WARNING: This week’s post is heavy on case law. Non-lawyers should turn back immediately. You might like one of my lighter posts about Seinfeld, my Morning Routine, or Choice of Law in Texas Non-Compete Litigation.
If you know anything about Texas non-compete law, you know that the Texas non-compete statute requires reasonable limitations as to “time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained.” Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).
Yet in my practice, I often see non-competes drafted without a reasonable limit on the scope of activity restrained. Scope of activity is probably the most neglected element of Texas non-compete law. Often, the non-compete will bar an employee from having anything to do with any company in the employer’s industry.
When you read one of these, you can almost feel the drafter’s pride in writing a non-compete that is so comprehensive and ensnaring. But guess what? Writing it that way makes it an “industry-wide exclusion,” which Texas courts have said is unenforceable.
The industry-wide exclusion rule has two halves (plus a corollary I’ll get to later).
The first half says that a non-compete that prevents a company’s employee from working in any capacity in the company’s industry is unreasonably broad and therefore unenforceable.
The second half says that a non-compete must be limited to preventing the employee from doing business with customers the employee had dealings with while working for the employer.
The second half of the rule is found in Peat Marwick Main & Co. v. Haass, 818 S.W.2d 381 (Tex. 1991), which arose from a suit that was already being litigated when the 1989 statute was adopted.
In Haass the Texas Supreme Court cited the Texas common-law rule that the scope of a non-compete must not be greater than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interests such as goodwill and confidential information. Id. at 386. The court reasoned that the “fundamental legitimate business interest” protected by a non-compete is “preventing employees or departing partners from using the business contacts and rapport established during the relationship . . . to take the firm’s customers with him.” Id. The court also approvingly cited a Wisconsin case stating that “the restrictive covenant must bear some relation to the activities of the employee.” Id. at 387.
I love that Haass uses the French rapport instead of the Anglo-Saxon “goodwill.” It was a more civilized time.
Anyway, the Haass court held that the non-compete was overbroad because it inhibited departing partners from providing accounting services to clients acquired after the partner left, or with whom the accountant had no contact while associated with the firm, which was not reasonably necessary to protect the firm’s goodwill. Id. at 388.
Haass did not use the term “industry-wide exclusion,” but the Fourteenth Court of Appeals later cited Haass for the proposition that “[t]he Texas Supreme Court has held that an industry-wide exclusion is unreasonable.” John R. Ray & Sons, Inc. v. Stroman, 923 S.W.2d 80, 85 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1996, writ denied) “In the case of covenants applied to a personal services occupation, such as that of a salesman,” the court said, “a restraint on client solicitation is overbroad and unreasonable when it extends to clients with whom the employee had no dealings during his employment.” Id.
Applying both parts of the rule, the Stroman court held that the non-compete was unenforceable because it imposed an industry-wide exclusion on the employee’s ability to work in the insurance business in and around Harris County and extended to customers the employee had no association with while working for the employer. Id.
The First Court of Appeals applied Haass and Stroman to the oilfield services industry in Brown Services, Inc. v. Brown, No. 01-98-00304-CV, 1999 WL 681964 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Sept. 2, 1999, pet. denied) (mem. op.). Rapport is important in oilfield services, because everybody knows who the customers are.
Brown Services held that one clause barring the employee from being connected to any oilfield services business was an overbroad industry-wide exclusion. Id. at *6. The court held that a second clause barring the employee from soliciting or selling products or services to anyone who was a customer of the employer during his employment was overbroad, because it was not limited to customers he had contact with. Id. at *7. So you see both halves of the rule.
Same for Wright v. Sport Supply Group, Inc., 137 S.W.3d 289, 298 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2004, no pet.), where the court cited Haass and Stroman for the propositions that “[a] covenant not to compete that contains an industry-wide exclusion from subsequent employment is unenforceable,” and “a covenant not to compete that extends to clients with whom a salesman had no dealings during his employment is unenforceable.” The court held that the agreement at issue was overbroad and unenforceable because it was not limited to customers the employee had dealings with while employed by the company. Id.
