The reasonable geographic area requirement of Texas non-compete law is delightfully dated. It’s an analog throwback in a digital era. When Texas courts say a non-compete must be limited to a reasonable geographic area, you can just feel the needle dropping into the well-worn grooves of your uncle’s vinyl copy of Frampton Comes Alive!
But some of you will object that requiring a geographic limitation in a non-compete is an obsolete relic of a bygone era, like Microsoft stores. We’re in the WFH era now. The physical location of an employee doesn’t matter. You might argue a sales person with a cell phone and a laptop can do just as much damage to your business from a beach chair in Fiji as a cubicle in Pearland.
Maybe so. But if the non-compete says “within Pearland,” you’re kind of stuck with that. Plus, the Texas non-compete statute still requires a non-compete to have a reasonable limitation as to “geographical area.” Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).
The traditional connection between physical proximity and customer goodwill
This is perhaps the most old-fashioned part of Texas non-compete law. It hearkens back to a time when physical proximity was the key to a salesman maintaining goodwill with the customer.
Consider Randolph v. Graham, 254 S.W. 402, 403-4 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1923, writ ref’d), where the court held that a medical practice non-compete was reasonable and enforceable, despite having no time limitation, because it was limited to practicing medicine within a 20-mile radius of Schertz, Texas.
The court didn’t explain why the geographic area was reasonable, but it’s easy to understand. People like to go to a doctor with an office near them. So, if a doctor sells his practice in Schertz and moves to Austin, it is unlikely his patients will follow him. (The drive from Schertz to Austin is 65 miles up I-35, which usually takes 5-7 hours.) A 20-mile radius sounds about right to prevent the doctor from taking advantage of the goodwill he developed with his patients.
Two years later, the geographic limitation requirement took shape in City Ice Delivery Co. v. Evans, 275 S.W. 87 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1925, no writ). The court said the test for enforceability of a non-compete in an employment contract was whether it imposed “any greater restraint than is reasonably necessary to secure protection of the business of the employer or the good will thereof.” Id. at 90.
Applying this principle to the geographic area of the non-compete, the court held that the employer was entitled to an injunction against the employee competing in the ice delivery business in the territory where he had delivered ice to the company’s customers, but not against competition outside of the territory, where the company had no goodwill based on the employee’s “personal contact” with customers. Id.
Again, we can see why it made sense to limit the non-compete to the employee’s delivery area. In a business that involves physical delivery of the product to the customer, it was unlikely that a salesman was going to develop goodwill with customers outside his delivery area. Especially in 1925, when the ice would melt if you had to go too far.
So there you have it. Two keys to the geographic area requirement: (1) it should be limited to the territory where the employee interacted with customers, because (2) that is the area where the employee developed goodwill with the customers on behalf of the company.
64 years later, the Texas legislature enacted the 1989 non-compete statute. It provides that a non-compete must contain limitations as to time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained that are “reasonable and do not impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee.” Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).
How have Texas courts interpreted the statute’s reasonable geographic area requirement? In principle, not much has changed since City Ice Delivery.
The Sales Territory principle
In most cases, where the employee worked in some kind of customer-facing sales role within a defined territory, the reasonableness of the geographic area will turn on whether it matches the employee’s sales territory. Let’s call this the Sales Territory principle.
When the case involves a sales person or other low to mid-level employee, the Sales Territory principle will usually explain why the court found the geographic area reasonable or unreasonable. In other words, the Sales Territory principle usually applies when the case does not involve a high-level executive. That leads to our first general rule.
General Rule 1: Non-executive + no geographic limitation = probably unreasonable
The easiest cases are those involving a non-executive who has a non-compete with no geographic limitation.
One of the first cases to apply the statute’s geographic area requirement was Zep Manufacturing Co. v. Harthcock, 824 S.W.2d 654 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1992, no writ). That case involved a non-compete between Zep, an industrial chemical manufacturer, and Harthcock, an industrial chemist. Id. at 656-57. Harthcock’s non-compete barred him from performing services similar to those he performed for Zep for two years following termination, with no geographic limitation. Id. at 660.
The court cited the general principle that “what constitutes a reasonable area generally is considered to be the territory in which the employee worked while in the employment of his employer.” Id. (citing two pre-statute cases, Justin Belt Co. v. Yost, 502 S.W.2d 681, 685 (Tex. 1973), and Diversified Human Resources Group v. Levinson-Polakoff, 752 S.W.2d 8, 12 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1988, no writ)).
