Drafting the Bullet-Proof Non-Compete: Part 3

Drafting the Bullet-Proof Non-Compete: Part 3

This series has focused on drafting an enforceable Texas non-compete, because that’s where I practice, but if you’re drafting a non-compete for a company in the oil and gas industry, you may need to consider other states, especially Louisiana. Check out Drafting Enforceable Non-Competes in the Energy Industry for some good tips.

But back to Texas.

In Part 1 we saw how to draft a Texas non-compete to meet the once-elusive “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement” requirement.

In Part 2 we saw how to meet the “reasonableness” requirement.

You could stop there and have a pretty decent Texas non-compete, but do you need a separate non-solicitation agreement? And what about all that additional boilerplate you often see in non-competes? Do you need that?

I’ll answer those questions in this third and final installment.

10. Does the agreement need to restrict both competition and solicitation?

This is kind of a trick question, because a restriction on soliciting customers is a restriction on competition. See Is a Non-Solicitation Agreement a Non-Compete? In other words, a “non-solicit” is subject to the same statutory requirements as a “non-compete,” at least in Texas.

Still, many non-competes have one section for restrictions on competition and another section restricting solicitation. This format is often unnecessarily duplicative. I think it is simpler to combine the two in one section.

But the substantive question remains, should the agreement restrict competition generally and solicitation specifically?

There is a case to be made for restricting competition and not getting into the messier issue of solicitation. The problem with a restriction on solicitation is that it almost always leads to factual disputes.

Suppose Dawn Davis leaves her sales position at Paula Payne Windows and goes to work for Real Cheap Windows. The next week, her friend and customer Bob Builder calls her up:

“Hey Dawn, how’s it going?”

“Pretty good, Bob, it’s been a busy week.”

“Oh really?”

 “Yeah, you may not have heard yet, but I left Paula Payne and went to Real Cheap.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that.”

“Well, Bob, I really like the value they provide for their customers.”

“That’s great. You know, I was going to order some more storm windows for that new subdivision project, can Real Cheap give me a good price on those?”

Did Dawn just “solicit” business from Bob? Would it make a difference if Dawn had made the call to Bob, just to chat? Would it make a difference if Dawn had not volunteered that she changed companies?

You can see how “solicitation” creates questions and uncertainty.

In contrast, it’s pretty easy to determine if an employee violates a restriction on “doing business” with a certain customer. If Dawn goes to Real Cheap and Bob then starts buying windows from Real Cheap, that’s “doing business.” We don’t have to get into the whole “solicitation” issue.

Given the kind of factual disputes that often come up, I don’t use the word “solicit” in my form. But I do include a restriction on “urging or causing” a customer to become a customer of the new company.

That, of course, does not entirely solve the problem, because you could have the same kind of factual disputes about “urging” or “causing.” But I think those terms are easier to apply than “soliciting.”

And I think there is some advantage to including a restriction on “urging or causing” in addition to the more general restriction on “doing business.”

11. Should the non-compete state that it is an “independent covenant”?

Yes. The employee will sometimes argue that she is excused from complying with the non-compete because the employer breached the employment agreement first.

To avoid or at least reduce the risk of this argument being successful, I include this clause in my form:

Even without such a clause, the employer could argue that the non-compete is an independent covenant because the employer’s breach of another clause—such as the obligation to pay a bonus or commission—could be separately compensated by damages. But expressly stating the parties’ intent to treat the non-compete as an independent covenant should remove any doubt. See Chambers v. Hunt Petroleum Corp., 320 S.W.3d 578, 584 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2010, no pet.) (clause should be treated as an independent covenant if “a breach may be compensated for in damages . . . unless this is contrary to the expressed intent of the parties”) (citing Centex Corp. v. Dalton, 840 S.W.2d 952, 956 (Tex.1992)). 

12. Should you have the employee stipulate that the non-compete is reasonable and can be reformed?

This is probably ineffective and unnecessary, but it doesn’t hurt, and it may carry some weight with a judge who is not sophisticated about non-competes.

Most non-competes contain some kind of stipulation that the restrictions are reasonable. In my personal opinion, courts should give these stipulations no weight, especially considering limitations on non-competes are a matter of public policy. But some judges might give some weight to the stipulation, and you might be able to use the stipulation to get the employee to admit the scope of the non-compete is reasonable.

It also doesn’t hurt to include a reformation and severability clause. This is probably unnecessary, because the Texas statute already says the court shall reform an overbroad non-compete. But again, it doesn’t hurt to include it.

So, my form includes the following:

13. Should the non-compete include an “ipso facto” clause granting an injunction?

This is a close call for me. Most non-competes contain stipulations designed to support the employer’s request for an injunction. I call this an “ipso facto” clause. Texas courts vary on whether an ipso facto clause has any effect. See Can a Non-Compete Grant an Injunction by Stipulation?

Personally, I don’t give any weight to a non-compete ipso facto clause. But not everybody agrees with me, and it probably doesn’t hurt to include one. Mine looks like this:

Again, my own view is that this kind of stipulation should have no legal effect, but if the non-compete has an ipso facto clause, I might cite it as at least one of my grounds for an injunction.

14. Should the non-compete include “non-circumvention” language?

Employees often try to “get around” non-competes. “Technically I’m not competing with my former employer,” you can imagine an employee arguing, “I’m just providing consulting services to an LLC that my cousin owns.”

That’s just one example, but you get the idea.

This kind of gambit to circumvent a non-compete is usually not persuasive. If the judge applies the plain, common-sense meaning of the non-compete, this type of argument by the employee should usually fail.

But of course judges don’t always do that, and in fairness to the employee, if the employer drafts the non-compete poorly and its plain language does not prohibit the thing the employee is doing, then that’s the employer’s problem. See, e.g., East Texas Copy Sys., Inc. v. Player, 528 S.W.3d 562, 567-68 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2016, no pet.) (enforcing plain meaning that allowed employee to avoid non-compete by terminating his own employment without cause).

I try to head off any cleverly contrived arguments by the employee by including the following in my form:

The idea is to avoid any hyper-technical interpretation intended to get around the non-compete. I haven’t had occasion to test it in court yet, but I would rather have it than not.

15. Should the non-compete prohibit making plans to compete?

Hey, why not? My form includes the following:

This is something I came up with that, somewhat surprisingly, I have not seen in other non-competes.

It is common for an employee to make plans to compete while still employed by the employer. And Texas courts have said that making such plans—and even concealing them from the employer—is not a breach of the employee’s quasi-fiduciary duty to the employer. See Fiduciary Duty Lite: What Employees Can and Can’t Do Before Leaving.

The rationale of the employee fiduciary duty cases is employee mobility. But those cases don’t necessarily stop the employer from creating a contractual duty not to make plans or preparations to compete. So I include that commitment in my form.

It’s such a clever idea, I almost feel guilty.

Like I said at the start, I don’t even like non-competes. I think most employers would be better off focusing on keeping their best employees happy, rather than trying to keep their employees from running off with customers. See The Most Effective Form of Non-Compete in Texas (or Anywhere).            

But if you’re going to make an employee sign a non-compete, you might as well draft it as effectively as possible.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

Drafting the Bullet-Proof Non-Compete: Part 2

Drafting the Bullet-Proof Non-Compete: Part 2

I decided to share my updated Plain-Language Non-Compete with the world, and not only that, I’m walking you through it step by step to explain why I drafted it the way I did.

In Part 1 we learned:

  1. You should draft a non-compete in a style and format that is easy to read and present in the courtroom.
  2. The non-compete should expressly state that the company will give the employee confidential information.
  3. The non-compete should provide for giving the employee specialized training, if applicable.
  4. The non-compete doesn’t need a complicated definition of competing.

Next we get into the real heart of making a non-compete as enforceable as possible: reasonableness.

You probably already know that Texas law requires a non-compete to be reasonable in time period, geographic area, and scope of activity. But do you know how to draft the non-compete to meet this requirement?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

5. Should the non-compete have a reasonable time limitation?

Yes. This is a no-brainer. The statute requires it, Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a), and a non-compete with no time limitation is therefore unenforceable on its face. 

But what should the time limitation be? This is harder, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

If the non-compete is part of the sale of a business, Texas courts are likely to allow a longer time period. See Oliver v. Rogers, 976 S.W.2d 792, 801 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1998, pet. denied) (lack of time limitation did not render non-compete unreasonable when it was part of the sale of a business).

So for the sale of a business, I would recommend something in the range of three to five years.

But for the typical employee non-compete, shorter is better. Your maxim should be “shorten it until it hurts.” When the length of time is short enough that it causes the client some discomfort, you’re probably getting it right.

As a rule of thumb, I say the typical employee non-compete should be limited to one year. Two years max.

Yes, there are Texas cases that find periods of as long as five years reasonable. See Stone v. Griffin Comms. & Security Sys., Inc., 53 S.W.3d 687, 696 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2001, no writ) (“two to five years has repeatedly been held a reasonable time restriction in a non-competition agreement”) (citing cases).

But the analysis in those cases is superficial. I say go shorter, for several reasons.

First, keep in mind that if a court finds the time period as written is unreasonably long, then this effectively cuts off the employer’s right to get damages for breach of the non-compete. See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(c). The employer can still seek an injunction, but the right to get damages is a significant bargaining chip.