Wright also cited Haass for the principle that “[a] restrictive covenant is unreasonable unless it bears some relation to the activities of the employee.” Id. You might call this the “janitor corollary” of the industry-wide exclusion rule. The idea is that a non-compete that would bar a salesman from working for a competitor as a janitor would be unreasonably broad.
Four years later, the Beaumont Court of Appeals considered whether the Texas Supreme Court’s intervening decision in Sheshunoff changed the industry-wide exclusion rule applied in Wright. See Pool v. U.S. Money Reserve, Inc., No. 09-08-137 CV, 2008 WL 4735602, at *8 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2008, no pet.) (mem. op.) (addressing Alex Sheshunoff Mgmt. Servs., L.P. v. Johnson, 209 S.W.3d 644 (Tex. 2006)).
The Poole court said that Sheshunoff was distinguishable because it involved a non-compete that only prevented the employee from soliciting prior clients with whom he had personal contact or any previously identified prospective client. Thus, the court reasoned, Sheshunoff did not change the industry-wide exclusion rule. Id. at *8.
(Sheshunoff was the case that cleared up confusion about whether a non-compete is “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement,” an issue I explain in convenient video form here.)
In another post-Sheshunoff case, EMS USA, Inc. v. Shary, 309 S.W.3d 653, 660 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2010, no pet.), the court said enforceability of a non-compete would turn on whether it extended to customers that employee had no dealings with. And in CDX Holdings, Inc. v. Heddon, No. 3:12-CV-126-N, 2012 WL 11019355, at *10 (N.D. Tex. March 2, 2012), the court held that the scope of activity restrained was overbroad, where the non-compete applied to all anatomic pathology work performed by the employer, even though the employee’s work exclusively involved dermatopathology.
Obviously, dermatopathology is narrower than anatomic pathology. Duh.
The janitor corollary appeared again in Weber Aircraft, L.L.C. v. Krishnamurthy, No. 4:12-CV-666, 2014 WL 12521297 (E.D. Tex. Jan. 27, 2014). In that case the non-compete barred the employees from working for a company providing the same products (seating products and components) as the employer or working for five specific competitors in any capacity. Citing Wright, the court held that a restriction barring the employees from working for five competitors, “even in a position that would not require [the employees] to use any of [the employer’s] confidential information, such as a janitor position,” was unreasonably broad. Id. at *8.
While an industry-wide exclusion is generally unenforceable in Texas, that does not necessarily mean that the scope is reasonable just because it is not an industry-wide exclusion. In Forum US, Inc. v. Musselwhite, No. 14-17-00708-CV, 2020 WL 4331442 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] July 28, 2020, no pet. h.) (mem. op.), the court rejected this argument. “While it is true that an industry-wide exclusion is almost always going to be unreasonable because it restrains more activity than necessary to protect the business interest of a former employer,” the court said, “the inverse of that statement will not always be true.” Id. at *6. The court held that the non-compete and non-solicitation provisions in a sales manager’s employment agreement were overbroad and unenforceable where not tailored to the manager’s activities while an employee. Id. at *7-11. In other words, the court applied the janitor corollary.
The Fifth Circuit weighed in on the industry-wide exclusion rule in D’Onofrio v. Vacation Publications, Inc., 888 F.3d 197, 211-12 (5th Cir. 2018), where it applied Haass and Stroman to a non-compete involving the travel industry. The court held that the non-compete as written was unenforceable because the covenants “amount to an industry-wide restriction—preventing former employees from working in any job related to the sales or marketing of not just cruises, but also a host of other travel products—and are not limited as to either geography or clients with whom former employees actually worked during their employment.” Id. at 212.
