Offer evidence of “imminent harm” and “irreparable injury,” even if judges don’t always require it

In a non-compete lawsuit, the temporary injunction hearing is often the key event, for two reasons.  First, a reasonable time limit for the non-compete is usually around the same time that the case takes to go to trial. So, if the judge enters a temporary injunction enforcing the non-compete until trial, it can be practically the same as a permanent injunction.

Second, a temporary injunction puts the company in the driver’s seat in settlement negotiations. Most employees will have to make a deal with the company, because otherwise they won’t be able to make a living.

Conversely, if the judge denies a temporary injunction, then the company is probably never going to get any injunction. That means the company is limited to seeking damages. This is significant in a Texas non-compete case, because if the non-compete is overbroad as written, the company can’t get damages either.[1]

So the stakes are high at the temporary injunction hearing. That means the lawyers better be prepared to address the enforceability of the non-compete and the traditional requirements for a temporary injunction, because some judges still care about those things.

1. A temporary injunction should be denied if the employee has not competed in the geographic area he was responsible for at the first company

In Cameron International v. Abbiss, the judge denied a temporary injunction because the employee had not breached the non-compete as limited to a reasonable geographic area.[2]

Abbiss signed a one-year non-compete with his employer, Cameron. He later went to work for a competitor, FMC, as its General Manager for the Middle East. Cameron sued Abbiss in federal court and sought a preliminary injunction.

The court found the non-compete as written was overbroad. A reasonable geographic limit would be Oman and Yemen, the court said, because (1) those were the countries Abbiss was responsible for during his last two years of employment, and (2) the evidence did not support Cameron’s claim that Abbiss received confidential Cameron information regarding the entire Middle East. The court found that much of the information Abbiss received at the meeting at issue was either publicly available or was available to employees who did not have non-competes.

The question, then, was whether to enter a preliminary injunction barring Abiss from competing in Oman and Yemen, the reasonable geographic area. The court said no, because (1) there was no evidence Abbiss had competed or intended to compete in Oman or Yemen, and (2) the confidential information Abbiss obtained regarding bids in other Middle East countries was more than six months old and likely stale.

In short, the court in Abbiss denied a temporary injunction because there was no evidence the employee breached or intended to breach the non-compete within the geographic area the court found was reasonable.

2. Judges are not always strict about the “irreparable injury” requirement

In Fantastic Sams v. Mosley, Mosley opened a competing hair salon in violation of his two-year non-compete, which covered a five-mile radius from a Fantastic Sams franchise in Cypress (the Houston suburb, not the Mediterranean island).[3]  After finding the non-compete was reasonable, the judge found that Mosley’s violation of the non-compete was likely to cause irreparable injury:

Fantastic Sams . . . argued the existence of Mosley’s nearby salon, which offers nearly identical hair care services to Fantastic Sams, prevents Fantastic Sams from licensing a new franchise in the area. The court also notes that the Agreement actually contains a provision that requires Mosley to concede that violations of the Agreement constitute irreparable harm to Fantastic Sams. The court agrees with Fantastic Sams that Mosley’s continued operations of a nearby salon, in violation of the Agreement, hurts other franchisees, poses a risk of loss of goodwill, and inhibits the opening of new Fantastic Sams franchises in the area. All of these injuries cause irreparable harm to Fantastic Sams as a whole, and that harm cannot be fully remedied with damages.

“Identical hair care services.” I love that part. I can only assume there was testimony that both salons offered a unique proprietary combination of shampooing, cutting, and blow drying. But I digress.

pexels-photo-163569
Does this look like “irreparable injury”?

The passage above from Fantastic Sams is typical of cases granting a temporary injunction to enforce a non-compete. Judges often apply the “irreparable injury” requirement loosely, especially when there is a clear violation of the non-compete.

Yes, there was a contractual stipulation to irreparable harm, but surely that can’t be dispositive. Almost every non-compete has a clause like this, so allowing it to substitute for actual evidence of irreparable injury would effectively abolish the irreparable injury requirement in non-compete cases.

And I don’t read Fantastic Sams as saying that a contractual stipulation, by itself, is sufficient. My practical takeaway from the case, and others like it, is that it’s easier to clear the “irreparable injury” hurdle when the judge sees that the defendant is behaving badly by blatantly breaching a reasonably limited non-compete.

