More of a “Rule of Thumb,” really
I launched this blog with What a Litigator Looks For in the Typical Texas Non-Compete. I thought it best to start with a topic I know. I outlined the five things I look for to determine if a non-compete is enforceable under Texas law.
That post has held up pretty well. Since then, I’ve seen plenty more non-competes. Texas non-compete law hasn’t fundamentally changed, and I still look for those five things. So, if you want an intro to Texas non-compete law, that post is still a good place to start. Or you can watch a video version here.
But two more years have taught me there is a simpler question to ask when a client brings me a non-compete. As a general rule, you can boil down the practical effect of Texas non-compete law to just seven words: you can’t take your customers with you.
What do I mean? If you’re a sales person who has a non-compete and relationships with customers—the most common situation—it is likely a judge will order you not to do business with your customers from your previous company. But the judge shouldn’t completely bar you from working for a competitor.
In other words, you can compete for new customers, but you can’t take your old customers with you. I call this Wolfe’s First Law of Texas Non-Compete Litigation.*
It’s really more of a general rule, but I like the sound of “First Law” more than “First General Rule.”
It’s just a rule of thumb because like most legal rules, it has exceptions, and the whole truth is more complicated. Still, experience has taught me that nine times out of ten, my First Law will hold true.
This means if you’re an employer trying to stop an employee from violating a non-compete, you can probably prevent the employee from taking her customers with her, but you probably can’t do more than that.
If that’s all you need to know, you can stop here. If you want to understand why, read on.
The reasoning behind Wolfe’s First Law of Texas Non-Compete Litigation
Here’s how I get there. The Texas non-compete statute has two requirements: (1) a non-compete must be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement,” and (2) it must be reasonable.
Employers usually meet the first requirement by (a) expressly stating in the non-compete that they will give the employee confidential information, and (b) actually giving the employee confidential information. A Texas Supreme Court case called Sheshunoff clarified that this will do the trick.
This is where the first big exception comes in. You will sometimes run across a non-compete that does not expressly promise to give the employee confidential information. Usually when you see that it’s either a really old non-compete, or a non-compete drafted for a multi-state company without Texas in mind.
If there is no express promise, you have to look at whether there was an implied promise to provide confidential information. A case called Mann Frankfort said the promise is implied if the nature of the employee’s work necessarily involves providing confidential information. That can be a fact-intensive issue.
Most employers avoid this detour by including an express promise to provide confidential information in the non-compete. Then the second big exception comes into play: did the employer actually provide confidential information to the employee?
I have had cases where there was a genuine dispute about whether the information was really confidential. You are more likely to see this in situations where an employee already had a book of business when he joined the company, or where sales people are entirely responsible for generating their own leads and customers. If the employer didn’t provide confidential information, the non-compete is unenforceable.
But most of the time, it’s pretty easy for the company to show that it provided some confidential information to the employee.
Now that we’ve cleared those possible exceptions out of the way, it’s time to turn to reasonableness.
Let’s be reasonable
Like most states, Texas requires a non-compete to be reasonable in time period, geographic area, and scope of activity restrained.
The good news for employees is that there is almost always at least a decent argument that some aspect of the non-compete is unreasonably broad. Especially the “scope of activity” part. While most Texas lawyers are pretty good about including a reasonable time period and geographic limitation, Texas non-competes are often too broad in the scope of activity they restrict.
Maybe this is because the scope of activity limitation is largely defined by the case law, so a lawyer who only reads the statute won’t get the whole picture. The case law says that an “industry-wide exclusion”—a restriction that prevents the employee for working in the same industry in any way—is too broad.
That’s because a non-compete should be limited to protecting the employer’s goodwill, i.e. its relationships with existing customers. The simplest way to do this is to say–usually in one really long sentence with fancier words–that the employee can’t take her customers with her. That’s a reasonable scope (generally). On the other hand, a non-compete that bars the employee from working for a competitor in any way is usually too broad and therefore unenforceable as written.
But employees shouldn’t get too excited. There is also good news for the employer.
First, note I said unenforceable “as written.” The non-compete statute says that if the non-compete is too broad, the judge must reform it—i.e., rewrite it—to the extent necessary to make it reasonable.
Second, even if the non-compete is too broad, as a practical matter a judge can still issue a temporary injunction to enforce the non-compete to a reasonable extent. (A temporary injunction is an order that applies while the lawsuit is pending.)
Now you can see Wolfe’s First Law coming into focus. When you put all this together, you get two likely scenarios. If the non-compete is reasonable in scope because it is limited to preventing the employee from taking her customers with her, then the judge is likely to grant a temporary injunction that enforces the non-compete as written. If the non-compete is unreasonable in scope because it is not so limited, the judge is likely to limit the injunction to a reasonable scope, i.e. preventing the employee from taking her customers with her.
In either case, the effect is the same. And Wolfe’s First Law of Texas Non-Compete Litigation holds true.
Again, there are exceptions. For example, some judges take the “irreparable injury” rule seriously. That rule says that a court should not grant an injunction if damages would be adequate to compensate the company for the employee’s violation of the non-compete.
My personal view—perhaps a post for another day—is that courts should apply this requirement more strictly. In most cases damages would be adequate to compensate the employer for any lost customers.
But most judges are not so fastidious about the irreparable injury rule. If the judge thinks the employee is violating the non-compete by steering competitors to the employee’s new company, a temporary injunction is likely.
Of course, a temporary injunction is not the end of the story. It is temporary, after all.
Still, in most cases a temporary injunction enforcing the non-compete might as well be a permanent injunction. Why? Remember that a non-compete must be reasonably limited in time. Time periods of three years or longer have sometimes been held reasonable, but most non-competes are limited to one or two years.
How long do you think it usually takes for a case to get to trial? (Hint: at least one or two years.) That means that in many cases, the non-compete will expire before the case goes to trial, or around that time. That’s why I say a temporary injunction might as well be a permanent injunction.
So maybe we should modify Wolfe’s First Law to say this: you can’t take your customers with you, until a year or two after you leave.
But that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
*Update: There is an important exception: cases where I represent the defendants. But seriously, what if the employee isn’t “taking” the customers, but the customers want to follow the employee without any solicitation by the employee? That’s a different question.
Zach Wolfe (email@example.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm (zachwolfelaw.com). Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Someday he will come up with a “Wolfe’s Second Law” for something.
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.
 Reformation is a remedy that typically would not be granted until a final judgment after trial. There is some legal question about whether the judge at a temporary injunction hearing should (1) reform the non-compete as a temporary remedy and enter a temporary injunction enforcing the reformed non-compete, or (2) simply enter a temporary injunction that only partially enforces the non-compete to a reasonable extent. The distinction seems largely academic.