Burning Down the Haass: The Industry-Wide Exclusion Rule in Texas Non-Compete Law

Burning Down the Haass: The Industry-Wide Exclusion Rule in Texas Non-Compete Law

WARNING: This week’s post is heavy on case law. Non-lawyers should turn back immediately. You might like one of my lighter posts about Seinfeld, my Morning Routine, or Choice of Law in Texas Non-Compete Litigation.

If you know anything about Texas non-compete law, you know that the Texas non-compete statute requires reasonable limitations as to “time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained.” Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.50(a).

Yet in my practice, I often see non-competes drafted without a reasonable limit on the scope of activity restrained. Scope of activity is probably the most neglected element of Texas non-compete law. Often, the non-compete will bar an employee from having anything to do with any company in the employer’s industry.

When you read one of these, you can almost feel the drafter’s pride in writing a non-compete that is so comprehensive and ensnaring. But guess what? Writing it that way makes it an “industry-wide exclusion,” which Texas courts have said is unenforceable.

The industry-wide exclusion rule has two halves (plus a corollary I’ll get to later).

The first half says that a non-compete that prevents a company’s employee from working in any capacity in the company’s industry is unreasonably broad and therefore unenforceable.

The second half says that a non-compete must be limited to preventing the employee from doing business with customers the employee had dealings with while working for the employer.

The second half of the rule is found in Peat Marwick Main & Co. v. Haass, 818 S.W.2d 381 (Tex. 1991), which arose from a suit that was already being litigated when the 1989 statute was adopted.

In Haass the Texas Supreme Court cited the Texas common-law rule that the scope of a non-compete must not be greater than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interests such as goodwill and confidential information. Id. at 386. The court reasoned that the “fundamental legitimate business interest” protected by a non-compete is “preventing employees or departing partners from using the business contacts and rapport established during the relationship . . . to take the firm’s customers with him.” Id. The court also approvingly cited a Wisconsin case stating that “the restrictive covenant must bear some relation to the activities of the employee.” Id. at 387.

I love that Haass uses the French rapport instead of the Anglo-Saxon “goodwill.” It was a more civilized time.

Anyway, the Haass court held that the non-compete was overbroad because it inhibited departing partners from providing accounting services to clients acquired after the partner left, or with whom the accountant had no contact while associated with the firm, which was not reasonably necessary to protect the firm’s goodwill. Id. at 388.

Haass did not use the term “industry-wide exclusion,” but the Fourteenth Court of Appeals later cited Haass for the proposition that “[t]he Texas Supreme Court has held that an industry-wide exclusion is unreasonable.” John R. Ray & Sons, Inc. v. Stroman, 923 S.W.2d 80, 85 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1996, writ denied) “In the case of covenants applied to a personal services occupation, such as that of a salesman,” the court said, “a restraint on client solicitation is overbroad and unreasonable when it extends to clients with whom the employee had no dealings during his employment.” Id.

Applying both parts of the rule, the Stroman court held that the non-compete was unenforceable because it imposed an industry-wide exclusion on the employee’s ability to work in the insurance business in and around Harris County and extended to customers the employee had no association with while working for the employer. Id.

The First Court of Appeals applied Haass and Stroman to the oilfield services industry in Brown Services, Inc. v. Brown, No. 01-98-00304-CV, 1999 WL 681964 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Sept. 2, 1999, pet. denied) (mem. op.). Rapport is important in oilfield services, because everybody knows who the customers are.

Brown Services held that a first clause barring the employee from being connected to any oilfield services business was an overbroad industry-wide exclusion. Id. at *6. The court held that a second clause barring the employee from soliciting or selling products or services to anyone who was a customer of the employer during his employment was overbroad, because it was not limited to customers he had contact with. Id. at *7. So you see both halves of the rule.

Same for Wright v. Sport Supply Group, Inc., 137 S.W.3d 289, 298 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2004, no pet.), where the court cited Haas and Stroman for the propositions that “[a] covenant not to compete that contains an industry-wide exclusion from subsequent employment is unenforceable,” and “a covenant not to compete that extends to clients with whom a salesman had no dealings during his employment is unenforceable.” The court held that the agreement at issue was overbroad and unenforceable because it was not limited to customers the employee had dealings with while employed by the company. Id.

