We’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Texas non-compete statute by examining some of the great unanswered questions of Texas non-compete law. Part 1 asked whether it matters if the information provided by the employer is really confidential. This Part 2 asks whether reformation is available when the non-compete is missing a key limitation.
Are you studying for the California bar exam? If so, you probably know that the California Bar announced that it “inadvertently” leaked this year’s bar exam topics to a group of law school deans. To be fair to all test takers, the bar examiners decided to release the list of topics publicly.
I’m sure everyone studying for the California bar feels much better now.
In light of this disturbing news, I must come clean and disclose a phone call I recently received:
[ring tone: guitar intro to Sweet Child of Mine]
“Yes, hi, this is the Texas Board of Law Examiners. For the first time ever, we’re including a question about non-compete litigation on the bar exam this year. We were hoping we could run it by you.”
“Oh, cool, and you’re calling me because you saw my blog Five Minute Law and my YouTube channel That Non-Compete Lawyer?”
“Uh . . . well, actually you’re the ninth person we’ve tried. Everyone else is on vacation.”
“Ok, cool. Send it over.”*
The problem is that I know a few Texas law students through my local Inn of Court, so I could be accused of leaking the question to them. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, I am now making the question available to my readers—all thirteen of them (hi, Mom!).
Ok, Fivers, here’s the question:
W&O Supply Company sells supplies like the Garbarino centrifugal and positive displacement pump to the marine industry. Four of W&O’s employees—a branch manager, outside salesman, warehouse manager, and inside salesman—left W&O to start a competing business.
Each employee had signed W&O’s standard non-compete. The non-compete prohibits diverting, or assisting in diverting, any customer from W&O to a competitor. The non-compete is limited to any area within 100 miles of any W&O branch but contains no time limitation.
While working for W&O, the employees received confidential information regarding W&O’s supplier costs, customer purchasing history, and pricing. After leaving W&O and forming the competing business, the employees solicited sales from W&O customers.
W&O filed suit against the former employees in U.S. District Court in Houston, Texas, alleging breach of the non-competes and seeking a preliminary injunction. The employees filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing the non-compete is unenforceable on its face because it contains no time limitation.
W&O filed a response arguing that the non-compete statute requires the court to reform the non-compete to include a reasonable time limitation and that, even without reformation, the court could still grant a preliminary injunction enforcing the non-compete for a reasonable time period.
The correct ruling on the motion is:
A. Denied. W&O’s allegations are sufficient to state a plausible claim for relief. W&O could prove some set of facts showing that a time limitation of a year is reasonable.
B. Denied. Reformation of an overbroad non-compete is mandatory under the Texas non-compete statute, Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(c).
C. Denied. The court can enter a preliminary injunction enforcing the non-compete to a limited extent. Whether the non-compete should be reformed is an issue for final judgment.
D. Granted. While the non-compete statute requires the court to reform a time limitation that is too long, the court cannot reform a non-compete that contains no time limitation whatsoever.
So what’s the best answer? No peeking.
Ha! It’s a trick question! You could make a reasonable case for each one of these answers. That’s why it’s an unanswered question of Texas non-compete law. No question like this should ever appear on the bar exam.
But if you ask U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, he would say D is the best answer. I know that because I’ve read his opinion in W&O Supply, Inc. v. Pitre, No. 4:19-CV-00153, 2019 WL 15592090 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 10, 2019).
The facts of the case were fairly close to the simplified version I outlined above. The key fact: the non-competes had no time limitation. The legal question was whether W&O was entitled to reformation. Specifically, should the judge effectively “rewrite” the agreement to add a reasonable time limitation?
Because we are all textualists now, let us start with the text of the statute. It says, in pertinent part:
If the covenant . . . contains limitations as to time, geographical area, or scope of activity to be restrained that are not reasonable and impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee, the court shall reform the covenant to the extent necessary to cause the limitations contained in the covenant as to time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained to be reasonable . . .
Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(c).
The “shall reform” language indicates the legislature intended reformation to be mandatory. But the clause starts with a significant “if.” Reformation is only mandatory if the non-compete “contains limitations as to time, geographical area, or scope of activity to be restrained . . .”
That “if” clause is what we call a “condition precedent” (which, to complicate matters further, is pronounced pree-see-dent, not preh-suh-dent). That means the rest of the clause only applies if the condition is met.
So, if a non-compete has limitations that are unreasonably broad, the condition precedent is satisfied, and reformation is mandatory. But if the non-compete has no time limitation whatsoever, then the condition precedent is not met, and reformation is not required.
That’s effectively what the employees in W&O Supply argued, and the judge agreed:
It is the Court’s view that it is empowered only to reform existing terms. Where the Agreement lacks a critical term, such as a time limitation, placing a time limitation in the Agreement is to rewrite the Agreement. The Agreement lacks an unenforceable provision that the Court can revise; therefore, reformation is impermissible.
W&O Supply, 2019 WL 15592090, at *3.
The unavailability of reformation was not academic. Because the non-competes were unenforceable and could not be reformed, the court not only denied a preliminary injunction, it dismissed the lawsuit. Id.
So why is the availability of reformation an unanswered question?
Well, W&O Supply is just one case, and there are other arguments that could be made.
First, you could argue that the court in W&O Supply read the non-compete statute too literally. The purpose of the statute is to provide for reformation of overbroad non-competes. One might argue this purpose should be served as much when the agreement lacks a limitation as when the limitation is too broad.
Second, there are cases saying the court can enter a preliminary or temporary injunction enforcing an overbroad non-compete to a limited extent. See, e.g., Transperfect Translations, Inc. v. Leslie, 594 F.Supp.2d 742, 756 (S.D. Tex. 2009) (noting uncertainty in Texas cases and holding that the non-compete would be temporarily reformed for the purpose of entering a preliminary injunction).
Third, the statute also requires a geographic limitation. See Tranter Inc. v. Liss, No. 02-13-00167-CV, 2014 WL 1257278, at *5 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Mar. 27, 2014) (non-compete that contained no geographic restriction at all was unreasonable and unenforceable as written). Yet there are cases enforcing non-competes that contain no geographic limitation whatsoever. See Gallagher Healthcare Ins. Servs. v. Vogelsang, 312 S.W.3d 640, 654-55 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. denied) (“A number of courts have held that a non-compete covenant that is limited to the employee’s clients is a reasonable alternative to a geographical limit”).
If the absence of a geographic limitation is not fatal to a non-compete, why should the absence of a time limitation be any different?
They’re going to put that one in the essay section.
Zach Wolfe (email@example.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Zach Wolfe Law Firm. He doesn’t really have that ring tone, but it would be cooler if he did.
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.
*It should be obvious that all the stuff above about the Texas bar exam is made up. Then again, the news about the California bar exam sounded fake too.