Second, the employer usually has the burden to prove the time period is reasonable. If I’m representing the employee, I guarantee you I am going to try to take advantage of this. If I see a time period of two years or more, that gives me something to attack. I can almost always offer testimony from my client that at least creates a fact issue about whether the time period is reasonable.

One year, on the other hand, is pretty hard to attack. I’m not saying you could never prove that one year is longer than needed, but in most cases that’s going to be a tough sell.

Finally, one year is usually enough to accomplish your client’s key business goal: stop a departing employee from immediately moving her key customers to her new company. The first few months are usually critical. In most cases, one year should be enough time for the company to try to persuade the key customers to stay.

6. Should the time period have a “tolling” clause?

I don’t recommend it.

A tolling provision extends the time period of the non-compete by the time that the employee was violating the non-compete. So, for example, if an employee competes for six months before a court enters an injunction to stop the competition, the time period of the non-compete would be extended by six months.

The upside to the employer is obvious. The downside is that it gives the employee an argument that the time period is indefinite and unenforceable. See Central States Logistics, Inc. v. BOC Trucking, LLC, 573 S.W.3d 269, 277 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, pet. denied) (citing Cardinal Personnel, Inc. v. Schneider, 544 S.W.2d 845 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1976, no writ)).

I wouldn’t say the issue is totally settled under Texas law, so you can include a tolling clause if you really want to, but why complicate the time period unnecessarily?

Simpler = easier to enforce.

7. Should the non-compete have a reasonable geographic limitation?

Duh. Of course it should. The requirement is right there in the statute. Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).

But believe it or not, I still sometimes see non-competes with no geographic limitation. How can this happen?

To be fair, there are Texas cases that say a limitation on scope of activity can be used in lieu of a geographic limitation, especially where the employee is a high-level executive who is responsible for the company’s operations everywhere, or where customer goodwill is not tied to any specific geographic area. I cover this is in Geographic Area of a Texas Non-Compete – Part 2.

Still, why chance it? Even if you need to make the geographic area extremely broad, it’s still better to have some geographic limitation than none.

But what should it be?

8. What should the geographic limitation be?

In general, the geographic limitation should coincide with the expected area the employee will be responsible for.

For sales employees, that usually means the employee’s sales territory. I call this the Sales Territory Principle. See Geographic Area of a Texas Non-Compete – Part 1.

It gets more complicated with upper-level management. But even for higher-level executives, I think you should try to define the geographic area they will be responsible for, even if that means a geographic limitation like “the United States,” “North America” or “the US Gulf Coast.”

My form geographic limitation looks like this:

It doesn’t have any more specific formula, but for geographic area there’s just no way to get around the need to adapt the clause to fit the circumstances.

9. Should the non-compete have a reasonable limitation on scope of activity?

Yes. Again, the Texas non-compete statute requires this.

But this is probably the most neglected requirement of the statute. I often see non-competes that define the restricted scope of activity too broadly.

Can you keep a secret? If I represent the employee, this gives me the argument that the non-compete is a prohibited “industry-wide exclusion.” See Burning Down the Haas: The Industry-Wide Exclusion Rule in Texas Non-Compete Law.

This is the most common defensive argument I make for employees. For a typical sales employee, if the non-compete is not limited to the customers the employee dealt with at the company, I will argue it is unreasonably broad.

On the other hand, Texas cases tend to allow restricting a broader scope of activity where the employee is a high-level executive who is responsible for the whole company, not one subset of customers.

So my non-compete form provides two options, depending on the type of employee:

Option 1 may strike some employers as too narrow. But again, the advantage is that it will be difficult for the employee to argue that the scope of activity is too broad. That’s a significant tactical advantage for the employer in a non-compete lawsuit. And from a business perspective, it focuses on the key customers that the company if probably most concerned about the employee taking.

Option 2 is broader, because it is not limited to particular customers, but note that it is still limited to customers or prospects. This is usually better than prohibiting competition with the company generally, which could be seen as a prohibited industry-wide exclusion.

I was on the fence about including “prospects” in Option 2. If you really want to make your enforceability argument strong, you could take that out.

Also note that I use the phrase “doing business” rather than some longer formulation. I think “doing business” has a common-sense plain meaning that is usually easy to understand. If the employee’s lawyer wants to try to argue that providing goods or services for money is somehow not “doing business,” good luck with that.

Beyond Reasonableness

Now you know how to draft the non-compete to be reasonable. That is the most important part of enforceability.

But what else can you include in the non-compete to make sure it is effective and enforceable? Does it need a separate restriction on solicitation of customers? Should it include a lot of self-serving boilerplate in the event of a lawsuit?

I’ll tackle those questions in Part 3.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

Drafting the Bullet-Proof Texas Non-Compete: Part 1

Drafting the Bullet-Proof Texas Non-Compete: Part 1

So you want a bullet-proof Texas non-compete.

Well, don’t we all. But of course, there is no such thing. The basic principle of non-compete law is reasonableness, and that’s a pretty fuzzy concept. So no matter how well the non-compete is drafted, there will almost always be some argument that it is unreasonable.

Still, there are ways to draft a non-compete to maximize the chance that a court will enforce it later.

I’m a little reluctant to share these tips. For one thing, I don’t really like non-competes. But sometimes my clients want me to draft one or enforce one, and like they say in the Fabulous Baker Boys, if the money’s green . . .

So I do have a form non-compete I use. You can download it here if you want. *Disclaimer: every situation is different, and you should not use this form without being or consulting with a lawyer.

And here are the key questions that come up when you’re drafting a typical Texas non-compete.

1. Should you draft the non-compete in a style and format that is easy to read and to present in the courtroom?

The question pretty much answers itself, doesn’t it?

And yet . . . most non-competes are written in a format that is difficult to read.

When it comes to style, lawyers who draft non-competes tend to go wrong in several ways:

  • Long, dense paragraphs
  • Each clause written as a single lengthy sentence
  • Small type
  • Unappealing fonts
  • No paragraph breaks between items in a list
  • Really long lists
  • Too much ALL CAPS
  • No Oxford commas (an almost unforgivable sin)
  • Too many acronyms or abbreviations
  • Too much legalese

I’ve seen a lot of non-competes that commit one or more of these offenses.

But one might object, what difference does the style make if the substance is good?

I addressed this in The Plain-Language Non-Compete. In short, if you want to maximize the enforceability of a non-compete in the courtroom, you will make it as readable and presentable as you can.

So, I now use 12-point Century Schoolbook. Not too stuffy, but not too modern. It’s not going to win any typeface awards or anything, but it’s less generic than Times New Roman. You can probably find a better font that suits your style.

I use bold headings, but not in all caps, and I now indent my paragraphs. When I use a list, I have a paragraph break after each item in the list. I use fairly standard margins.

You might decide to make different decisions regarding style and format, and that’s fine. You can probably come up with something better than I have. The point is to pay attention to these style issues.

Now let’s get into substance.

2. Should the non-compete expressly state that the company will give the employee confidential information?

The answer is yes.

The first thing any Texas non-compete with an employee should do is expressly state that the company agrees to provide the employee with confidential information. This is the simplest way to meet the requirement that a Texas non-compete must be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.” Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a); Alex Sheshunoff Mgmt. Servs., L.P. v. Johnson, 209 S.W.3d 644, 655 (Tex. 2006).

I will sometimes see a confidentiality clause stating that the employee will not disclose the company’s confidential information, but never expressly promising to give the employee confidential information.

That’s better than nothing, and it may be sufficient to create an implied promise to provide the employee confidential information. See Mann Frankfort Stein & Lipp Advisors, Inc. v. Fielding, 289 S.W.3d 844, 850 (Tex. 2009).

But why chance it? There’s no good reason not to include an express promise. So, the first part of my form non-compete looks like this:

As you can see, my form has two options, depending on whether the employee is a new hire or is being promoted.

Having an employee sign a non-compete midstream is tricky. If the company doesn’t provide some new consideration for the non-compete, then the employee can argue later that the non-compete is void for lack of consideration.

The obvious candidate for consideration is continued employment. But the promise of continued at-will employment is considered illusory and therefore not real consideration. See J.M. Davidson, Inc. v. Webster, 128 S.W.3d 223, 228 (Tex. 2003) (at-will employment does not preclude providing contract formation “so long as neither party relies on continued employment as consideration”); Eurecat US, Inc. v. Marklund, 527 S.W.3d 367, 389 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.) (“a promise of continued [at-will] employment is illusory and does not constitute consideration”).

So, the employer needs to provide some kind of consideration other than just continued employment.

Continued access to the company’s confidential information may be sufficient, provided the company actually provides it. But if the company merely continues to provide the same kind of information as before, the employee can argue there was no new consideration.

The better thing to do, when feasible, is to tie the non-compete to a promotion that gives the employee access to a wider scope of confidential information than before. That’s why my form for a post-promotion non-compete says “we will also give you new types of confidential information that you did not have access to in your previous position.”

There could still be a factual dispute about whether this actually happened. But if the company includes this language, it will at least have a reasonable argument that it agreed to provide new consideration for the non-compete, and that the non-compete was ancillary to that agreement.

3. Does the non-compete need to provide for specialized training?

Specialized training is the Dickey Betts of Texas non-competes. Less well known than confidential information, but just as effective.