Wright also cited Haass for the principle that “[a] restrictive covenant is unreasonable unless it bears some relation to the activities of the employee.” Id. You might call this the “janitor corollary” of the industry-wide exclusion rule. The idea is that a non-compete that would bar a salesman from working for a competitor as a janitor would be unreasonably broad.

Four years later, the Beaumont Court of Appeals considered whether the Texas Supreme Court’s intervening decision in Sheshunoff changed the industry-wide exclusion rule applied in Wright. See Pool v. U.S. Money Reserve, Inc., No. 09-08-137 CV, 2008 WL 4735602, at *8 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2008, no pet.) (mem. op.) (addressing Alex Sheshunoff Mgmt. Servs., L.P. v. Johnson, 209 S.W.3d 644 (Tex. 2006)).

The Poole court said that Sheshunoff was distinguishable because it involved a non-compete that only prevented the employee from soliciting prior clients with whom he had personal contact or any previously identified prospective client. Thus, the court reasoned, Sheshunoff did not change the industry-wide exclusion rule. Id. at *8.

(Sheshunoff was the case that cleared up confusion about whether a non-compete is “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement,” an issue I explain in convenient video form here.)

In another post-Sheshunoff case, CDX Holdings, Inc. v. Heddon, No. 3:12-CV-126-N, 2012 WL 11019355, at *10 (N.D. Tex. March 2, 2012), the court held that the scope of activity restrained was overbroad, where the non-compete applied to all anatomic pathology work performed by the employer, even though the employee’s work exclusively involved dermatopathology.

Obviously, dermatopathology is narrower than anatomic pathology. Duh.

The janitor corollary appeared again in Weber Aircraft, L.L.C. v. Krishnamurthy, No. 4:12-CV-666, 2014 WL 12521297 (E.D. Tex. Jan. 27, 2014). In that case the non-compete barred the employees from working for a company providing the same products (seating products and components) as the employer or working for five specific competitors in any capacity. Citing Wright, the court held that a restriction barring the employees from working for five competitors, “even in a position that would not require [the employees] to use any of [the employer’s] confidential information, such as a janitor position,” was unreasonably broad. Id. at *8.

cruise-ship-615116_1280
D’Onofrio applied the industry-wide exclusion rule to the travel industry

More recently, the Fifth Circuit weighed in on the industry-wide exclusion rule in D’Onofrio v. Vacation Publications, Inc., 888 F.3d 197, 211-12 (5th Cir. 2018), where it applied Haass and Stroman to a non-compete involving the travel industry. The court held that the non-compete as written was unenforceable because the covenants “amount to an industry-wide restriction—preventing former employees from working in any job related to the sales or marketing of not just cruises, but also a host of other travel products—and are not limited as to either geography or clients with whom former employees actually worked during their employment.” Id. at 212.

Thus, the industry-wide exclusion rule appears to be alive and well in Texas today—in several forms. But the rule has its limits.

1. When the non-compete does not prohibit working in the industry

Of course, a non-compete that is limited to customers the employee did business with does not run afoul of the industry-wide exclusion rule. In Gallagher Healthcare Insurance Services v. Vogelsang, 312 S.W.3d 640 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. denied), the court approvingly cited the industry-wide exclusion rule of Haas and Stroman, id. at 654, but the court held that the non-compete at issue did not violate the rule, because “[u]nlike some covenants not to compete that preclude the employee from working in the same industry, the agreement here does not limit [the employee] from working in the insurance business.” Id. at 655.

Similarly, in Stone v. Griffin Commc’ns & Security Sys., Inc., 53 S.W.3d 687, 694 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2001, no writ), the court held that a non-solicitation clause limited to customers the employees had contact with while employed by the employer was not an impermissible industry-wide exclusion.

2. When the “industry” is broader than the company’s niche

What exactly is the “industry” for purposes of the industry-wide exclusion rule? In M-I LLC v. Stelly, 733 F.Supp.2d 759, 794 (S.D. Tex. 2010), the non-compete applied to any customer or potential customer of the employer in the business of oilfield displacement tools or services. The employee argued this was an impermissible industry-wide exclusion. Id. The employer argued the non-compete only applied to well completion services, not the oil and gas industry generally, and therefore was not an “industry-wide” ban. Id. at 796.

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Texas courts have applied the industry-wide exclusion rule to oilfield services

The court sided with the employer. The court distinguished Stroman as involving a bar on the insurance business generally, while the non-compete in Stelly did not apply to the entire oil and gas industry. Id. at 796. Considering the “industry” to be oil and gas, not the “niche” services offered by the employer, the court held that the non-compete did not impose an impermissible industry-wide exclusion, but instead limited its scope to a reasonably narrow business area that correlated to the employee’s work for the company. Id. at 797.