Thus, the industry-wide exclusion rule appears to be alive and well in Texas today—in several forms. See, e.g., TENS Rx, Inc. v. Hanis, No. 09-18-00217-CV, 2019 WL 6598174, at *4-6 (Tex. App.–Beaumont Dec. 5, 2019, no pet. h.) (affirming summary judgment against non-compete based on industry-wide exclusion rule). But the rule has its limits.
1. When the non-compete does not prohibit working in the industry
Of course, a non-compete that is limited to customers the employee did business with does not run afoul of the industry-wide exclusion rule. In Gallagher Healthcare Insurance Services v. Vogelsang, 312 S.W.3d 640 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. denied), the court approvingly cited the industry-wide exclusion rule of Haass and Stroman, id. at 654, but the court held that the non-compete at issue did not violate the rule, because “[u]nlike some covenants not to compete that preclude the employee from working in the same industry, the agreement here does not limit [the employee] from working in the insurance business.” Id. at 655.
Similarly, in Stone v. Griffin Commc’ns & Security Sys., Inc., 53 S.W.3d 687, 694 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2001, no writ), the court held that a non-solicitation clause limited to customers the employees had contact with while employed by the employer was not an impermissible industry-wide exclusion.
2. When the “industry” is broader than the company’s niche
What exactly is the “industry” for purposes of the industry-wide exclusion rule? In M-I LLC v. Stelly, 733 F.Supp.2d 759, 794 (S.D. Tex. 2010), the non-compete applied to any customer or potential customer of the employer in the business of oilfield displacement tools or services. The employee argued this was an impermissible industry-wide exclusion. Id. The employer argued the non-compete only applied to well completion services, not the oil and gas industry generally, and therefore was not an “industry-wide” ban. Id. at 796.
The court sided with the employer. The court distinguished Stroman as involving a bar on the insurance business generally, while the non-compete in Stelly did not apply to the entire oil and gas industry. Id. at 796. Considering the “industry” to be oil and gas, not the “niche” services offered by the employer, the court held that the non-compete did not impose an impermissible industry-wide exclusion, but instead limited its scope to a reasonably narrow business area that correlated to the employee’s work for the company. Id. at 797.
In Salas v. Chris Christensen Systems, Inc., No. 10-11-00107-CV, 2011 WL 4089999, at *20 (Tex. App.—Waco Sept. 14, 2011, no pet.) (mem. op.), the court held that a non-compete that applied to the “pet supply manufacturing and distribution industry” did not apply to “the entire industry pertaining to pets or pet products,” where the employee was free to return to his previous work as a dog handler and groomer.
Similarly, in Merritt Hawkins & Assocs., LLC v. Gresham, 79 F.Supp.3d 625, 641 (N.D. Tex. 2015), the court held that a non-compete applying to permanent and temporary medical staffing was not an industry-wide exclusion, where it did not prohibit the employee from working in “other sections of the staffing industry or the medical industry.”
3. When the evidence does not show the restriction amounts to an industry-wide exclusion
The industry-wide exclusion rule may not apply if the employee fails to offer evidence that a prohibition of being associated with any “competitor” of the company amounts to an industry-wide exclusion.
In Republic Services, Inc. v. Rodriguez, No. 14-12-01054-CV, 2014 WL 2936172 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.), the court held that Stroman did not apply absent evidence that the “competitor” scope of the non-compete was “tantamount to an industry-wide prohibition.” Id. at *8. The employee offered no evidence about the industry at issue, the court said, and the employer offered evidence that there were companies in the legal services or legal support services industry that were not competitors of the employer. “On this record, we cannot determine as a matter of law that the covenant imposed an unreasonable industry-wide exclusion.” Id.
“On this record” is a signal courts use to emphasize that the result could be different in a case with different facts.
For example, in McKissock, LLC v. Martin, 267 F.Supp.3d 841, 855-56 (W.D. Tex. 2016), a non-compete barring the employee from being “connected in any manner with any business or practice which is in competition with [employer]” was overbroad as written.