Including a promise to provide specialized training is another way to meet the requirement that a Texas non-compete must be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.” E.g., Neurodiagnostic Tex, LLC v. Pierce, 506 S.W.3d 153, 164-65 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2016, no pet.). See also Texas Non-Compete Case Teaches Importance of Providing Specialized Training.  

That means a Texas non-compete doesn’t necessarily need to provide for specialized training, but it’s a good idea, if the company is actually going to provide the employee specialized training. My specialized training clause looks like this:

The important thing is to include a description that is specific enough to persuade a judge that this is not mere boilerplate. A generic promise of providing specialized training may not cut it, especially if the company later struggles to identify what the training was and why it was “specialized.”

4. Does the non-compete need a complicated definition of competing?

You can probably already guess where I come out on this one. Most non-competes have a pretty wordy definition of competing. Here’s a typical example:

This way of describing the prohibited competition isn’t really wrong, but it strikes me as unnecessarily complicated. You want to be able to put the clause in front of a judge or jury and make it as simple as possible.

I suspect the more complicated clauses came about as a result of clever employees coming up with ways to circumvent the non-compete.

You can imagine. “I know,” the employee says, “for the first year I’ll be an unpaid consultant to an LLC that my brother-in-law forms, so I won’t really be competing.”

I’m sure there have been endless variations on this sort of thing. And it almost never works. I think most judges and juries are smart enough to figure out that this kind of thing still violates an agreement not to “compete” with the employer.

On the other hand, you don’t want your non-compete to be vulnerable to shenanigans like this. Courts will decline to enforce the claimed purpose of the non-compete when the unambiguous language establishes that the non-compete does not apply. See, e.g., Total Safety U.S., Inc. v. Code Red Safety & Rental, LLC, No. 4:19-CV-03836, 2020 WL 57775826, at *4 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 4, 2020) (rejecting employer’s argument that employment did not terminate when employee was promoted and went to work for an affiliate).

So, even though I favor simplicity and plain language, I do include the common non-compete modifier “directly or indirectly” in my form:

You agree not to compete with us or to help anyone compete with us, directly or indirectly, . . .

I also include the “or to help anyone complete with us.” I think this is a good plain-language way to cover most scenarios where the employee tries to get around the non-compete by working through a middleman.

So now you’ve got a non-compete that meets the “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement” requirement, because it expressly promises to give the employee confidential information and/or specialized training. And you’ve got a common-sense definition of competing.

All you need now are reasonable limitations on time period, geographic area, and scope of activity. How should you draft those limitations?

Stay tuned for Part 2.

______________________________________

Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

Geographic Area of a Texas Non-Compete – Part 2

Geographic Area of a Texas Non-Compete – Part 2

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.

Apple Computers was one of the key customers in the Stocks case decided in 1980

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.

The Stocks rule lasted longer than these bad boys

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.

M-I v. Stelly took a “holistic” approach

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.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

Geographic Area of a Texas Non-Compete – Part 1

Geographic Area of a Texas Non-Compete – Part 1

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.

close-up-photo-of-assorted-color-of-push-pins-on-map-1078850
Sales territory is usually the benchmark for a reasonable geographic area

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?

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

Recent Case Illustrates Catch-22 for Texas Non-Compete Injunctions

Recent Case Illustrates Catch-22 for Texas Non-Compete Injunctions

They say the early bird gets the worm, but they also say all good things come to those who wait. In Texas non-compete litigation, both things can be true.

Let’s illustrate with a hypothetical. Dawn Davis leaves her sale job at Paula Payne Windows and goes to work for a fierce competitor, Real Cheap Windows. Company president Paula Payne calls her outside counsel and says, “Johnny, you’ve got to do something before Dawn takes her customers with her.”

“Have any of them left yet,” he asks. “No,” Paula says, “but it’s only a matter of time.” (#Hamilton)

“Here’s the problem,” Johnny says. “To get an injunction, I’ve got to show imminent harm, and the mere fact that she joined a competitor may not be enough.”

Paula Payne Windows reluctantly decides to wait. Then, over the next four weeks, half of Dawn’s customers stop ordering from Paula Payne and start buying their windows from Real Cheap.

Desperate to stop the bleeding, Paula Payne assigns a new sales guy, Eric Boonster, to the rest of Dawn’s accounts. But Eric doesn’t have Dawn’s experience, or her personal relationships with the customers. Two more customers jump to Real Cheap.

That’s the last straw. Paula Payne Windows sues Dawn and Real Cheap in Texas state court. Paula Payne asks the judge for a temporary injunction barring Dawn from doing business with any of the customers she serviced while working for Paula Payne.

At the hearing, Paula Payne Windows argues that its new sales guy can service Dawn’s customers, and that the customers will stick with Paula Payne Windows if the court orders Dawn to stop doing business with them. But on cross examination, Paula admits the customers are free to go to any company they want, and that she could quantify the amount of lost profits from any sales the company loses to Real Cheap.

Dawn doesn’t buy it. She gets on the stand and says, “I’ve known most of these customers for years, and there’s no way they will stay with Paula Payne if the court tells them they’re not allowed to keep buying from me.”

So, under Texas law, what is the correct ruling by the trial court judge?

(A) Grant a temporary injunction prohibiting Dawn from doing business with any of her former customers from Paula Payne Windows from that point forward. The loss of sales and customer goodwill establishes irreparable injury.

(B) Grant a temporary injunction prohibiting Dawn from soliciting or doing business with any of her former customers who have not yet left Paula Payne Windows, because there is insufficient evidence the customers who have already left would go back to Paula Payne Windows.

(C) Deny a temporary injunction. There is no evidence the customers at issue will buy from Paula Payne if they can’t buy from Dawn, and any sales Paula Payne loses can be adequately compensated with damages.

Personally, I tend to favor answer C, for reasons I explained in The Problem With Non-Competes. But to be fair, you can make a case for each one of these choices. You can find Texas cases to support any one of them.

In one recent case, the court chose answer B, the intermediate option. There is some logic to that choice, as we will see, but it results in a dilemma for the employer who is trying to enforce the non-compete and hold on to customers.

The Gallagher Case

In Gallagher Benefit Services v. Richardson, No. 6:19-cv-00427, 2020 WL 1435111 (E.D. Tex. March 24, 2020), Richardson admitted she was servicing over 60 former Gallagher insurance clients, despite her two-year non-compete. Gallagher sued Richardson for breach of non-compete and sought a preliminary injunction in federal court.

A preliminary injunction requires proof of a substantial threat of irreparable harm. The judge’s ruling on this element was mixed.

As to clients who were still doing business with Gallagher, the court found that Richardson’s admitted possession of a Gallagher producer report and servicing of former Gallagher clients established a threat of irreparable harm. Id. at *6.

But why would this harm be irreparable if Gallagher could obtain lost profits damages for the loss of client business?

“As to the violation of the noncompete clause,” the court said, “irreparable harm may be shown where future damages would require quantification estimates that can be avoided by an injunction that prevents the damages in the first place.” That harm could be avoided, and the status quo preserved, by enjoining Richardson from recruiting or working for any current Gallagher clients. Id.

If those clients leave Gallagher as a result of Richardon’s competition, the court acknowledged, Gallagher could attempt to quantify its damages. “But that quantification will involve estimates and thus potential undercompensation,” the court said. That irreparable harm can be avoided by an injunction against competition for current Gallagher clients, the court reasoned, noting that courts “routinely” enjoin prohibited competition in these circumstances. Id. (citing federal district court cases).

On the other hand, the court rejected Gallagher’s irreparable harm argument as to clients Richardson was already servicing. The court had specifically asked what evidence supported Gallagher’s argument that Richardson’s current clients would have stayed with Gallagher, id. at *2, and Gallagher argued that the court could “infer” that some of the clients would return to Gallagher if the court enjoined Richardson. Id. at *6. But the court said Gallagher did not prove sufficient facts to support that inference, including its capacity to service those clients.

Therefore, as to clients who had already left Gallagher for Richardson, the court found there was not enough risk to warrant disrupting the status quo with an injunction. Id. at *7.

“Without evidence of how many additional competitors Gallagher faces in the marketplace, or of Gallagher’s ability and realistic prospects of regaining any of the clients now with Richardson,” the court said, “Gallagher has not met its burden of showing more than this minimal extent [of] irreparable injury.” Id. at *8.

The court noted that “other courts have also been hesitant to eliminate a defendant’s book of business where the plaintiff has not offered sufficient evidence that the clients in question would return to the plaintiff.” Id. (citing First W. Capital Mgmt. Co. v. Malmed, No. 16-cv-1961-WJM-MJW, 2016 WL 8358549, at *11-12 (D. Colo. Sep. 30, 2016)).

Based on this reasoning, the court entered a preliminary injunction that prohibited Richardson from doing business with any Gallagher clients she serviced during her last two years at Gallagher, except for accounts she was already servicing as of the date of the injunction. Id. at *7.

The Gallagher Dilemma

Gallagher v. Richardson illustrates a Catch-22 facing an employer who wants to get an injunction to stop a former employee from taking customers with her. If the employer files suit and asks for an injunction before customers have left, it may be difficult to prove imminent harm, because the employee hasn’t violated the non-compete yet. But if the employer waits until after customers have left, the judge may take the Gallagher v. Richardson approach and say it’s too late to get an injunction to stop the employee from doing business with those customers.