In Salas v. Chris Christensen Systems, Inc., No. 10-11-00107-CV, 2011 WL 4089999, at *20 (Tex. App.—Waco Sept. 14, 2011, no pet.) (mem. op.), the court held that a non-compete that applied to the “pet supply manufacturing and distribution industry” did not apply to “the entire industry pertaining to pets or pet products,” where the employee was free to return to his previous work as a dog handler and groomer.

Similarly, in Merritt Hawkins & Assocs., LLC v. Gresham, 79 F.Supp.3d 625, 641 (N.D. Tex. 2015), the court held that a non-compete applying to permanent and temporary medical staffing was not an industry-wide exclusion, where it did not prohibit the employee from working in “other sections of the staffing industry or the medical industry.”

3. When the evidence does not show the restriction amounts to an industry-wide exclusion

The industry-wide exclusion rule may not apply if the employee fails to offer evidence that a prohibition of being associated with any “competitor” of the company amounts to an industry-wide exclusion.

In Republic Services, Inc. v. Rodriguez, No. 14-12-01054-CV, 2014 WL 2936172 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.), the court held that Stroman did not apply absent evidence that the “competitor” scope of the non-compete was “tantamount to an industry-wide prohibition.” Id. at *8. The employee offered no evidence about the industry at issue, the court said, and the employer offered evidence that there were companies in the legal services or legal support services industry that were not competitors of the employer. “On this record, we cannot determine as a matter of law that the covenant imposed an unreasonable industry-wide exclusion.” Id.

“On this record” is a signal courts use to emphasize that the result could be different in a case with different facts.

For example, in McKissock, LLC v. Martin, 267 F.Supp.3d 841, 855-56 (W.D. Tex. 2016), a non-compete barring the employee from being “connected in any manner with any business or practice which is in competition with [employer]” was overbroad as written.

4. When the employer’s interest is not just its goodwill, but also protecting confidential information

The industry-wide exclusion rule as stated in Haas and Stroman is incomplete because it does not address confidential information. Limiting the non-compete to customers the employee had dealings with may not be required when there is a danger of the employee using knowledge of the company’s confidential information to compete for other customers.

For example, in Accruent v. Short, 1:17-CV-858-RP, 2018 WL 297614, at *1 (W.D. Tex. Jan. 4, 2018), the employee served as a director of client services and a senior engineer for a software services company and had access to a wide range of confidential proprietary information. The non-compete prohibited competing with the portions of the employer’s business in which the employee actively participated or received confidential company information. Id.

The employee in Accruent argued that the non-compete violated the Haass rule because it was not limited to customers and prospects the employee worked with at the company, but the court did not read Haass so broadly. Id. at *5. The court said that Haass applies more narrowly to cases where the employer’s interest “derives from the employee’s relationship with his or her clients.” Id.

In Accruent, the court explained, the employee’s role gave him access to confidential proprietary information concerning the company’s product functionality, development plans, sales pipeline, sales process, customer preferences, and market research. Thus, the concern animating the non-compete was not just that the employee would “use his rapport with his customers to take them with him to a competitor,” but principally the concern that the employee would use the confidential information he learned at the company to help another company compete. Thus, the court found that Haass did not compel finding the non-compete’s scope unreasonable. Id. at *6.

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Accruent v. Short applied the Haas rule more narrowly where a software company’s confidential information was at stake

But there was another problem with the non-compete in Accruent. Recall the janitor corollary from Haass and Wright, i.e. the principle that a non-compete must bear some relation to the activities of the employee. The non-compete in Accruent arguably prohibited the employee for working for a competitor regardless of his role, i.e. even if he was “emptying trash cans” for a competitor. The court agreed that a non-compete barring an employee for working for a competitor in any capacity is invalid. To address this defect, the court reformed the non-compete such that it would only prohibit the employee from working for a competitor in the same or substantially similar role that he performed for his previous employer. Id. at *6-7.

