Baseball legend Yogi Berra reportedly said “I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four.” He also said “the future ain’t what it used to be.” Obviously the guy had a unique sense of time.
Time is on my mind because of this week’s blog topic: What is a reasonable time period for a Texas non-compete?
For almost a century, Texas case law has required that a non-compete be limited to a reasonable time period, and in 1989 the legislature codified this requirement in the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act. The time period must be no longer than necessary to protect the employer’s goodwill or other business interest (usually confidential information). See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a). And in the typical context of an employment contract, the burden is on the employer to prove the time period is reasonable. See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(b).
The time period of a Texas non-compete must be reasonable. That much is clear. But what does “reasonable” mean in practice? Is there any rule we can discern from the decades of case law?
Unfortunately, the Texas case law applying the reasonable time period is remarkably unsatisfying. You’re just not going to find much analysis defining what makes a time period reasonable or not. The best I can do to synthesize a “rule” from the cases is the “Five-Year Rule.”
The Five-Year Rule says that when addressing the reasonable time period requirement, the court will declare that Texas cases have upheld non-competes of two to five years, and if the time period at issue is five years or less, the court will then find the time period reasonable, without discussing any specific evidence.
I don’t find the Five-Year Rule very helpful or persuasive. As the statute indicates, the question is whether a shorter time period would be sufficient to protect the interest at issue, which is usually the employer’s confidential information and/or goodwill.
I propose an alternate rule, the Wolfe Rule. The Wolfe Rule says that when there is conflicting evidence about whether the time period of a non-compete is reasonable, it presents a fact issue for the jury.
Now, you’re not going to find the Wolfe Rule stated explicitly in any Texas cases, but it is the correct rule. I would even go as far as saying it is obviously the correct rule, and the fact that Texas courts have not expressly stated it presents something of a mystery. And one more thing: the Wolfe Rule does not necessarily conflict with the Five-Year Rule.
How can all of this be true?
To understand, first we need some historical perspective.
We’ll start in the Ice Age. I call it that because you could write the early history of Texas non-compete law based on cases involving the ice delivery business. I wrote about one of these cases, City Ice Delivery Co. v. Evans, 275 S.W. 88 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1925, no writ), in Jurassic Non-Competes.
There were at least four more Texas non-compete cases about ice delivery in the 1920s alone. Oak Cliff Ice Delivery Co. v. Peterson, 300 S.W. 107 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1927, no writ); Carpenter v. Southern Properties, Inc., 299 S.W. 440 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1927, writ ref’d); Texas Ice & Cold Storage Co. v. McGoldrick, 284 S.W.615 (Tex. Civ. App.—San Antonio 1926, writ ref’d); Bettinger v. North Fort Worth Ice Co., 278 S.W. 466 (Tex. Civ. App.—Fort Worth 1925, no writ).
You can find in these cases many of the principles that still apply in Texas non-compete law today, including the requirement that the non-compete must have a reasonable time period. For example, in Carpenter v. Southern Properties the court said a non-compete can only prohibit competition “for a reasonable space of time” after employment, and the employer has the burden to prove that the non-compete is reasonable “in its duration of time.” 299 S.W. at 443.
The non-compete in Carpenter had a two-year time period. Id. at 442. Was this reasonable? “[T]he trial court has found that the negative covenant sought to be enforced was both reasonable and necessary,” the court said, “and we are not prepared to say that there is not substantial evidence sustaining such finding.” Id. at 444.
That was it. Nothing about what the evidence regarding the time period was. Nothing about why the evidence established that two years was reasonable. And the depth of analysis of the reasonable time period requirement in the next century of Texas case law would not significantly improve.
By 1960, it was well established that a non-compete should be limited “for such a time as is reasonably necessary to protect the employer’s business and good will,” and that the “burden of proof is on the former employer” to establish “by satisfactory evidence” the reasonableness of the non-compete. Weber v. Hesse Envelope Co., 342 S.W.2d 652, 654-55 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1960, no writ).
And by that time Texas courts had moved from ice delivery to a more fascinating business: envelope sales. Yes, Weber was about a two-year non-compete signed by an envelope salesman. No word on whether Weber also owned a beet farm.
This battle in the great Metroplex envelope wars was tried to the bench, the salesman was the only witness, and the trial court declared the non-compete enforceable. Id. at 653. As to the two-year time period, the Court of Appeals said only that there was “ample support in the evidence” for the trial court’s implied finding that the two-year period of the non-compete was reasonable. Id. at 655.
That was it. The court didn’t cite any of the “ample” evidence or explain how the evidence established that two years was reasonable.
Are you detecting a pattern?
About 20 years later, the superficial treatment of the reasonable time period requirement got worse in AMF Tuboscope v. McBryde, 618 S.W.2d 105 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1981, writ ref’d n.r.e.). That case addressed another two-year non-compete, this one involving the oilfield pipe inspection business. On an application for temporary injunction, the trial court found the time period unreasonable. Id. at 108.
The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals disagreed. The court did not cite any evidence from the record on the reasonableness of the time period, but it stated that the employees had cited no case authority for the proposition that two years is unreasonable. Id. The court then declared: “Two to five years has repeatedly been held a reasonable time in a noncompetition agreement.” Id.
