I made a big mistake last Friday. I opened my Twitter feed before watching the season finale of The Mandalorian with my kids. Y’all can guess what happened.
Speaking of spoilers, here’s a SPOILER ALERT: If you would rather learn for yourself the most common and easily fixable mistake in Texas non-compete litigation, I recommend first litigating a bunch of non-compete cases in Texas and getting them wrong. But if you just want the answer, read on.
And if you’ve watched my YouTube video The Reasonable Time Period Requirement for a Texas Non-Compete, you probably already know the answer.
As that video hints, the most common and easily fixable mistake lawyers make in Texas non-compete litigation is failing to offer evidence—not just argument—regarding the reasonableness of the non-compete’s time period.
Fortunately, this is easily corrected. Just offer testimony from your client explaining why the time period is or is not longer than necessary to protect the company’s confidential information and/or goodwill with customers (depending on which side you’re on). And make sure the testimony is specific, not conclusory.
Even better, offer expert testimony on this issue. In most cases, your client or client representative probably has enough experience in the industry to qualify as an expert, so you won’t need to hire one. For example, if you represent a former employee who has a two-year non-compete, offer expert testimony that the employer’s confidential information becomes stale within a year, or that goodwill with customers is likely to dissipate in a year.
This is sure to draw an objection, but if the witness has significant experience in the industry and gives specific reasons for the opinion, what’s the objection?
You may also draw an objection that reasonableness is a question of law, but that’s wrong (sort of), as I explained in Blown Call: The Thing Texas Courts Get Wrong About Non-Competes.
Anyway, fact or opinion testimony should, at a minimum, create a fact issue regarding the reasonableness of the time period, and thus, the enforceability of the non-compete.
And yet, lawyers in Texas non-compete litigation hardly ever do this.
(Reminder: This is not legal advice for your case. Every case is different, and there may be valid strategic reasons not to offer such evidence in a particular case.)
I’ve handled a lot of non-compete disputes, and in my experience, lawyers on both sides rarely offer evidence about the reasonableness of the non-compete’s time period. And expert testimony on the issue is even more rare.
Most of the time, reasonableness of the time period is an afterthought. At most, the lawyers will offer argument about it, rather than evidence, and cite a few cases.
Why is that?
Let’s back up a bit to put this problem in context.
Enforceability is almost always a key issue in a non-compete lawsuit. In the typical case where an employer sues a former employee to enforce a non-compete, the employer has the burden to prove that the non-compete is enforceable. See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(b). That includes proving that the non-compete is reasonable in time period, geographic area, and scope of activity restrained. Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).
One caveat: in a temporary injunction hearing, it is debatable whether the judge should address enforceability of the non-compete. On the one hand, likelihood of success on the merits is one of the elements required for a temporary injunction. See, e.g., Tom James of Dallas, Inc. v. Cobb, 109 S.W.3d 877, 884 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2003, no pet.). On the other hand, the court does not decide the “ultimate issue” of enforceability at the temporary injunction stage. Id.
Let’s put that complication aside and assume that enforceability of the non-compete is somehow an issue before the court, whether it’s a TCPA motion to dismiss, a temporary injunction, a summary judgment motion, or at trial.
In that case, the employer needs to offer evidence that the time period is reasonable. Otherwise, the court may rule that the employer failed to meet its burden of proof. And if you represent the employee, you should offer evidence that the time period is unreasonable, even if you don’t have the burden of proof.
So, for example, even if the time period is only one year, evidence that one year is longer than necessary to protect the employer’s confidential information or goodwill may be enough to prove that the non-compete is unenforceable.
That’s what happened in CDX Holdings, Inc. v. Heddon, No. 3:12-CV-126-N, 2012 WL 11019355 (N.D. Tex. March 2, 2012). In that case, the court held that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to show one-year limitation was reasonable, where there was testimony that the information was confidential and would be valuable to competitors, but there was also testimony that the information was “continually changing and updated” and had a “short shelf life.” Id. at *9.
I don’t know if that was the right factual determination, but the approach in CDX Holdings was correct. The court should look at the evidence to decide whether the time period is reasonable.
That is not what usually happens. Here’s the typical scenario. The time period of the non-compete will be less than five years. The employer’s counsel will cite Texas cases for the “Five-Year Rule,” which says that Texas courts have repeatedly upheld non-competes with time periods of two to five years. The employee’s counsel will then make some argument—but not offer any evidence—that this case is different for some reason. In most cases, if the issue goes up on appeal, the Court of Appeals will cite the Five-Year Rule and say the time period was reasonable.
Funny thing about the Five-Year Rule, though: when you investigate its origins, you find that the first Texas case that cited it basically just made it up. I explained this in What is a Reasonable Time Period for a Texas Non-Compete? But the rule has now been repeated so many times that it has become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here’s another funny thing about the Five-Year Rule: if you look at the opinions that cite it, very few—if any—are cases where there was conflicting evidence about the reasonableness of the time period. (Or if there was conflicting evidence, the opinion ignores it.)
Let’s look at a recent example.
In Reilly v. Premier Polymers, LLC, No. 14-19-00336-CV, 2020 WL 7074253, at *1-2 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 3, 2020, no pet. h.) (mem. op.), a commodity polymers company sued a former sales manager and his new employer, claiming breach of contract, tortious interference, and misappropriation of trade secrets. The court held that the 18-month period of the manager’s non-solicitation covenant was reasonable, citing the usual suspects for the Five-Year Rule. Id. at *10-11.
Curiously, the opinion did not cite any evidence from the record about whether 18 months was longer than necessary to protect the employer’s confidential information, goodwill, or other business interest.
Instead, the defendants argued that the 18-month period was punitive, and therefore unreasonable, because the agreement also provided that employees terminated for reasons other than for “cause” were only subject to a one-year non-solicitation restriction. 2020 WL 7074253 at *11. In effect, the agreement imposed an additional six months of non-solicitation as a punishment for employees who quit, the defendants argued.
That sounds like a plausible argument to me, but the defendants cited no case law to support it, and the plaintiff attacked it as a “made-up rule.” The Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff, declining to adopt the defendants’ proposed standard, “particularly where the 18-month period at issue is well-within what other courts have deemed reasonable.” Id.
Thus, as in most Texas non-compete lawsuits, it appears neither side offered any evidence about whether 18 months was longer than necessary, and the Court of Appeals decided the case based purely on argument and case law, without considering any evidence in the record.
But what if the defendants had offered evidence?
Let’s say Reilly, who worked as a salesperson and regional manager for the polymers company for seven years, testified as an expert that a one-year non-solicitation covenant would be sufficient to protect the company’s confidential information (if any) and customer goodwill, giving specific reasons based on his familiarity with the company, its customers, and the industry. Would that have been sufficient evidence that 18 months was unreasonable, and the restriction therefore unenforceable?
We may never know, but you should try it. This is the way.
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.