The court then said the non-compete failed to comply with the statute because it contained no limitation as to geographic area. Id. at 661. Thus, the non-compete would prohibit Harthcock from working as an industrial chemist anywhere, regardless of whether it was in an area not serviced by Zep or Harthcock.
“Noncompete covenants with broad geographical scopes have been held unenforceable,” the court said, “particularly when no evidence establishes that the employee actually worked in all areas covered by the covenant.” Because the non-compete contained no geographic restriction, the court held it was unenforceable. Id.
But today, most Texas lawyers are smart enough to include some geographic limitation in the non-compete. What then?
General Rule 2: Non-executive + ill-defined geographic limitation = probably unreasonable
Texas courts have reached similar conclusions when the non-compete has some geographic limitation, but is so broad or vague that it has no connection to protecting the goodwill developed by the employee.
For example, in TENS Rx, Inc. v. Hanis, No. 09-18-00217-CV, 2019 WL 6598174, at *1 (Tex. App.—Beaumont Dec. 5, 2019, no pet.) (mem. op.), the non-compete applied “in any state or geographical territory in which Employer is conducting, has conducted or anticipates conducting its business.”
The employee filed a motion for summary judgment that the non-compete was unenforceable because the geographic limitation and scope of activity restrained were unreasonable. Id. at *2. The employer argued that the employee was bound by the contractual stipulation that the geographic restriction was reasonable, stating it was “disingenuous” for the employee to now assert the contrary. Id. at *3.
This brings up one of my pet peeves: lawyers for the first employer love to argue that the employee is being dishonest or “disingenuous” when the the non-compete recites that its limitations are reasonable and the employee later argues they’re unreasonable. I don’t find this persuasive, and I’m guessing most judges don’t either. Almost every non-compete contains self-serving recitals like this. Even when I’m representing the employer trying to enforce the non-compete, I would rather just demonstrate that the limitation is reasonable than play this game.
In any case, the trial court in TENS Rx didn’t buy the “disingenuous” argument. It granted summary judgment that the non-compete was unreasonable in geographic scope and scope of activity restrained. Id.
Because the non-compete related to provision of personal services, the employer had the burden to prove the non-compete was reasonable. Id. at *4. On appeal, the employer cited no authority that the restrictions were reasonable, instead merely arguing that the employee was bound by the contract’s stipulation that the restrictions were reasonable. Id. at *4. The court appeared to reject this argument, instead looking to Texas case law on reasonableness of a geographic limitation. Id.
The question is “whether the covenant contains limitations that are reasonable as to geographical area and do not ‘impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee.’” Id. (citing Marsh USA Inc. v. Vook, 354 S.W.3d 764, 777 (Tex. 2011)).
“The territory in which the employee worked for an employer is generally considered to be the benchmark of a reasonable geographic restriction,” the court said. Id. “Noncompete covenants with broad geographical scopes have been held unenforceable, particularly when no evidence establishes that the employee actually worked in all areas covered by the covenant.” Id.
“Here, there is no definite territory stated and no evidence that Hanis worked in all areas covered by the covenant,” the court said. “It is also unreasonable to impose a condition upon Hanis that would require her to know where TENS ‘anticipates doing its business.’” Id.
TENS Rx shows the risk of making the geographic limitation too abstract. Sure, there is some logic to defining the area as “the employee’s sales territory.” What better way to comply with the Sales Territory principle? But the risk of defining the geographic area this way is that the court may say it is too indefinite. How are the employee—and the court—to know what the sales territory is if it’s not spelled out in the contract?
On the other hand, the company may not know in advance what the employee’s sales territory will be. What if the employee works for the company for over a decade and the territory changes? I don’t have any foolproof solution to this problem, other than to say that usually the better practice is to include a specific geographic area that predicts, as well as the company can, what the employee’s likely sales territory will be.
Let’s say the employer tries to do that and limits the non-compete to a specific, concrete geographic area, such as “within Harris County, Texas.” Is that reasonable? It will probably depend on the employee’s actual sales territory, which leads us to the next general rule.