3. Companies should present evidence of imminent harm, not just an argument about “inevitable disclosure”

While courts don’t always apply the “irreparable injury” requirement strictly, DGM Services v. Figueroa shows that the company trying to obtain a temporary injunction still needs to offer evidence that harm has already happened or is about to happen.[4]

In that case, DGM’s president, Petillon, testified that Figueroa received confidential financial information on budgets, revenues, and costs while working for DGM. He expressed concern that Figueroa would use his knowledge to undercut DGM’s prices and gain an unfair advantage. But Petillon did not know if Figueroa had actually provided confidential information to his new employer, GCC, or whether DGM had lost any customers to GCC since Figueroa had left.

The trial court denied a temporary injunction, stating that DGM did not prove imminent harm. On appeal, DGM argued that proof of violation of a non-compete creates a presumption of probable, imminent, and irreparable harm.

The Houston Court of Appeals disagreed. Under recent Texas Supreme Court cases, the applicant for a temporary injunction has the burden to prove these elements to obtain a temporary injunction. Therefore, the Court of Appeals declined to hold that breach of a non-compete creates a presumption of harm that relieves the plaintiff of its burden to offer evidence. DGM only established a “fear of possible injury,” so the trial court was within its discretion to deny the injunction.

DGM also argued that the “inevitable disclosure doctrine” relieved it of the burden of offering evidence of imminent harm, citing state and federal cases applying various versions of it. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that Texas courts have not adopted the doctrine, and that it is not a blanket rule applicable to all nondisclosure agreements. DGM was still required to offer evidence of imminent harm.

You can find a lot of articles (like this one) on the inevitable disclosure doctrine, so I won’t go into great detail. Essentially, it is the idea that a court can enjoin a company’s former employee from working for a competitor, even if the employee hasn’t done anything wrong yet, on the theory that the employee will “inevitably” disclose his knowledge of the company’s confidential information to the competitor.

I don’t like the idea of an inevitable disclosure “doctrine.” These are fact-intensive cases that should be decided based on the evidence in each case. Talking about some general “doctrine” distracts from the real issues, which should be imminent harm and irreparable injury.

If the inevitable disclosure doctrine is merely the common-sense notion that a former employee who is working for a competitor is in a position to use the company’s confidential information, then it’s fine. But if the inevitable disclosure doctrine means that the company doesn’t have to offer any evidence of imminent harm, then it is wrong. The DGM case got this point right.

The recent BM Medical case was similar.[5] BM Medical argued that its former employee, Turner, had access to its confidential information such as client lists and prices, and that Turner would be able to use his knowledge to “undersell” BM Medical. But Turner testified that he did not access any confidential information after his termination, that he did not solicit any BM Medical clients, and that the only BM Medical client who became a client of his new company was a friend he knew before going to work for BM Medical.

Like the plaintiff in DGM Services, BM Medical argued that Turner had its confidential information, was working for a direct competitor, and intended to use the information. But like the court in DGM Services, the court in BM Medical disagreed. It held that the trial court was within its discretion to deny a temporary injunction based on the evidence that Turner had not used any confidential information and was not soliciting BM Medical clients.

Lessons from these recent Texas non-compete injunction cases

If you represent the company asking for a temporary injunction to enforce a non-compete, you can cite the contract’s stipulation that irreparable injury is presumed. You can cite the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine. You can cite cases that get confused and say that evidence of imminent harm shows that the injury is “irreparable.”

But ideally, you should come to the hearing prepared to offer actual evidence that the employee has already caused harm to the company or is about to do so, and that the harm cannot be adequately compensated by damages. That way, you don’t have to rely on debatable legal arguments the judge might not find persuasive.

The best way to show imminent harm in a non-compete case is to show that your client has already lost customers to the competitor the former employee is now working for. The best way to prove irreparable injury is to hope the judge doesn’t take the irreparable injury requirement too seriously.

__________________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands.

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] See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(c) (stating that if the non-compete is not reasonably limited in time period, geographic area, and scope, then the court must reform the non-compete but may not award damages occurring prior to reformation).

[2] Cameron Int’l Corp. v. Abbiss, No. H-16-2117, 2016 WL 6216667 (S.D. Tex. Oct. 25, 2016).

[3] Fantastic Sams Franchise Corp. v. Mosley, No. H-16-2318, 2016 WL 7426403 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 23, 2016).

[4] DGM Servs., Inc. v. Figueroa, No. 01-16-00186-CV, 2016 WL 7473947 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 29, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.).

[5] BM Med. Mgmt. Serv., LLC v. Turner, No. 05-16-00670-CV, 2017 WL 85423 (Tex. App.—Dallas Jan. 10, 2017, no pet. h.).

One thought on “Head First Into the Abbiss: Temporary Injunction Rulings in Recent Texas Non-Compete Cases

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