If Part 1 was a flashback to the vinyl era, then this Part 2 moves us into the cassette era. That’s more my time. I never actually had a Peter Frampton record, but I can still remember recording The Name of This Band is Talking Heads on to a blank cassette tape.
The theme of Part 1 was the Sales Territory principle, which says that a reasonable geographic area for a Texas non-compete should usually coincide with an employee’s actual sales territory. This principle goes all the way back to the first vinyl era, the Jazz Age, when Texas courts reasoned that an employee is going to develop goodwill only in the area where he has personal contact with customers.
But of course, not every case involves the typical sales employee who is responsible for a certain territory. What about cases where physical territory is not important, or where the employee is a high-level executive?
In such cases, the Sales Territory principle may be less useful, and Texas courts may be more likely to follow what I call the Holistic principle. The Holistic principle considers the reasonableness of the geographic limitation not in isolation, but in combination with other factors, such as the employee’s rank in the company, the employee’s knowledge of high-level confidential information, the nature of the business, and perhaps most important, the scope of activity restrained by the non-compete.
This leads us to General Rule No. 5.
General Rule 5: No geographic limitation or broad geographic limitation + non-compete limited to existing customers = probably reasonable.
The Sales Territory principle was rooted in the idea that customer goodwill is usually tied to a certain geographic territory. This idea goes back at least as far as the City Ice Delivery case in the 1920s. But Texas courts also recognized decades ago that even a non-compete with no geographic limitation at all can be reasonably limited to protecting customer goodwill, if the scope of activity it restrains is narrow.
Consider Stocks v. Banner American Corp., 599 S.W.2d 665 (Tex. Civ. App.—Texarkana 1980, no writ). Stocks sold his stock in Banner and agreed not to compete with Banner for three years. Banner’s business included manufacturing and selling blank cassette tapes, selling blank labels for cassette tapes, and custom duplication of cassette tapes. Banner’s customers included Tandy Corporation and Apple Computers. Id. at 666.
Stocks apparently could not leave the cassette game behind, because he somehow became an owner of Xalon Corporation, which sounds like an evil company from Aliens or Terminator. Despite the lack of any geographic limitation in the non-compete, the trial court enjoined Stocks and Xalon Corporation from doing business with Tandy, Apple, or a list of other Banner customers. Id. at 666-67.
The Court of Appeals found that the lack of a geographic area was not fatal to the non-compete. See id. at 667 (“Failure to include a territorial limitation will not void a covenant to compete”). The court cited Justin Belt Company, Inc. v. Yost, 502 S.W.2d 681 (Tex. 1973), where the court held that a non-compete that was “unlimited both as to time and to space” could be enforced to a reasonable extent. Id. The court also reasoned that non-competes may be construed more broadly in the sale of a business than in an employment relationship. Id. (citing Seline v. Baker, 536 S.W.2d 631 (Tex. Civ. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1976, no writ)).
Thus, the non-compete could be enforced to some extent, despite the lack of a geographic limitation. But to what extent? The Stocks court cited two cases approving injunctions limited to prohibiting a former employee from contacting certain listed customers. Id. at 667-68 (citing Toch v. Eric Schuster Corp., 490 S.W.2d 618 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1972, writ ref’d n.r.e.), and Arrow Chem. Corp. v. Anderson, 386 S.W.2d 309 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1965, writ ref’d n.r.e.)). The takeaway was that “[t]he use of a customer list as an alternative to setting a specific geographical limit is a reasonable means of enforcing a covenant not to compete.” Id. at 668.
From the Stocks rule we can deduce this common-law principle of Texas non-compete law: a non-compete that is limited to prohibiting a former employee or owner from doing business with the company’s existing customers may be reasonable and enforceable even if it lacks a geographic limitation. See also Investors Diversified Servs., Inc. v. McElroy, 645 S.W.2d 338, 339 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1982, no writ) (non-compete limited to clients securities salesmen contacted or learned about while working for company was enforceable despite lack of defined territory).
The logic of the rule is that the point of requiring a geographic limitation was to protect customer goodwill. If the non-compete is otherwise limited to protecting customer goodwill—because it is limited to the company’s existing customers—then a geographic limitation may not be necessary. This is the most basic formulation of the Holistic principle.
But this was a common-law rule. Did the Stocks rule survive the enactment of the Texas non-compete in 1989? Let’s just say the Stocks rule fared better than cassette tapes at the end of the 80s.
Even though the statute expressly requires a geographical limitation, Texas courts continued to hold that a geographic limitation may be unnecessary if the scope of activity restrained is sufficiently narrow.
In Totino v. Alexander & Associates, Inc., No. 01-97-01204-CV, 1998 WL 552818 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 20, 1998), former employees of an insurance brokerage argued that the their non-competes violated the statute because they contained no geographic limitation, but the court rejected this argument. Id. at *3. The statute’s reasonable geographic restriction parallels a similar common-law requirement, the court reasoned, and Texas courts had held that a geographic limitation was not necessary where the non-compete was limited to clients the former employee had contact with. Id. at *3-4 (citing McElroy and Stocks). The non-compete “implicitly” contained a reasonable geographic restriction because it was limited to clients of the brokerage. Id. at *4.
The First Court of Appeals followed the same approach in Gallagher Healthcare Insurance Services v. Vogelsang, 312 S.W.3d 640 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. denied). The non-compete in Gallagher had no geographic limitation, but it was limited to clients the employee had worked with in her last two years at the company. Id. at 654. “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,” the court said, citing Stocks, Totino, and McElroy. Id. at 654-55. The court held the limitation to clients the employee worked with while employed by the company was a “reasonable alternative to geographical area.” Id. at 655.