4. When the employer’s interest is not just its goodwill, but also protecting confidential information
The industry-wide exclusion rule as stated in Haass and Stroman is incomplete because it does not address confidential information. Limiting the non-compete to customers the employee had dealings with may not be required when there is a danger of the employee using knowledge of the company’s confidential information to compete for other customers.
For example, in Accruent v. Short, 1:17-CV-858-RP, 2018 WL 297614, at *1 (W.D. Tex. Jan. 4, 2018), the employee served as a director of client services and a senior engineer for a software services company and had access to a wide range of confidential proprietary information. The non-compete prohibited competing with the portions of the employer’s business in which the employee actively participated or received confidential company information. Id.
The employee in Accruent argued that the non-compete violated the Haass rule because it was not limited to customers and prospects the employee worked with at the company, but the court did not read Haass so broadly. Id. at *5. The court said that Haass applies more narrowly to cases where the employer’s interest “derives from the employee’s relationship with his or her clients.” Id.
In Accruent, the court explained, the employee’s role gave him access to confidential proprietary information concerning the company’s product functionality, development plans, sales pipeline, sales process, customer preferences, and market research. Thus, the concern animating the non-compete was not just that the employee would “use his rapport with his customers to take them with him to a competitor,” but principally the concern that the employee would use the confidential information he learned at the company to help another company compete. Thus, the court found that Haass did not compel finding the non-compete’s scope unreasonable. Id. at *6.
But there was another problem with the non-compete in Accruent. Recall the janitor corollary from Haass and Wright, i.e. the principle that a non-compete must bear some relation to the activities of the employee. The non-compete in Accruent arguably prohibited the employee for working for a competitor regardless of his role, i.e. even if he was “emptying trash cans” for a competitor. The court agreed that a non-compete barring an employee for working for a competitor in any capacity is invalid. To address this defect, the court reformed the non-compete such that it would only prohibit the employee from working for a competitor in the same or substantially similar role that he performed for his previous employer. Id. at *6-7.
5. When the restriction applies to solicitation of employees, not customers
Does the industry-wide exclusion rule apply to solicitation of employees, as opposed to customers? In Smith v. Nerium Int’l, LLC, No. 05-18-00617-CV, 2019 WL 3543583, at *8-9 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 5, 2019, no pet. h.) (mem. op.), the court held that the industry-wide exclusion rule did not apply to a clause barring a former employee from soliciting the company’s other employees, reasoning that the clause did not bar the former employee from working for the company’s competitors. Id. at *9.
But in Forum US, Inc. v. Musselwhite, No. 14-17-00708-CV, 2020 WL 4331442, at *11 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] July 28, 2020, no pet. h.) (mem. op.), the court held that a provision prohibiting solicitation of employees was overbroad and therefore unenforceable, where it lacked “any limitation as to the employee’s type of position or whether they had any interaction with Musselwhite,” the defendant employee.
The cases above suggest some tips for practitioners:
1. Don’t draft your non-compete with an industry-wide exclusion. That should be obvious by now, but you’d be surprised how many non-competes still have this.
2. When drafting the non-compete, consider limiting it to customers the employee had contact with while employed by the company. Alternatively, you can also include customers that the employee received confidential information about. (Check out my Plain-Language Non-Compete for some ideas.)
3. The practice tip suggested by Republic Services is that if the non-compete is not an industry-wide exclusion on its face, the employee should offer evidence that the scope of the non-compete would effectively prevent the employee from working in any capacity in the industry at issue.
4. Finally, remember that determining whether a Texas non-compete is enforceable as written is just the first step. Even if the scope violates the industry-wide exclusion rule, the court can enter a temporary injunction that enforces the non-compete in part, or reform the non-compete to make the scope reasonable. For more on the practical results of Texas non-compete law, see Wolfe’s First Law of Texas Non-Compete Litigation.
Zach Wolfe (email@example.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.
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.