employer’s confidential information or trade secrets
  • Cross the line between preparing to compete and actually competing
  • Solicit the employer’s customers or other employees
  • Accept a fee for diverting a business opportunity away from the employer
  • Use the employer’s resources to establish a competing business

On the other hand, Fiduciary Duty Lite recognizes certain things an employee is allowed to do:

  • Make plans to compete with the employer
  • Take “active steps” in pursuit of the plan
  • Join with other employees in the plan
  • Form a competing business
  • Conceal all of the above from the employer

Wait a minute, you might say.  Doesn’t a fiduciary have a duty of loyalty, a duty of full disclosure, and a duty to put the employer’s interests ahead of his own?  How can taking active steps towards competing with the employer and concealing that from the employer possibly be consistent with a fiduciary duty, the highest legal duty known to man?

You would have a point.  It doesn’t really make sense to call an employee a “fiduciary” (unless that employee is also an officer or director).  Perhaps instead of saying that employees have a “fiduciary” duty and then curtailing that duty almost beyond recognition, Texas courts should have used some other terminology.

But it’s too late for that.  “Fiduciary” is the word.  So when the judge asks “are you telling me all employees have a fiduciary duty?” just say “they have Fiduciary Duty Lite” and cite fiveminutelaw.com.  I look forward to seeing the term in future Texas court opinions.

*Update 1: The fact that two employees collectively began investigating and planning for a competing business did not conclusively establish that the employees breached their fiduciary duties to the employer. Eurecat US, Inc. v. Marklund, 527 S.W.3d 367, 385 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.).

*Update 2: The El Paso Court of Appeals endorsed the concept of “Fiduciary Duty Lite” (sort of) in Salas v. Total Air Services, 550 S.W.3d 683, 691 (Tex. App.–El Paso 2018, no pet.), saying the employee in that case owed “some measure of a fiduciary duty” to the employer. That strikes me as kind of like saying someone is “a little bit pregnant.”

*Update 3: The Fifth Circuit weighed in on Fiduciary Duty Lite in D’Onofrio v. Vacation Publications, 888 F.3d 197, 216-17 (5th Cir. 2018). The court held the employee did not breach her “limited” fiduciary duty by becoming part owner of a competing franchise, using a screenshot of sales records to demonstrate sales ability, and attending a training for a competitor.

*Update 4: When the employee breaches his fiduciary duty, can the employer seek forfeiture of part of the employee’s salary? This was one of the issues in Orbison v. Ma-Tex Rope Co., 553 S.W.3d 17 (Tex. App.–Texarkana 2018, pet. denied).

*Update 5: In Crossroads Hospice, Inc. v. FC Compassus, LLC, No. 01-19-00008-CV, 2020 WL 1264188, at *6-8 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] March 17, 2020, no pet.), judgment vacated on settlement but opinion not withdrawn, 2020 WL 3866902 (July 9, 2020), the court held that the first employer failed to establish a prima facie case (under the TCPA) that the second employer knowingly participated in the employee’s alleged unlawful solicitations of the first employer’s at-will employees.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. This post is dedicated to John Madden.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Johnson v. Brewer & Pritchard, PC, 73 S.W.3d 193, 202 (Tex. 2002), citing Augat, Inc. v. Aegis, Inc., 409 Mass. 165, 565 N.E.2d 415 (1991).

[2] Johnson, 73 S.W.3d at 202; ; Navigant Consulting, Inc. v. Wilkinson, 508 F.3d 277, 284 (5th Cir. 2007); Ameristar Jet Charter, Inc. v. Cobbs, 184 S.W.3d 369, 373-74 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2006, no pet.); Abetter Trucking Co. v. Arizpe, 113 S.W.3d 503, 512 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2003, no pet.); M P I, Inc. v. Dupre, 596 S.W.2d 251, 254 (Tex. Civ. App.—Fort Worth 1980, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

17 thoughts on “Fiduciary Duty Lite: What Employees Can and Can’t Do Before Leaving

  1. One more caveat, I think, in the case of an employee who takes information from the employer to show evidence of discrimination. I did this research 8 years ago for a New York case, so I’m sure there’s lots more case law now. See Grant v Hazelett Strip Casting, 880 F.2d 1564, 1569-1572 (2d Cir. 1989) (employee’s gathering and keeping evidence regarding discrimination claim despite employer’s order to the contrary is protected activity); Yousuf v. UHS of De La Ronde, Inc., 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2296, *15-16 (E.D.La. 1999), vacated on other grounds, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2887 (E.D.La. 1999) (copying of payroll records in violation of policy and use at deposition constitutes protected activity); Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., 204 N.J. 239 (N.J. 2010) (question of whether employer terminated employee for taking confidential documents or for pursuing her complaint is a jury question under New Jersey anti-discrimination statute).

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