So what is the employer with the non-compete to do?

Ideally, the employer would offer testimony that it has the ability to service the customers even without the ex-employee and that the customers are likely to continue doing business with it.

If the employer can get some of the customers to vouch for this, even better, but that’s usually hard to pull off. The last thing you want to do when you’re trying to hold on to customers is drag them into a lawsuit, especially when you’re asking them to testify against the sales person they like. And if the customer already wants to stay with you, why would you need an injunction?

So the employer may have trouble persuading the trial judge the customers will come back, and it may get stuck with the intermediate result of Gallagher v. Richardson. For that reason, some might say the lesson of the Gallagher case is that the employer should immediately file suit when the employee leaves to join a competitor.

That’s a plausible position, but it strikes me as too simplistic. What if you go to the temporary injunction hearing before any customer has left, and the employee testifies that she only plans to go after new customers? How are you going to show imminent harm? This approach strikes me as too hot.

Perhaps the “just right” approach is to monitor the situation closely and file suit as soon as two or three customers jump ship. Then you can point to those defections as evidence of imminent harm, but you can try to get an injunction to stop the employee from taking any other customers.

This still leaves the question of why damages would be inadequate.  But the employer at least has cases it can cite on that issue—as the Gallagher opinion illustrates.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

 

Can a Non-Compete Grant an Injunction by Stipulation?

Can a Non-Compete Grant an Injunction by Stipulation?

Listen. Do you want to know a secret? It doesn’t really matter whether a contractual stipulation to an injunction is binding on a court.

Still, most non-competes contain some kind of stipulation that a breach will cause the company irreparable injury, and the company is therefore entitled to an injunction in the event of a breach. Let’s call this an “ipso facto” clause.

There are essentially four ways courts can approach an ipso facto clause:

  1. Find it enforceable and dispositive.
  2. Consider it as a factor favoring an injunction.
  3. Cite it as a factor, but without really giving it any weight.
  4. Disregard it entirely.

In my personal opinion, no. 4 is the correct approach. I don’t think a judge should give this kind of stipulation any weight. We wouldn’t let private parties stipulate to their own rules of evidence or procedure. And it seems especially inappropriate for a temporary injunction, which is both an “extraordinary” remedy and, traditionally, an “equitable” remedy left to the discretion of the judge.

You might cite “freedom of contract.” Ok, but how much weight would you give a clause that says “in the event of any litigation between Company and Employee, the court shall declare Company the winner”?

No, I don’t think this is the kind of decision we let private parties dictate in advance, and that may explain why you won’t find many Texas cases saying an ipso facto clause is dispositive and binding on the court.

In Wright v. Sport Supply Group, Inc., 137 S.W.3d 289, 293-94 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2004, no pet.), the court said it was unaware of any Texas case holding that an ipso facto clause alone establishes, for injunction purposes, that remedies at law will be inadequate. And in Shoreline Gas, Inc. v. McGaughey, No. 13-07-364-CV, 2008 WL 1747624, *11 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2008, no pet.) (mem. op.), the court, citing Wright, said the employer cited no Texas case holding that an ipso facto clause proves there is irreparable injury or no adequate remedy at law.

Addressing an analogous issue, the court 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.), rejected the employer’s argument that the non-compete was reasonable because the agreement recited it was reasonable. “If the rule was otherwise,” the court explained, “every employer could require employees to sign an acknowledgement or reasonableness as a condition of employment and courts would be powerless to hold unreasonable covenants not to compete unenforceable as a violation of Texas public policy.” Id. at *10.

But Texas courts have sometimes cited ipso facto clauses as a factor to consider. In Wright, the court held that an ipso facto clause provided some “substantive and probative evidence” to support the trial court’s temporary injunction, citing the strong public policy of Texas favoring freedom of contract. Wright, 137 S.W.3d at 294.

This kind of “punting” seems to be the most common approach. See South Plains Sno, Inc. v. Eskimo Hut Worldwide, Ltd., No. 07-19-00003-CV, 2019 WL 1591994, at *6 (Tex. App.—Amarillo April 12, 2019, no pet.) (mem. op.) (citing ipso facto clause, in addition to evidence of irreparable injury, in support of affirming trial court’s temporary injunction); Poole v. U.S. Money Reserve, Inc., No. 09-08-137CV, 2008 WL 4735602, at *8 (Tex. App.—Beaumont Oct. 30, 2008, no pet.) (mem. op.) (citing ipso facto clause as “but one consideration in our analysis”).

Citing the ipso facto clause as a non-dispositive factor is kind of an easy way out, so I get why courts would do it. But I wonder. In these cases where courts cited an ipso facto clause as a factor, did the clause actually make a difference? In other words, would the case have come out the same way if the agreement had no such clause?

I suspect the answer is yes, but of course there is no way to be sure.

I do know of at least one Texas case that seemed to find an ipso facto clause conclusive. In Henderson v. KRTS, Inc., 822 S.W.2d 769 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1992, no writ), the buyer of a radio station obtained a temporary injunction prohibiting the seller from interfering with the buyer’s efforts to move the station. Id. at 771-73. On appeal, the seller argued the temporary injunction was improper because damages would be an adequate remedy. The Court of Appeals disagreed, citing the ipso facto clause. The court held that the seller, “by agreement, stipulated that [the buyer] could seek injunctive relief without the necessity of proof of actual damages.” Id. at 776. But the opinion simply decreed this without any analysis.

In a more recent case, the First Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion, without citing Henderson. In Malone v. PLH Group, Inc., No. 01-19-00016-CV, 2020 WL 1680058 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Apr. 7, 2020, no pet. h.) (mem. op.), the court said an ipso clause had no effect.

The employment agreement in Malone contained restrictive covenants prohibiting the employee from competing against the company, soliciting the company’s employees, and using or disclosing the company’s confidential information. Id. at *1. The agreement also contained an ipso facto clause, stating any breach of the restrictive covenants would cause “irreparable damage” to the company, and the company “will be entitled as a matter of right to equitable relief, including temporary or permanent injunction, to restrain such breach.” Id.

After a bench trial, the trial court found that the employee breached the confidentiality clause by forwarding a bid log report to his private email account, but the trial court also found the company failed to prove a “continuing violation” of the confidentiality provision, and it therefore denied equitable relief. Id. at *6.

On appeal, the company argued that it was entitled to an injunction under the ipso facto clause based on the breach of the confidentiality requirement. The Court of Appeals disagreed, for two reasons. First, there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding that there was no continuing violation. Second, the court said “a contracting party’s acknowledgment that the other contracting party has a right to equitable relief does not bind judicial actors or require a court to grant the equitable relief ultimately requested.” “Trial courts are afforded discretion in granting equitable relief,” the court explained, and the company “cannot remove that discretion by eliciting a contractual term from Malone authorizing injunctive relief.” Id. at *6 (citing Shoreline Gas).

So the same Court of Appeals has reached the opposite conclusion on this issue? What gives?

Here’s a hint. In both cases, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling. In Henderson, the trial court granted an injunction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. In Malone, the trial court denied an injunction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Similarly, in Shoreline Gas, the case cited in Malone, the trial court denied a temporary injunction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

You might deduce (or is it induce?) that the rule in non-compete injunction cases is that the party who wins in the trial court wins.

That would be pretty close to accurate, but the truth is a little more complicated. Here’s what I think the “real” rules are:

1. If the trial court grants a temporary injunction to enforce a non-compete, and there is some evidence to support it, the Court of Appeals will usually affirm the injunction and might cite the ipso facto clause as a factor supporting it (although it wouldn’t be necessary, because there would be some evidence to support it anyway).

2. If the trial court denies a temporary injunction, and had some reasonable basis to do so, the Court of Appeals will usually affirm the denial and either say the ipso facto clause had no effect (as in Malone), or say that it was just one factor to consider (as in Wright).

These two rules will apply in the vast majority of cases. And in both scenarios, the Court of Appeals can punt because it doesn’t really have to decide whether the ipso facto clause is dispositive.

In the rare case where the trial court grants an injunction and there is really zero evidence of irreparable injury, then the Court of Appeals might have to bite the bullet and decide whether the ipso facto clause establishes irreparable injury, despite the lack of any evidence. But that will be rare.

So should employers continue to include ipso facto clauses in their non-competes? Well, as much as I hate to include language that I personally think should have no effect, I do include an ipso facto clause in my form non-compete. See The Plain-Language Non-Compete.

For one thing, there’s no real harm in including it. And some judges might consider the clause as a factor, or even find it dispositive, although that would be a mistake.

There’s one more reason I like to include an ipso facto clause in my form non-compete. If I later have to go to court to try to get an injunction enforcing that non-compete, the employee’s stipulation to an injunction can be useful. Why?

Sorry, you can’t expect me to give away all my secrets.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

 

Can They Lay Me Off *And* Enforce My Non-Compete?

Can They Lay Me Off *And* Enforce My Non-Compete?

Can a Texas employer lay off an employee and then enforce the employee’s non-compete? As with so many legal issues, I’d bet all my chips there’s a short, simple answer, a longer more complicated answer, and a practical answer.