5. When the restriction applies to solicitation of employees, not customers

The industry-wide exclusion rule may not apply to solicitation of employees, as opposed to customers. In Smith v. Nerium Int’l, LLC, No. 05-18-00617-CV, 2019 WL 3543583, at *8-9 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 5, 2019, no pet. h.) (mem. op.), the court held that the industry-wide exclusion rule did not apply to a clause barring a former employee from soliciting the company’s other employees, reasoning that the clause did not bar the former employee from working for the company’s competitors. Id. at *9.

PRACTICE TIPS

The cases above suggest some tips for practitioners:

1. Don’t draft your non-compete with an industry-wide exclusion. That should be obvious by now, but you’d be surprised how many non-competes still have this.

2. When drafting the non-compete, consider limiting it to customers the employee had contact with while employed by the company. Alternatively, you can also include customers that the employee received confidential information about. (Check out my Plain-Language Non-Compete for some ideas.)

3. The practice tip suggested by Republic Services is that if the non-compete is not an industry-wide exclusion on its face, the employee should offer evidence that the scope of the non-compete would effectively prevent the employee from working in any capacity in the industry at issue.

4. Finally, remember that determining whether a Texas non-compete is enforceable as written is just the first step. Even if the scope violates the industry-wide exclusion rule, the court can enter a temporary injunction that enforces the non-compete in part, or reform the non-compete to make the scope reasonable. For more on the practical results of Texas non-compete law, see Wolfe’s First Law of Texas Non-Compete Litigation.

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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.

 

 

Mysteries of Texas Non-Compete Law, Part 3: Irreparable Injury

Mysteries of Texas Non-Compete Law, Part 3: Irreparable Injury

The celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Texas non-compete statute continues with this week’s unanswered question of Texas non-compete law: does the loss of sales caused by a breach of a non-compete establish “irreparable injury”?

Paper Rules vs. Real Rules

I confess this is actually an answered question. It’s just that the answer is not obvious. That’s because the court opinions aren’t necessarily going to tell you the answer, at least not explicitly.

You see, in law there are the Paper Rules, and there are the Real Rules.

The Paper Rules are the reasons courts put on paper for ruling the way they do. The Real Rules are the actual reasons the courts decide cases the way they do.

If that sounds sinister, don’t worry. The Paper Rules and the Real Rules overlap. If you drew a Venn diagram it would show two overlapping circles. And the circles constantly shift, because sometimes the courts incorporate some of the Real Rules into the Paper Rules.

That’s kind of what the smart people at the American Law Institute do when they write a “Restatement” of a certain area of law. They look at dozens of court decisions and say “here’s how courts actually decide this issue,” and then they make that principle one of the Paper Rules.

That’s why it’s the Restatement (Second) of the Law of Contracts and not the Statement (Second) of the Law of Contracts. The whole project has a certain aroma of legal realism.

Of course, you can always “out-realist” the realists. You can say, “Ha! you think judges are deciding these cases based on what they think is reasonable, I say it’s based on who contributed to their campaigns!” Or based on what will keep the proletariat in his place, or increase economic efficiency, or maintain the patriarchy, etc.

That’s a deeper part of the ocean. Here I’m focusing on the surface level of the Real Rules, the legitimate “legal” reasons courts decide cases a certain way.

If you’re a practicing litigator, you need to understand both the Paper Rules and the Real Rules. You have to be fluent in the Paper Rules to brief and argue your case. But you also need to understand the Real Rules, because then you will know what you really need to prove to win your case, and you will increase your chances of accurately predicting what’s going to happen.

This is especially true in non-compete litigation. Even if you read a lot of non-compete injunction opinions, you might miss the answer to the irreparable injury question if you only pay attention to the Paper Rules.

What the Real Rule is

The Real Rule is that loss of customers establishes “irreparable injury” if the trial court judge wants it to. Otherwise, it doesn’t. You can sum up the reason for this answer in three words: standard of review.

Let’s break it down in ten simple steps:

1. The Texas non-compete statute authorizes judges to award “injunctive relief” for the breach of a non-compete.[1]

2. Injunctive relief includes a temporary injunction (in federal court it’s called a preliminary injunction).

3. A temporary injunction is an order from the trial court judge that says, for example, “Salesman may not do business with Former Employer’s Customers until this court renders a final judgment after trial.”

4. A temporary injunction is a common-law remedy. That means that judges, through case law, have established the requirements for a temporary injunction through decades, even centuries, of case law.

5. The common-law requirements for obtaining a temporary injunction include “irreparable injury,” or irreparable harm, and “no adequate remedy at law.” These requirements apply to non-compete cases.[2]

6. Irreparable injury and no adequate remedy at law mean essentially the same thing: money damages would be inadequate to compensate for the lost sales.