General Rule 3: Non-executive + well-defined geographic area broader than sales territory = probably unreasonable
When the employee is not a high-level executive and the non-compete has a specific geographic area, the question will be whether the geographic area is broader than the employee’s actual sales territory.
This creates an obvious problem. Dozens of Texas cases say that the reasonableness of a non-compete is a question of law. But how can a judge decide the reasonableness of the non-compete’s geographic area without considering extrinsic evidence about the facts?
Suppose the non-compete’s stated geographic area is “within Harris County, Texas and surrounding counties.” On a motion for summary judgment, the Employee signs a sworn affidavit stating “my sales territory was limited to Harris County,” while the Employer’s CEO signs a sworn affidavit stating “Employee’s sales territory included Harris County and all the surrounding counties.” In other words, conflicting evidence. How can the trial court decide that issue as a question of law?
It can’t. And this illustrates why Texas courts are simply wrong when they declare that the reasonableness of a geographic limitation is always a question of law. On the other hand, if the facts regarding the employee’s sales territory are undisputed, then the reasonableness of the geographic area could present a question of law for the court.
Consider Fomine v. Barrett, No. 01-17-00401-CV, 2018 WL 6376500, at *1 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 6, 2018, no pet.), which prohibited a chiropractic case manager from competing within a 500-mile radius of the clinic’s location. The former case manager, Barrett, moved for summary judgment that the geographic limitation was unreasonable, extending beyond her work responsibilities for the clinic. Id. at *2.
The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for Barrett. The court began by citing the Sales Territory principle, i.e. “[t]he territory in which an employee worked for an employer is generally considered to be the benchmark of a reasonable geographic restriction.” Id. at *3.
The clinic argued that a 500-mile radius was reasonable because Barrett marketed to patients throughout the State of Texas, but the court rejected this argument. Even assuming Barrett’s sales territory included all of Texas, a 500-mile radius would include all of Louisiana and significant portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Mexico. Id. at *3. The geographic scope was therefore “significantly broader” than the geographic scope of Barrett’s employment with the clinic, and the non-compete was therefore unenforceable as written. Id. at *4.
Fomine shows the importance of the employer offering evidence that an employee responsible for generating sales actually worked in the entire geographic area stated in the non-compete. Otherwise the area may be found broader than necessary to protect the employer’s goodwill.
The Sales Territory principle can also apply when the defendant is not a sales employee. Ortega v. Abel, 562 S.W.3d 604 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, pet. denied), was a non-compete case involving the sale of a Hispanic-themed grocery store chain. The geographic area was a 10-mile radius from each of the five stores sold, which equated to most of the Greater Houston area. Id. at 611. The defendants’ expert testified that a three-mile radius would be more than sufficient to protect the goodwill of each store, reasoning that people in a city like Houston rarely travel more than 10 to 12 minutes to go to the grocery store. Id. The plaintiff, Ortega, did not present any evidence to contradict this testimony. Id. at 612.
The Court of Appeals held that the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s determination that the 10-mile radius in the non-compete was greater than necessary to protect Ortega’s goodwill. Id. The court reasoned that “[t]he goal of a covenant not to compete is to establish the restraints on trade reasonably necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promise, not to prevent any competition.” Id. The expert’s testimony supported the trial court’s conclusion that a 3-mile radius was sufficient. Id.
General Rule 4: Non-executive + geographic area basically matching sales territory = probably reasonable
The next application of the Sales Territory principle is where the employee is a sales person or other lower to mid-level employee, and it is undisputed that the geographic area matches the sales territory the employee actually worked (or is at least pretty close).
That presents a fairly easy case for the court to hold that the geographic area is reasonable.
For example, in Gehrke v. Merritt Hawkins & Associates, LLC, No. 05-18-001160-CV, 2020 WL 400175, at *4 (Tex. App.—Dallas Jan. 23, 2020, no pet. h.), the non-compete between a national physician recruiting firm and a salesman prohibited competition in states in which the salesman worked during his last year with the firm. The court held that the multi-state geographic restriction was enforceable because the salesman actually worked within those states. Id.
But of course not every case involves an ordinary sales-level employee. What if the employee was a high-ranking executive who knew everything about the company and was responsible for all of the company’s customers?
I feel like I should save that for Part 2.
Do you feel like I do?
Zach Wolfe (email@example.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.
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.