The short answer is yes, an employer can fire an at-will employee—for a good reason, an unfair reason, or for no reason at all—and then enforce the employee’s non-compete. There is nothing in the Texas non-compete statute that expressly ties enforceability to whether the employee quit, got fired, or got laid off.

You can see this harsh reality in the recent case Amend v. J.C. Penney Corp., No. 05-19-00723-CV, 2020 WL 1528497 (Tex. App.–Dallas Mar. 31, 2020, no pet. h.) (mem. op.). In that case, J.C. Penney eliminated Amend’s position and terminated him. He later found a job at Lowe’s as President of Online. J.C. Penney’s sued Amend for breaching his non-compete, the trial court judge refused to dismiss the suit, and the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision. The fact that J.C. Penney laid off Amend didn’t stop it from suing to enforce his non-compete.

But the longer answer is that the reason for termination of employment can be a factor that affects how the judge evaluates the reasonableness of the non-compete and whether to grant a temporary injunction enforcing the non-compete. I’ll walk through that answer momentarily.

The practical answer is that if the employer cares enough to spend the time and money to sue the employee to enforce the non-compete, then it’s going to cost the employee around $10,000 in legal fees to fight back, at least initially. If the employee doesn’t have that kind of money, it’s going to be tough sledding. I’ll cover that too.

But first, let’s put these questions in context by understanding some basic principles of Texas non-compete law.

Background on Basics of Texas Non-Compete Law

For about a century, Texas law on non-competes was common law, i.e. law made by judges. I covered some of this history in Jurassic Non-Competes. In 1989, the Texas legislature passed the Covenants Not to Compete Act, found at sections 15.50-52 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code. I just call it the non-compete statute for short. For the most part, it codified the common law principles the courts had developed (with two important exceptions I’ll get to later).

The statute has two basic requirements. First, a non-compete must be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.” Second, a non-compete must be reasonably limited in time, geographic area, and scope of activity restrained. We now have three decades of case law applying those requirements.

Bear in mind that even if the non-compete as written fails the reasonableness test, the statute says the court shall reform the non-compete, i.e. rewrite it, to the extent necessary to make it reasonable.

But as a practical matter, true reformation hardly ever happens, because the parties almost never get that far. And strangely enough, the Texas non-compete statute says nothing about the event that is usually most important in a Texas non-compete lawsuit: the temporary injunction hearing.

The statute does talk about “injunctive relief,” but not specifically about a temporary injunction (or preliminary injunction, in federal court). Courts have developed common-law requirements for a temporary injunction, including “imminent harm” and “irreparable injury,” and the statute does not preempt those common-law requirements. See Cardinal Health Staffing Network, Inc. v. Bowen, 106 S.W.3d 230, 241 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2003, no pet.) (rejecting argument that proof of irreparable injury is not required in non-compete case).

A temporary injunction hearing usually takes place a few weeks after the lawsuit is filed. At that hearing the judge will decide whether to order the employee to comply with the non-compete while the lawsuit is pending. If the judge thinks the non-compete is overbroad, the judge can enter a temporary injunction that only enforces the non-compete to a reasonable extent.

The losing party can appeal that decision to the Court of Appeals, but the chance of winning the appeal is low. The main reason for that is the standard of review: abuse of discretion. Even if the Court of Appeals thinks the judge got it wrong, it is supposed to uphold the decision as long as the trial court judge didn’t do anything too crazy.

The end result is that non-compete cases often settle after the temporary injunction hearing. If the judge orders the employee to stop competing, in most cases that might as well be a permanent injunction, because usually the employee is going to have to look for some other job. If the judge denies the request for a temporary injunction, the employer may decide to cut a deal with its former employee rather than spending more money on what may be losing lawsuit.

With this background information you are now equipped to understand what I’m going to say about companies laying off employees and then enforcing their non-competes.

Explanation of the Short Answer

You can now see why I say that, in theory, the way employment ended does not impact whether the non-compete is enforceable. As I said, the non-compete has two requirements, “ancillary” and “reasonable.” There’s nothing in the statute that says the employer can’t fire or lay off an at-will employee and then enforce the employee’s non-compete.

Of course, this doesn’t seem fair. It strikes most people as wrong that a company could fire an employee without good cause and then prevent the employee from working for a competitor. That’s probably why there is a common misconception that the employer can only enforce the non-compete if the employee quit, or if the employee was fired for good cause.

Our intuitive sense of fairness also tells us that a company shouldn’t be able to use a non-compete to prevent a former employee from making a living. And for many decades, Texas courts shared this sentiment. This led Texas courts to say that a non-compete must not be “oppressive” to the employee and must not restrain the employee from engaging in a “common calling.” See Hill v. Mobile Auto Trim, Inc., 725 S.W.2d 168, 171-72 (Tex. 1987).

But the 1989 statute did not include those two requirements. And the statute says its criteria for enforceability are “exclusive” and preempt any other criteria “under common law or otherwise.” Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.52.

So, arguably, the Texas non-compete statute eliminates the burden on the employee as a factor in deciding enforceability of the non-compete. That means the employee cannot argue it is unfair or oppressive for the company to lay off the employee and then enforce the non-compete, right?

Well that’s the short answer, at least.

The Longer Answer

There are still some ways for the employee to argue it is unfair to enforce the non-compete against an employee who was laid off.

First, remember the reasonableness requirement. The non-compete must be reasonably limited and “not impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest” of the employer. Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).

In deciding what is reasonably necessary to protect the employer’s goodwill, the judge can take into account the circumstances of the employee’s departure. The scope may be more or less reasonable depending on whether the employee had a premeditated plan to quit and take customers to a competitor, as opposed to the employee getting laid off.

Second, keep in mind both the common-law requirements for a temporary injunction and the standard of review that applies to an appeal of a trial court’s decision on a temporary injunction. Put those together, and the result is that the trial court judge has a lot of wiggle room to grant or deny a temporary injunction.

For example, if the judge doesn’t think it would be fair to enforce a non-compete against an employee who got laid off, it’s pretty easy for the judge to say, “sorry, you may have a case for breach of the non-compete, but damages would be adequate to compensate for that, so I don’t see any irreparable injury.” The facts will almost always provide some support for that conclusion. And because of the “abuse of discretion” standard, it is very unlikely that the trial court judge’s denial of a temporary injunction will get reversed by the Court of Appeals.

Third, if the lawsuit is in federal court, then the company trying to enforce the non-compete has the burden to show that “the threatened injury outweighs any prejudice the injunction might cause the defendant.” BMC Software, Inc. v. Int’l Bus. Machines Corp., No. H-17-2254, 2018 WL 4530020, at *2 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 21, 2018) (citing Bluefield Water Ass’n, Inc. v. City of Starkville, 577 F.3d 250, 252-53 (5th Cir. 2009)). That opens the door to the employee arguing that the burden of getting laid off and then prevented from working for a competitor outweighs any loss of revenue to the company.

Fourth, the laid-off employee’s best friend may be the “industry-wide exclusion” rule, which I explain in Burning Down the Haass: The Industry-Wide Exclusion Rule in Texas Non-Compete Law.

That rule is really a subset of the first question of reasonableness, but it’s important enough to deserve its own category. Texas law says a non-compete that prohibits working for a competitor in the industry in any capacity is too broad. Usually, the non-compete must be tied to preventing the employee from taking the company’s customers with her. This is where I get Wolfe’s First Law of Texas Non-Compete Litigation: you can’t take your customers with you.

If you get laid off and want to go to work for a competitor, in most cases Texas law should allow you to do it, as long as you’re not trying to take your customers with you. That means you may have to start from scratch at a new company, at least until the non-compete expires, but at least you can get a job in the same industry.

The Practical Answer

But what if you want to take your customers with you? What if you’ve had those customers for years, even before you joined the company that laid you off? What if you’re mad as hell and you’re just not going to take it anymore?

You can fight, and you may have a shot at winning, but it’s going to cost you. If you have a non-compete, get laid off, and try to take your customers with you to a new company, chances are your former employer is going to file a lawsuit (assuming the dollar amount of lost business is worth fighting over). If you can’t afford to hire a lawyer to defend you, your chance of winning is not good.

So what’s it going to cost to defend yourself? I tackled this question in How Much Does a Texas Non-Compete Lawsuit Cost? at my YouTube channel, That Non-Compete Lawyer. As a rule of thumb, the first stage of the lawsuit through the temporary injunction hearing is going to cost you $10,000.

Of course, it’s just a rule of thumb. As I say in the video, it may be more, it may be less. But that number should give you some sense of what it’s going to take. If $10,000 is a huge amount of money to you, then maybe you shouldn’t be gambling at this table.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. This post is dedicated to Kenny Rogers.

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.

 

 

Top 15 Drafting Considerations for Texas Non-Competes

Top 15 Drafting Considerations for Texas Non-Competes

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When I think about drafting a Texas non-compete, I think about these words to a song I liked in the 80s:

Freedom of choice, is what you got. Freedom from choice, is what you want.

It would be so much easier if we didn’t have so many choices, especially when drafting non-competes.

You’ve got two basic choices at the start. You can just cut and paste from a form, like my Plain-Language Non-Compete, or you can take the time to consider the client’s particular needs, the legal issues raised, and the practical considerations, and then draft accordingly. If you do the latter, here are my top 15 things to think about.