7. If the trial court rules against you on a temporary injunction, you get an interlocutory appeal, which is an appeal taken before the trial court has rendered a final judgment.[3]

8. The “standard of review” for an interlocutory appeal of a temporary injunction ruling is “abuse of discretion.”[4]

9. Abuse of discretion means even if the Court of Appeals thinks the trial court judge got it wrong, it will affirm the ruling as long as there was a reasonable basis for it.

10. There are cases saying that the loss of customer sales establishes irreparable injury.[5] There are other cases saying it doesn’t.[6]

Maybe this difference can be reconciled based on the different facts of the cases. Maybe it can’t. But either way, you can see where this is headed.

Here is the practical result:

A. In a non-compete case, the trial court judge will usually decide the temporary injunction based on what the judge thinks is fair.

B. If the trial court judge grants a temporary injunction, the Court of Appeals will almost always say the judge could have reasonably found that the loss of customers established irreparable injury.

C. If the trial court judge denies a temporary injunction, the Court of Appeals will almost always say the judge could have reasonably found that the loss of customers did not establish irreparable injury, because the loss could be adequately compensated by damages.

The bottom line is that the irreparable injury requirement is effectively a variable that the trial court judge can use to justify whatever decision the judge thinks is fair. This is the Real Rule in non-compete litigation.

Mind you, it’s only a general rule. It is possible to persuade an appellate court that the trial court abused its discretion, but it is rare. And even when an appellate court reverses a trial court’s ruling on a temporary injunction, it’s usually based on some other issue, not the irreparable injury requirement.

So now you know the Paper Rules and the Real Rule on irreparable injury in non-compete cases. Mystery solved.

What the Real Rule should be

But what should the rule be? Should the loss of sales establish irreparable injury?

I say generally, no, for two main reasons. First is the almost-forgotten principle of “efficient breach.” Second is the almost-forgotten constituency in non-compete cases: the customers.

Efficient breach is a concept you learn in law school and then never hear about, unless you go into academia or clerk for the Seventh Circuit. Black’s Law Dictionary defines efficient breach as the “modern contract theory which [sic] holds that it may be economically efficient to breach a contract and pay damages.”

The idea of efficient breach reflects the amoral bent of modern contract law. 1Ls learn that contract law is about commerce and efficiency. It’s not about right and wrong. There’s nothing inherently immoral about breaking a contract. Efficient breach says it’s fine to break a deal as long as you compensate the other party for its damages and still come out ahead.

Of course, most people, including judges, don’t really think like this. Courts even refer to contractual promises as covenants. Talk about a word with some moral baggage! Truth is, there is always a tension between the moral and amoral strands of contract law.

So when the Law and Economics movement started promoting the concept of efficient breach in the 1970s, it was only partly descriptive, and retroactively so.

It was descriptive in the sense that it provided a rationale for certain timeworn principles of contract law. You might recognize one of those principles: the irreparable injury requirement.

The efficient breach theory provided an economic explanation for the irreparable injury requirement: courts will refrain from enjoining a party from breaching a contract, as long as the injured party can be made whole with damages, because that’s more economically efficient.

That’s the descriptive part. The prescriptive part is the idea that courts should refrain from granting an injunction when damages would be adequate to compensate the injured party.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a Law and Economics type to appreciate the efficient breach theory. For me, the value of the theory is that it helps us discern when we are deciding cases based on moral considerations as opposed to the amoral rules of the marketplace.

You see this a lot in non-compete cases. In most cases, when a sale person breaks a non-compete and her employer loses sales, damages are not that hard to calculate and would adequately compensate the employer.

So what explains why a judge would grant an injunction in such a case?

I think it’s the moral element. Specifically, it’s the notion of loyalty. Breaking a non-compete is not just some antiseptic breach of contract, the judge thinks, it’s a breach of loyalty. It’s a betrayal.

And I get that. But the problem, in practice, is that loyalty tends to be a one-way street in employment relationships. We expect loyalty from the employee, but where is the loyalty when the employer fires the at-will employee for an unfair reason, or for no reason?

I say non-compete litigation could use a little more of the efficient breach theory, and a little less of the moralizing. That means don’t grant an injunction to prevent the loss of sales unless the damage is truly irreparable, e.g. if the loss of sales would put the company entirely out of business.