This appears to be the earliest statement of the Five-Year Rule.
AMF Tuboscope cited three cases in support of the Five-Year Rule, but curiously, none of those cases supported the rule:
- In Arevalo v. Velvet Door, Inc., 508 S.W.2d 184, 185 (Tex. Civ. App.—El Paso 1974, writ ref’d n.r.e.), there was a three-year non-compete but “no contention that the time or space limitation is unreasonable.”
- In Electronic Data Systems Corp. v. Powell, 508 S.W.2d 137, 138-40 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1974, writ ref’d n.r.e.), the court upheld the limited scope of the trial court’s temporary injunction. The non-compete at issue had a three-year period, but the reasonableness of that time period was not one of the issues raised in the case.
- As we have seen, in Weber v. Hesse Envelope, the court said there was ample evidence to support finding the two-year period reasonable, but the opinion said nothing about five years.
You read that right. None of these cases involved a five-year non-compete. And only one of them even addressed whether the time period at issue was reasonable.
So, while I hate to be harsh, the fact is, the statement of the Five-Year Rule in AMF Tuboscope was at best inaccurate, and at worst dishonest.
Almost 30 years later, the Houston Court of Appeals repeated this error verbatim in Gallagher Healthcare Insurance Services v. Vogelsang, 312 S.W.3d 640 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. denied), a case involving a two-year non-compete in the insurance brokerage business. The trial court granted summary judgment that the non-compete was unenforceable, but the Court of Appeals reversed. Id. at 642-43.
Gallagher reasoned that the two-year period was “not unreasonable” because the evidence showed that insurance contracts lasted for a year. Id. at 655. That at least reflected some analysis based on the evidence.
But then the court declared, “Two to five years has repeatedly been held as a reasonable time in a noncompetition agreement,” citing the same three cases cited in AMF Tuboscope. Id.
Thus, not only did Gallagher repeat the same error made in AMF Tuboscope, it did so while addressing a two-year non-compete.
But once the Five-Year Rule was expressly stated in at least two opinions, Texas courts started to invoke it almost routinely, and not just for two-year non-competes.
For example, in Salas v. Chris Christensen Systems, Inc., No. 10-11-00107-CV, 2011 WL 4089999 (Tex. App.—Waco Sept. 14, 2011, no pet.), the court considered the reasonableness of a five-year non-compete in the dog grooming products industry.
Salas did not cite any evidence about the reasonableness of the time period. Instead, it simply said “Texas courts have held that two to five years is a reasonable time restriction in a non-competition agreement,” citing Gallagher and the same three cases cited by Gallagher and AMF Tuboscope. Id. at *19. “Given this,” the court said, “we cannot say that the Agreement’s five-year restraint is per se unreasonable.” Id.
This, of course, misstated the issue. The question should have been whether the employer met its burden to prove that the five-year period was reasonable, not whether a five-year period was “per se” unreasonable.
But the damage has been done. Since Salas, both state and federal courts in Texas have continued to cite the Five-Year Rule, even when the non-compete at issue has a time period of just one or two years:
- Weber Aircraft, L.L.C. v. Krishnamurthy, No. 4:12-CV-666, 2014 WL 12521297, at *6 (E.D. Tex. Jan. 27, 2014) (one year)
- Brink’s Inc. v. Patrick, No. 3:14-CV-775-B, 2014 WL 2931824, at *5 (N.D. Tex. June 27, 2014) (effectively four years)
- In re Gomez, 520 B.R. 233, 239 (S.D. Tex. Bankr. 2014) (five years)
- Merritt Hawkins & Associates, LLC v. Gresham, 79 F. Supp. 3d 625, 640 (N.D. Tex. 2015) (three years)
- Toddy, LLC v. Simpson, No. 1-15-CV-940 RP, 2016 WL 10520965, at *7 (W.D. Tex. May 12, 2016) (five years)
- OrchestrateHR, Inc. v. Trombetta, No. 3:13-CV-2110-KS-BH, 2016 WL 4563348, at *3-4 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 1, 2016) (three years)
- McKissock, LLC v. Martin, 267 F. Supp. 3d 841, 857 (W.D. Tex. 2016) (two years)
- Smith v. Nerium Int’l, LLC, No. 05-18-00617-CV, 2019 WL 3543583, at *10 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 5, 2019, no pet.) (two years)
- Expo Group, Inc. v. Castillo, No. 3:19-CV-1356-G, 2019 WL 4671511, at *6 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 25, 2019) (two years)
- Le-Vel Brands, LLC v. Bland, No. 3:19-CV-00154-L, 2019 WL 4753041, at *7 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 30, 2019) (12 months)
All of these cases cite the Five-Year Rule uncritically, perhaps without realizing that AMF Tuboscope pretty much just made up the rule, almost 40 years ago.
But in a sense, the Five-Year Rule has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now that so many Texas courts have cited and applied it, it has effectively become true.
So that solves the mystery of how Texas courts came to adopt the Five-Year Rule, at least in part.
But is it the right rule?
I’ll cover that in Part 2. It ain’t over til it’s over.
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.