1. Does your client really want or need a non-compete?

This is not really a “drafting” tip. But before you start drafting a non-compete, you might want to ask the client “are you sure you really want a non-compete?” I explain why in The Most Effective Form of Non-Compete in Texas (or Anywhere). Spoiler alert: the answer is that you are better off with a happy employee than with an unhappy employee who was required to sign an airtight non-compete (if such a thing existed).

2. Should you include a choice of law clause?

If you’re drafting a non-compete for an employee working in Texas, can you improve the chance of enforcing the non-compete by including a choice of law clause selecting some other state’s law?

Probably not. There are two reasons for this.

First, you are probably not going to find a state that is significantly more favorable to non-competes than Texas. There are some things about Texas law that are favorable to the employee, such as the fact that you can’t get damages for breach of an overbroad non-compete (see no. 6) and the prohibition of industry-wide exclusions (see no. 9) But overall, Texas law is relatively friendly to non-competes.

So if you’re going to select some other state’s law (Delaware is a likely contender), you should at least take the time to understand whether that state’s law is actually better for your client.

But even then, there’s a second reason choosing another state’s law won’t work: Texas law on choice of law.

If the employee is working in Texas, a choice of law clause selecting some other state’s law is probably not going to be enforceable in a Texas court. I cover this in “This Stuff’s Made in New York City!” How Texas Courts Decide Which State’s Law Applies to a Non-Compete.

I say “probably” because there is some wiggle room in the three-part test for enforcing a choice of law clause. But in most cases you’re better off just avoiding this complication and selecting Texas law.

3. Which state’s law will apply?

We’ve been assuming the employee is going to work in Texas. But what if the employee is going to work outside of Texas? Will your Texas choice-of-law clause be enforceable? If not, what requirements of the other state’s law do you need to comply with?

This can get complicated. And your client probably doesn’t want to pay for you to spend hours researching the nuances of Oklahoma’s choice-of-law jurisprudence.

But here’s what I suggest. Assume there is a good chance the other state’s law will apply, and spend an hour researching the basic requirements of that state’s non-compete law. You might be surprised what you find. For example, Louisiana requires a non-compete to expressly state which parishes it covers.

Second, make the non-compete as narrow as reasonably possible (see nos. 6-9). That will tend to enhance its enforceability no matter which state’s law applies.

4. How do you meet the “ancillary” requirement?

Texas law requires a non-compete to be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.” There is a lot of case law on what this means, some of it now obsolete. It boils down to two categories: (1) a non-compete tied to a confidentiality agreement and (2) everything else.

The most common way to meet the “ancillary” requirement for an at-will employee is to tie the non-compete to a confidentiality agreement. The Texas Supreme Court simplified this in the Alex Sheshunoff case. The court said the employer can meet the “ancillary” requirement by doing two things: agree to provide the employee confidential information and then actually provide the promised confidential information.

A corollary to this rule is that the employer can do the same thing by agreeing to provide specialized training and then actually providing such training.

Given this clear guidance from SCOTX, you’d be surprised how many Texas non-competes don’t expressly state that the employer will provide the employee with confidential information (or specialized training).

Not to worry. The Texas Supreme Court said in the Mann Frankfort case that the agreement to provide confidential information can be implied, if the nature of the employee’s work necessarily requires access to confidential information.

But why chance it? It’s so easy to include an express agreement to provide confidential information. Same for specialized training. And it helps if the training is actually “specialized.”

A harder question is how to make sure your client actually provides confidential information to the employee. I have one form of non-compete that includes a form for the employee to fill out 60 days later acknowledging that the employee has received confidential information.

Of course, after signing this acknowledgment the employee could still claim later that the information was not really confidential, but the signed form at least gives the employer’s litigation counsel good impeachment material.

On the other hand, what if the employer forgets to have the employee sign the acknowledgment? Now the evidence is messier, possibly creating a fact issue. For that reason, I stopped including the acknowledgment in my standard form of non-compete.

But it’s still an option to consider.

The next most common way to meet the “ancillary” requirement is to tie the non-compete to the sale of a business. I addressed this in Non-Competes in the Sale of a Texas Business. Generally, Texas law is friendlier to non-competes in this scenario.

My main drafting tip for a non-compete tied to the sale of a business is to make sure that the asset purchase agreement expressly states the buyer is obtaining the goodwill of the business. Protecting the goodwill is the rationale for allowing the non-compete, so you don’t want any ambiguity about whether the goodwill is being sold.

5. As to customers, should you include both a non-solicit and a non-compete?

It is very common for a Texas non-compete to have both a “non-solicitation” section and a separate non-compete section. The non-solicitation section will say, for example, that for two years the employee agrees not to solicit any person who was a customer or prospect of the employer during the last year of employment. The non-compete will more broadly prohibit competing with the employer. This means the non-solicit is really just a subset of the non-compete.

Why do lawyers draft it this way? And is it a good idea?

In my opinion, it’s generally a bad idea, although I admit this is more art than science.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. A non-solicitation agreement is a form of a “covenant not to compete” and is therefore subject to the requirements of the Texas non-compete. See Is a Non-Solicitation Agreement a Non-Compete? This is one area of non-compete law where the Texas Supreme Court has not put form over substance.

That means including a separate non-solicitation section isn’t going to do anything to avoid the requirements of the statute.

So what’s the benefit? I think the idea is that the non-solicit is a sort of insurance policy. If a court finds the non-compete too broad, the employer can still fall back on the non-solicit, which is narrower and more likely to be found reasonable.

But tying the non-compete to “solicitation” creates practical problems of its own.

Here’s a familiar scenario that will illustrate what I mean:

Chris Customer: [answers phone] Hello? 

Dawn Davis: Hey, Chris. It’s Dawn. How have you been? 

Chris: Oh pretty good, Dawn. You know, just trying to keep up with all my construction projects.

Dawn: I hear you. I guess that’s a good problem to have.

Chris: Yeah, I can’t complain. So how are things going at Paula Payne Windows?

Dawn: Fine, I guess. But I’m not working there anymore. I’m the sales manager at Real Cheap Windows now.

Chris: Oh, cool. I didn’t know that. How do you like it so far?

Dawn: So far it’s great. We’ve got an excellent team here. We’re really doing good things for our customers. 

Chris: Glad to hear it. Well it’s nice hearing from you. Will I see you at the kids’ soccer game Saturday?

Dawn: Yup, I’ll see you there.

Question: did “solicitation” just happen in this phone call? The problem is that there will almost always be a factual dispute about whether the communication at issue was solicitation. And the particular problem for the employer is that the customer will tend to back up the employee’s assertion that there was no solicitation.

Perhaps you could solve this problem by including a definition of “solicit” in the agreement. But now you’re creating more opportunities for argument and interpretation.

And there’s an additional, more subtle problem with solicitation: causation. Even if the employer proves the employee solicited the customer and the customer left, that doesn’t necessarily prove the solicitation caused the customer to leave. What if Chris testifies under oath, “I’ve gone to church with Dawn and her husband for over ten years, and I would have taken my business to Dawn regardless of whether she solicited my business or not.” Wouldn’t that evidence negate causation?

For all these reasons, I tend to favor tying the non-compete to doing business with the company’s customers, not solicitation of the company’s customers. Whether the employee has done business with the customer, i.e. providing goods or services to the customer for money, is usually a more objective fact.

6. In general, should you make the non-compete broad or narrow?

I think you know what I’m going to say. But it’s worth taking a moment to explain why.

The employer’s instinct is to make the non-compete as broad as possible. If you represent the employer, part of your job is to explain why that’s not in the client’s best interest. There are two main reasons for this.

First, it will be easier to get a temporary injunction enforcing the non-compete if the non-compete is enforceable as written. True, the trial court judge can enter a temporary injunction that only partially enforces the non-compete, but as a non-compete litigator I would much rather go into the courtroom defending a non-compete I know is already reasonable in scope.

Second, if a court finds that the non-compete was not reasonable as written, the court can reform the agreement, but the employer cannot recover damages that occur before reformation. See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(c). In practical terms, that means drafting an overbroad non-compete is going to cost your client a significant bargaining chip.

When you explain those two facts to your employer client, the client may start to understand the need to resist the instinct to make the non-compete as broad as possible. Instead, a good rule of thumb is to “narrow the non-compete until it hurts.” When your client’s reaction is “ouch, only one year, that’s going to hurt,” you know you’re on the right track.

7. How do you meet the reasonable time period requirement?

Like I said, shorten the time period until it hurts. Texas courts have enforced non-competes as long as 3-5 years, but why chance it? The time period must be no longer than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interest, which usually means goodwill and confidential information. That usually means no more than two years. And one year is even better.

8. How do you meet the reasonable geographic area requirement?

There are Texas cases that, despite the command of the statute, you don’t need to have an express geographic limitation if there is a reasonable limitation on the scope, but again, why risk it? Put some geographic limitation in, even if it’s broad. Better yet, make the geographic scope as narrow as possible. The rule of thumb is that it should match the territory the employee is actually going to be responsible for.