As these cases illustrate, the scope of activity restrained is usually a more important factor than geographic area. Even a non-compete that has a reasonable geographic area will be unenforceable if the scope of activity restrained is too broad. See Burning Down the Haas: The Industry-Wide Exclusion Rule in Texas Non-Compete Litigation.
The employee’s position in the company is also an important factor, which leads to the next general rule.
General Rule 6: No geographic limitation or broad geographic limitation + non-compete not limited to specified customers + high-level executive = It depends.
We have seen that a broad geographic area—or even the lack of any geographic area—may be found reasonable if the non-compete is limited to existing clients or customers. But what if the non-compete is not limited to existing clients or customers?
This is where it gets hard. In a case like this, other factors, such as the employee’s rank in the company and knowledge of the company’s confidential information, become more important.
Judge Ellison considered the issue in detail in M-I LLC v. Stelly, 733 F.Supp.2d 759 (S.D. Tex. 2010). In that case, Knobloch resigned from his position as Manager of Sales for the Americas at M-I, an oilfield services company. He started his own oilfield services company and allegedly started “raiding” employees from M-I. Id. at 769-70.
Knobloch’s non-compete restricted doing business with existing M-I customers, but it did not end there. Like many non-competes, it also prohibited Knobloch from engaging in any business “involving oilfield displacement tools or services or any other businesses then conducted by Employer.” Id. at 794. These restrictions applied “in any geographic area” where the company did business, which effectively meant North America, South America, and the Caribbean. Id. at 797.
Knobloch argued that his non-compete was unenforceable because the geographic area was too broad, but Judge Ellison disagreed, citing his own formulation of the Holistic principle. “[N]on-compete covenants with restrictions covering a wide geographic area may be reasonable if they are limited in scope to a firm’s current or prospective clients such that they do not pose a greater restraint than necessary to protect the firm’s goodwill,” he said, citing his own opinion in TransPerfect Translations (I love that flex). Id. at 797-98.
He also cited a version of the Sales Territory principle: “Covenants with wide geographic areas have been upheld frequently in Texas courts, especially when the area covered constitutes the employee’s actual sales or work territory.” Id. at 798.
Applying these rules, Judge Ellison acknowledged that “a geographic area covering the Western hemisphere is broad, reaching to the outer limits of a restriction.” But he ruled that this broad geographic area was reasonable, even where the non-compete was not limited to existing customers, where:
- Knobloch had “extensive job responsibilities” and held a position in “upper management” (Manager of Sales for the Americas). He was “much more than a manager and salesman for his former employer.” He oversaw the company’s “relationships with major international clients.”
- His actual territory did span the Americas.
- Knobloch knew the company’s technical confidential information: “An engineer by training, Knobloch participated in the design of [the company’s] tools and in facilitating wellbore completions. He delivered technical presentations internationally, formulated company growth strategies, and discussed product development with engineers.”
Id. at 798-99.
In short, in M-I v. Stelly the geographic area covering the entire Western hemisphere was reasonable where the employee was a high-level executive, he was actually responsible for that territory, and he had knowledge of the company’s confidential technical information.
Texas cases since M-I v. Stelly have tended to find broad geographic areas reasonable when the former employee was a high-level executive.
Consider Daily Instruments Corp. v. Heidt, 998 F.Supp.2d 553 (S.D. Tex. 2014). In that case, the non-compete broadly applied to the United States and any country in which Daily Instruments did business. Id. at 567. Daily Instruments specialized in the narrow field of reactor thermometry, which involved electrical temperature measurement devices used in reactors for the refining, chemical, and petrochemical industries. Id. at 557.
The court found the non-compete reasonable for three reasons. First, the employee was a high-level sales manager with responsibility for a very large territory and with access to the company’s confidential information regarding worldwide clients and sales. Id. at 567-68. Second, the field of reactor thermometry was very narrow, with a narrow customer base, few competitors, and a global scale. Id. at 568. Third, the non-compete had a reasonable limitation on scope because it did not bar the employee from working in the industry, but only from performing the kind of work he had performed in his last two years of employment in the narrow field of reactor thermometry products, and from disclosing confidential information. Id.
Similarly, in Ameripath, Inc. v. Hebert, 447 S.W.3d 319, 335 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2014, pet. denied), the court found a broad geographic area reasonable considering the employee was a member of employer’s “highest level management team.” The employee cited the Sales Territory principle and argued that he only worked in two counties, while the geographic scope of the non-compete was much broader. Id.
But the court said “the breadth of enforceable geographical restrictions in covenants not to compete must depend on the nature and extent of the employer’s business and the degree of the employee’s involvement in that business.” Id. (citing Butler v. Arrow Mirror & Glass, Inc., 51 S.W.3d 787, 793 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2001, no pet.). The restriction on working anywhere for a company that operated in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was reasonable, the court reasoned, because the employee’s “management knowledge of and experience with [the company’s] Dallas-area operations would be valuable to his new employer.”
And in McKissock, LLC v. Martin, 267 F.Supp.3d 841, 856-57 (W.D. Tex. 2016), the court found a nationwide geographic area reasonable, where the company had a national customer base, the employee taught online courses available to the national customer base, and the employee held an upper-level position as Senior Appraisal Instructor.
Hmm. “Senior Appraisal Instructor.” I’m wondering how “upper-level” that really was. In theory, I don’t have a problem with the Holistic principle applied in M-I v. Stelly and subsequent cases. Courts should remember that the primary rationale for requiring a geographic limitation is to protect a company’s goodwill.
But I fear that in practice, dispensing with the geographic limitation requirement or allowing an extremely broad geographic area can have a real chilling effect on the ability of businesses to hire the best executive talent. I’ve seen this in my practice.
Maybe it’s time to hit rewind.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.