Unless I represent the employer trying to enforce the non-compete. Then let the moralizing flow.

Who will speak for the customers?

The second reason I think it’s wrong to grant an injunction to prevent an ordinary loss of sales is that it unfairly restricts the rights of non-parties. Specifically, the customers. Or if it’s a professional service, the clients.

Yes, customers and clients. Remember them? They pay the bills.

When a judge orders a sales person to stop doing business with certain customers, that is effectively the same as ordering the customers not to do business with the sales person.

Let that sink in. A temporary injunction tells a customer you can’t get your lumber, or insurance policy, or oilfield services—or whatever it is—from the person you like. And in many cases, that’s the person you’ve bought that thing from for years.

Think about it. The customer never signed any non-compete. The customer is not a party to the lawsuit. And in most cases, the customer hasn’t done anything wrong. But a judge is going to tell the customer what to do?

Now I may be just a small-time Texas litigator, but that don’t seem right. This is just my personal opinion, but I say protecting the interests of customers is a compelling reason for strictly enforcing the irreparable injury requirement in non-compete litigation.

Don’t get me wrong. If the non-compete is reasonable and enforceable, the employer can still get damages. Specifically, the employer can recover lost profits damages, if proven with reasonable certainty.

But wait a minute, you say. What about the cost of pursuing damages in a lawsuit? The attorneys’ fees, the expert witness fees, the time and uncertainty of the litigation process. You don’t get those things back.

Ah, transaction costs. The bane of the efficient breach theory.

All I can say is, transaction costs are an inherent problem in any litigation. That’s why cases settle.

That’s another one of the Real Rules.

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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.

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.

[1] Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(a).

[2] Some Texas courts have held that irreparable injury and the other common-law requirements do not apply to a claim for a permanent injunction to enforce a non-compete. See the discussion in Tranter, Inc. v. Liss, No. 02-13-00167-CV, 2014 WL 1257278, at *6-7 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Mar. 27, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.).

[3] Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 51.014(a)(4) (state court); 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1) (federal court).

[4] See, e.g., Argo Group US, Inc. v. Levinson, 468 S.W.3d 698, 700 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2015, no pet.) (“In this interlocutory appeal, our review is limited to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying Argo’s request for a temporary injunction”); Cardoni v. Prosperity Bank, 805 F.3d 573, 579 (5th Cir. 2015) (“We review a district court’s assessment of these factors [that a party seeking an injunction must show] for abuse of discretion. Conclusions of fact that affect that analysis are left undisturbed unless clearly erroneous, whereas conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.”)

[5] See, e.g., Cardinal Health Staffing Network, Inc. v. Bowen, 106 S.W.3d 230, 236 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2003, no pet.) (“proof that a highly trained employee is continuing to breach a non-competition covenant gives rise to a rebuttable presumption that the applicant is suffering irreparable injury”); Tranter, 2014 WL 1257278, at *7 (“A highly trained employee’s continued breach of a noncompete agreement creates a rebuttable presumption that the employer is suffering an irreparable injury”).

[6] See, e.g., Argo Group US, Inc. v. Levinson, 468 S.W.3d 698, 704-5 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2015, no pet.) (affirming trial court’s denial of temporary injunction where trial court could have reasonably found no threat of irreparable injury); Midstate Environmental Services LP v. Atkinson, No. 13-17-00190-CV, 2017 WL 6379796, at *4 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2017, no pet.) (mem. op.) (affirming trial court’s denial of a temporary injunction to enforce a non-compete based on lack of irreparable injury, where damages could be calculated based on the proceeds plaintiff would have received for customers that switched to the competitor); Am. Mortgage & Equity Consultants, Inc. v. Bowersock, No. 1:19-CV-492-RP, 2019 WL 2250170, at *5 (W.D. Tex. May 24, 2019) (denying TRO for misappropriation of customer information where the court would be able to calculate damages for resulting from the “converted” customers); BMC Software, Inc. v. Int’l Business Machines Corp., No. H-17-2254, 2018 WL 4520020, at *4-5 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 21, 2018) (denying preliminary injunction where alleged loss of customer could be compensated by money damages).

Mysteries of Texas Non-Compete Law, Part 2: Reformation

Mysteries of Texas Non-Compete Law, Part 2: Reformation

We’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Texas non-compete statute by examining some of the great unanswered questions of Texas non-compete law. Part 1 asked whether it matters if the information provided by the employer is really confidential. This Part 2 asks whether reformation is available when the non-compete is missing a key limitation.