9. How do you meet the reasonable scope requirement?

This is where I see the most mistakes in Texas non-competes. It seems many lawyers who draft agreements with non-competes are not aware that Texas law generally prohibits an “industry-wide exclusion.” I explained this in Burning Down the Haass: The Industry-Wide Exclusion Rule in Texas Non-Compete Law. (Again with the 80s songs.)

There are exceptions to the industry-wide exclusion rule, but again, why chance it? It’s best to limit the non-compete to customers the employee deals with or learns confidential information about while working for the company.

10. Should you include stipulations that the non-compete is enforceable, that a breach will cause irreparable injury, etc.?

You see clauses like this all the time. Essentially, these are just attempts to have the employee waive objections to enforceability.

Do clauses like this have any legal effect? Texas law is unsettled. Usually the court will cite a clause like this as an additional reason for enforcement, without saying the clause is dispositive. I don’t think I’ve seen any case that says, for example, that a stipulation that a breach will cause irreparable injury is conclusive.

My personal opinion is that these clauses should be given exactly zero weight. You can’t waive a public policy issue. And I don’t think private parties can change the requirements for obtaining an injunction any more than they could stipulate to different rules of evidence or procedure.

Despite my personal view, do I still include clauses like this when I draft a non-compete for an employer? Yes, of course. It doesn’t hurt. And it can help in cross examination of the employee.

How? You can’t expect me to give away all my secrets.

11. Should you include a tolling clause?

A tolling clause says that the time period of the non-compete will be extended by the amount of time that the employee is in breach. I’m starting to see more of these.

These clauses strike me as introducing more potential uncertainty than they are worth. A time period of one year from termination is objective and usually easy to apply. Figuring out the period of time the employee has been in breach can present a factual dispute. If you’re the employer, the last thing you want is to add yet another potential fact issue.

The court might even say the tolling clause renders the time period too indefinite to be enforced. I haven’t seen a case on this, but if I represent the employee I might at least make the argument.

12. Should you include a liquidated damages clause?

A liquidated damages clause specifies a specific amount of damages for a breach. I covered the requirements of a liquidated damages clause generally in Liquidated Damages Lessons from the Stormy Daniels Settlement.

I don’t like liquidated damages clauses in non-competes. It’s usually not that hard to calculate actual damages after the fact; in most cases it’s lost profits. But coming up with a dollar amount in advance that reasonably estimates what the actual damages are likely to be is difficult. For these reasons, you’re likely to have an argument over whether the liquidated damages clause is enforceable. That’s one more argument the employer doesn’t need.

If you do include a liquidated damages clause, be sure you also include a clause expressly stating that the employer can still obtain injunctive relief in addition to the liquidated damages. Otherwise, a court might say the liquidated damages are the employer’s exclusive remedy.

13. Can you avoid enforceability problems by structuring the non-compete as a forfeiture clause?

The short answer is no. If the agreement says the employee is free to compete but will forfeit his equity ownership in the company if he does so, the reasonableness requirements for Texas non-competes could still apply. And even if the court doesn’t consider the agreement a non-compete, it would still have to be reasonable.

For the longer answer, see my post When Is a Forfeiture Clause a Non-Compete?

The bottom line is that structuring the non-compete as a forfeiture clause—as opposed to an express prohibition on competition—won’t necessarily avoid enforceability issues, and if you do go the forfeiture route, you should still include reasonable limitations on time period, geographic area, and scope.

14. Can you improve the effectiveness of the non-compete by including severance pay? Garden leave?

When employees consult with me about non-competes, I sometimes suggest that if the employer is going to require a one-year non-compete, for example, then maybe the employee should ask for one year of severance pay. The rationale is that if the employee is going to sit out of the industry for a year, she should at least get paid for that year.

There is a certain logic to this, but of course that doesn’t mean employers will like it. Companies don’t usually like paying people to do nothing.

Still, there could be a benefit to the employer. This is why you sometimes see “garden leave” provisions. Under garden leave, the employee technically remains employed by the company for some period of time but is no longer actively doing anything for the company. The idea is that it’s easier to enforce a non-compete against a current employee than a former employee. Plus, competing with the employer while still employed would usually violate the employee’s limited “fiduciary” duty. See Fiduciary Duty Lite: What Employees Can and Can’t Do Before Leaving.

I don’t have as much experience with non-competes tied to garden leave, but it’s an idea employers should at least consider.

15. Can you draft an effective non-compete in the middle of employment? When the employee is on the way out the door?

The short answer? It’s hard, but not impossible. And it’s easier to do it in the middle than at the end.

The problem, in a word, is consideration. If the employee is already working for the company and has already received confidential information, what’s the new consideration for the non-compete?

Typically, the agreement in this situation will recite continued employment as consideration. But to improve the argument for enforceability, the employer should try to tie the new non-compete to a promotion, a higher level of responsibility, and/or increased access to confidential information.

Having the employee sign a non-compete after notice of termination is usually not going to work, even if the employer agrees to pay severance for it. Traditionally, a mere agreement to pay money has not satisfied the “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement” requirement. But you can try. And feel free to be creative.

Like another song says, freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.

 

When Is a Forfeiture Clause a Non-Compete?

When Is a Forfeiture Clause a Non-Compete?

Sometimes a Texas non-compete will take the form of forfeiture clause rather than an express prohibition on competing. For example, let’s say a company awards equity ownership to a valued employee, with a clause stating that the employee will forfeit that ownership if he competes. Is that a non-compete? And does it matter whether a court classifies it as a non-compete or something else?

*Disclaimer: This is an issue in a case I’m currently litigating. I said it once before, but it bears repeating: everything in this post is just my personal opinion, not the opinion of my firm or clients. Although in this case, my personal opinion aligns with my client’s position pretty well, so it’s not a big deal.

In my opinion, the answers should be yes, the agreement is a non-compete and no, it does not ultimately matter because either way, the scope of the clause must be reasonable.

But the issue is open to debate, and there are several plausible answers under current Texas case law:

A. The forfeiture clause functions as a non-compete and therefore must meet the requirements of the non-compete statute.

B. The forfeiture clause is not a non-compete because it doesn’t actually prohibit the employee from competing; it just says the employee will forfeit some benefit if he competes.

C. Whether the forfeiture clause is a non-compete depends on the nature of the incentive plan; if it is a non-contributory profit-sharing plan, it probably isn’t a non-compete, but if the employee owns vested shares in the company, it probably is a non-compete.

D. Regardless of whether the forfeiture clause is a non-compete, it must be reasonable to be enforceable.

The bottom line is that the answer is unclear.

So for Texas lawyers who draft non-competes for employers, there are two things to remember. First, putting the non-compete in the form of a forfeiture clause won’t necessarily avoid the requirements of the non-compete statute. Second, regardless of what you call it, a Texas court probably will not enforce a forfeiture clause that functions as an unreasonably broad non-compete. So you might as well make the scope of the discouraged competition reasonable.

If that’s all you need to know, you can skip the rest. If you want to understand why, keep it tuned right here.

Conflicting Cases?

The trouble is that we have two Texas Supreme Court opinions that cut in different directions on this issue.

In Peat Marwick Main & Co. v. Haass, 818 S.W.2d 381, 385 (Tex. 1991), the court held that an agreement that does not expressly prohibit competition but imposes a financial penalty for competition is subject to the requirements of the non-compete statute.

But in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Drennen, 452 S.W.3d 319, 329 (Tex. 2014), the court said that a forfeiture clause in an employee’s non-contributory profit-sharing plan is not a “covenant not to compete,” reasoning that it does not restrict the employee’s future employment but only makes the employee choose between keeping the profit-sharing and working for a competitor.

There are several plausible ways to interpret these apparently contradictory holdings:

  1. Drennen implicitly overruled Haass, establishing a broad rule that places form over substance by simply asking whether the agreement expressly prohibits competition.
  2. Drennen established a narrow exception to Haass for forfeiture of unvested shares that had been awarded but not yet delivered pursuant to a non-contributory profit-sharing plan; it does not apply to forfeiture of vested shares the employee already owns.
  3. Drennen and Haass can be reconciled based on some other distinguishing factor.
  4. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether Drennen conflicts with Haass, because regardless of whether you call a forfeiture clause a non-compete or not, it still must be reasonable in scope.

In my opinion, no. 1 is the worst interpretation, nos. 2 and 3 are reasonable, and no. 4 is the simplest and best way to reconcile the cases. To understand why, let’s dig into these two cases and see how Texas courts have applied them.

Haass said a clause that functions as a non-compete should be treated as a non-compete

Haass involved an agreement between an accounting firm and one of its partners, Haass. The agreement had a liquidated damages clause requiring Haass to compensate the firm if he withdrew and took clients with him. Id. at 383. Haass left, opened his own firm, and clients followed. Id. at 384. The firm argued that the damages clause was not a non-compete, while Haass contended it operated as a non-compete and therefore had to be reasonable. Id.

The court agreed with Haass that the damages clause was effectively a non-compete. Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Gammage acknowledged that the damages clause did not expressly prohibit Haass from providing accounting services to clients of the firm. Rather, the clause provided that if Haas did compete, he had to pay the liquidated damages. Id. at 385.

Surveying case law from other jurisdictions, the Haass court said:

Most courts have analyzed such provisions as restraints on trade sufficiently similar to covenants not to compete to be governed by the same general reasonableness principles in order to be enforceable. Even those courts that have declined to treat such damages provisions as restraints on trade have required them to be reasonable to be enforced.

Id. (internal citations omitted). Noting that the reasonableness test in either case was essentially the same, the court concluded that “the view adopted by most courts, that such covenants should be subject to the same standards as covenants not to compete, is the correct one.” Id.

Haass cited two additional reasons for treating a damages clause as a non-compete. First, the court reasoned that “[i]f the damages provided are sufficiently severe, then the economic penalty’s deterrent effect functions as a covenant not to compete as surely as if the agreement expressly stated that the departing member will not compete.” Id. at 385. “The practical and economic reality of such a provision,” the court said, “is that it inhibits competition virtually the same as a covenant not to compete.” Id. at 385-86.

Second, Haass said treating the damages provision as a non-compete was consistent with the court’s prior cases. Id. at 386 (citing Henshaw v. Kroenecke, 656 S.W.2d 416 (Tex. 1983), and Frankiewicz v. National Comp Associates, 633 S.W.2d 505 (Tex. 1982)).

Applying the reasonableness standard for non-competes, the Haass court went on to hold that the damages clause was overbroad and unenforceable because it imposed an industry-wide exclusion.

Haass established two broad common-sense principles:

First, a contractual provision that does not expressly prohibit competition can still be a non-compete if it imposes a significant financial penalty for competing. The “practical and economic reality” of the clause is more important than the label.

Second, regardless of whether a contractual penalty is classified as a non-compete, it must meet the same reasonableness requirements as a non-compete to be enforced.

Following Haass, Texas courts treated forfeiture clauses as non-competes regardless of how the clauses were worded or labeled.

For example, in Valley Diagnostic Clinic, P.A. v. Dougherty, 287 S.W.3d 151 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2009, no pet.), the forfeiture clause expressly stated that it was not a covenant not to compete, but the court was not persuaded. “Although the provision at issue here is a forfeiture clause and expressly states that it is not a covenant not to compete,” the court said, “the Texas Supreme Court has analyzed such clauses in the same manner as covenants not to compete because they share the same objective—to restrain a former employee from competing against the employer.” Id. at 155.

Drennen said a forfeiture clause triggered by the employee competing is not a non-compete

But then the Texas Supreme Court muddied the waters in Exxon Mobil v. Drennen, 452 S.W.3d 319 (Tex. 2014).

Drennen was an ExxonMobil VP who received restricted stock subject to the terms of an incentive program. Id. at 322. The agreements included both a New York choice-of-law clause and a forfeiture clause allowing ExxonMobil to terminate outstanding stock awards if the employee engaged in “detrimental activity,” which included becoming employed by a competitor. Id.

When Drennen left ExxonMobil and went to work for Hess, another large energy company, ExxonMobil cancelled Drennen’s outstanding restricted stock awards based on his employment by a competitor. Id. at 323. Drennen sued for a declaratory judgment that (1) the detrimental activity clause was a non-compete, (2) the non-compete was unenforceable because it was not limited in time, geographic area, or scope of activity, and (3) therefore ExxonMobil’s purported cancellation of the restricted shares was invalid. Id.

The Houston Court of Appeals held that the forfeiture provision was an unreasonable and unenforceable non-compete and refused to apply New York law because the result would be against fundamental Texas policy. Id.

The Texas Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. The court viewed the forfeiture clause as similar to the provision at issue in Haass. But the court did not interpret Haass as holding that a forfeiture clause is a non-compete. “While we ultimately determined that the provision in Haass was an unreasonable restraint of trade,” the Drennen court said, “we never concluded that the damage provision was, itself, a covenant not to compete.” Id. at 329.

Let’s pause on that point. Drennen’s interpretation of Haass is strained at best. The Haass opinion expressly stated that a forfeiture clause should be judged by the same reasonableness standard as a non-compete and then applied that standard to the forfeiture clause at issue. Haass, 452 S.W.3d at 385-87. The reasoning of Haass was that a forfeiture clause that functions as a non-compete should be treated as a non-compete. For Drennen to say that Haass never actually held that a forfeiture clause is a non-compete seems like an academic distinction.

But that was not the worst part. Drennen went on to say the following:

There is a distinction between a covenant not to compete and a forfeiture provision in a non-contributory profit-sharing plan because such plans do not restrict the employee’s right to future employment; rather, these plans force the employee to choose between competing with the former employer without restraint from the former employer and accepting benefits of the retirement plan to which the employee contributed nothing. See Dollgener v. Robertson Fleet Servs., Inc., 527 S.W.2d 277, 278–80 (Tex. Civ. App.—Waco 1975, writ ref’d n.r.e.). Whatever it may mean to be a covenant not to compete under Texas law, forfeiture clauses in non-contributory profit-sharing plans, like the detrimental-activity provisions in ExxonMobil’s Incentive Programs, clearly are not covenants not to compete.

Id. at 329 (emphasis added).

This sort of thing bothers me. The court pretends the issue is easy, cites one Waco case from 1975, and then gets the answer wrong.

In my view, a forfeiture clause conditioned on the employee competing is obviously a non-compete and should be treated as such. But even if I’m wrong, the Drennen court at least should have acknowledged there is a reasonable disagreement on the issue. Heck, three justices on the Court of Appeals ruled the other way, citing Haass in support of holding that the forfeiture clause was a non-compete. Is Drennen saying they’re just morons?

My beef is not so much with the result. It’s the way Drennen gets there. The court could have acknowledged that there are two reasonable arguments, discussed both sides of the issue, and then explained which argument it found more persuasive and why.

Instead, Drennen simply made the statement quoted above and then said “we hold that, under Texas law, this provision is not a covenant not to compete.” Id. 329.

But to the court’s credit, it added this important qualification: “Whether such provisions in non-contributory employee incentive programs are unreasonable restraints of trade under Texas law, such that they are unenforceable, is a separate question and one which we reserve for another day.” Id.

That statement is important because it acknowledges that a forfeiture clause, even if it is not a non-compete, may still be an unenforceable restraint of trade. Keep in mind, section 15.05 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code provides that all contracts in restraint of trade or commerce are unlawful. The Texas non-compete statute provides an exception to that rule for non-competes that meet the requirements of the statute.

So, Drennen leaves open the argument that, even if a forfeiture clause is not a non-compete, an unreasonably broad forfeiture clause is an unenforceable restraint of trade.

Buc-ee’s follows Haass and interprets Drennen narrowly

Drennen also leaves open the argument that a clause requiring forfeiture of vested shares the employee already owns is a non-compete subject to the requirements of the non-compete statute.

This distinction finds support in the one case Drennen cited for the distinction between a forfeiture clause and a non-compete, Dollgener v. Robertson Fleet Services, Inc., 527 S.W.2d 277 (Tex. App.—Waco 1975, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

Dollgener, decided long before enactment of the non-compete statute, held that a forfeiture provision in a noncontributory profit-sharing trust was not a covenant not to compete. Id. at 278-80. Thus, like Drennen, Dollgener did not involve forfeiture of vested shares the employee had already earned.

The Houston Court of Appeals recently applied this very distinction in Rieves v. Buc-ee’s, Ltd., 532 S.W.3d 845 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.), a case I wrote about here. The court held that an agreement that imposes a severe economic penalty on an at-will employee for quitting must meet the reasonableness requirements for non-competes, even if the agreement does not expressly prohibit competition. Id. at 851. Quoting Haass, the Buc-ee’s court reasoned that the “practical and economic reality” of such a contractual penalty is that it inhibits employee mobility in virtually the same manner as a non-compete. Id.

The employer in Buc-ee’s cited Drennen for the proposition that a forfeiture provision is not a non-compete, but the Court of Appeals rejected this argument. Characterizing Drennen as a “choice-of-law case,” the Buc-ee’s court distinguished Drennen as involving “cancellation of future payments of unvested stock options that had been awarded but not delivered to Drennen, an ExxonMobil vice president, under a non-contributory profit-sharing plan.” Buc-ee’s, 532 S.W.3d at 852. One critical distinction was that “Drennen did not involve ExxonMobil seeking the return of Drennen’s salary or any stock options that had already vested.” Id. (emphasis added).

So, Buc-ee’s also supports the argument that Drennen does not apply to a contract requiring forfeiture of vested shares the employee already owns. This is interpretation no. 2 outlined above. It reconciles Haass and Drennen based on whether the forfeiture involves equity ownership interests that have already vested.

Is this the right way to reconcile Haass and Drennen? As a practical matter, we won’t know the answer until the Texas Supreme Court addresses the issue. When it is unclear whether two cases conflict or can be reconciled based on some distinguishing factor, the answer really depends on how the third case treats them. And we don’t have that case yet.

But we don’t need that third case to know that regardless of whether a forfeiture clause is classified as a non-compete or not, it must be reasonable. An unreasonably broad forfeiture clause would be an unenforceable restraint of trade. Haass and Drennen seem to agree on that point.

So, if an employer wants to use a forfeiture clause to discourage employees from competing, the lawyer who drafts the agreements should at least include reasonable limitations on the scope of competition that triggers the forfeiture. The safer course is to assume the clause will be treated like a non-compete, and to include reasonable limitations on time, geographic area, and scope of activity restrained.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.