Are you studying for the California bar exam? If so, you probably know that the California Bar announced that it “inadvertently” leaked this year’s bar exam topics to a group of law school deans. To be fair to all test takers, the bar examiners decided to release the list of topics publicly.

I’m sure everyone studying for the California bar feels much better now.

In light of this disturbing news, I must come clean and disclose a phone call I recently received:

[ring tone: guitar intro to Sweet Child of Mine]

“Wolfe here.”

“Yes, hi, this is the Texas Board of Law Examiners. For the first time ever, we’re including a question about non-compete litigation on the bar exam this year. We were hoping we could run it by you.”

“Oh, cool, and you’re calling me because you saw my blog Five Minute Law and my YouTube channel That Non-Compete Lawyer?”

“Uh . . . well, actually you’re the ninth person we’ve tried. Everyone else is on vacation.”

“Ok, cool. Send it over.”*

The problem is that I know a few Texas law students through my local Inn of Court, so I could be accused of leaking the question to them. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, I am now making the question available to my readers—all thirteen of them (hi, Mom!).

Ok, Fivers, here’s the question:

W&O Supply Company sells supplies like the Garbarino centrifugal and positive displacement pump to the marine industry. Four of W&O’s employees—a branch manager, outside salesman, warehouse manager, and inside salesman—left W&O to start a competing business.

Each employee had signed W&O’s standard non-compete. The non-compete prohibits diverting, or assisting in diverting, any customer from W&O to a competitor. The non-compete is limited to any area within 100 miles of any W&O branch but contains no time limitation.

While working for W&O, the employees received confidential information regarding W&O’s supplier costs, customer purchasing history, and pricing. After leaving W&O and forming the competing business, the employees solicited sales from W&O customers.

W&O filed suit against the former employees in U.S. District Court in Houston, Texas, alleging breach of the non-competes and seeking a preliminary injunction. The employees filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing the non-compete is unenforceable on its face because it contains no time limitation.

W&O filed a response arguing that the non-compete statute requires the court to reform the non-compete to include a reasonable time limitation and that, even without reformation, the court could still grant a preliminary injunction enforcing the non-compete for a reasonable time period.

The correct ruling on the motion is:

A. Denied. W&O’s allegations are sufficient to state a plausible claim for relief. W&O could prove some set of facts showing that a time limitation of a year is reasonable.

B. Denied. Reformation of an overbroad non-compete is mandatory under the Texas non-compete statute, Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(c).

C. Denied. The court can enter a preliminary injunction enforcing the non-compete to a limited extent. Whether the non-compete should be reformed is an issue for final judgment.

D. Granted. While the non-compete statute requires the court to reform a time limitation that is too long, the court cannot reform a non-compete that contains no time limitation whatsoever.

So what’s the best answer? No peeking.

Ha! It’s a trick question! You could make a reasonable case for each one of these answers. That’s why it’s an unanswered question of Texas non-compete law. No question like this should ever appear on the bar exam.

But if you ask U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, he would say D is the best answer. I know that because I’ve read his opinion in W&O Supply, Inc. v. Pitre, No. 4:19-CV-00153, 2019 WL 15592090 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 10, 2019).

The facts of the case were fairly close to the simplified version I outlined above. The key fact: the non-competes had no time limitation. The legal question was whether W&O was entitled to reformation. Specifically, should the judge effectively “rewrite” the agreement to add a reasonable time limitation?

Because we are all textualists now, let us start with the text of the statute. It says, in pertinent part:

If the covenant . . . contains limitations as to time, geographical area, or scope of activity to be restrained that are not reasonable and impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee, the court shall reform the covenant to the extent necessary to cause the limitations contained in the covenant as to time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained to be reasonable . . .

Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(c).

The “shall reform” language indicates the legislature intended reformation to be mandatory. But the clause starts with a significant “if.” Reformation is only mandatory if the non-compete “contains limitations as to time, geographical area, or scope of activity to be restrained . . .”

That “if” clause is what we call a “condition precedent” (which, to complicate matters further, is pronounced pree-see-dent, not preh-suh-dent). That means the rest of the clause only applies if the condition is met.

So, if a non-compete has limitations that are unreasonably broad, the condition precedent is satisfied, and reformation is mandatory. But if the non-compete has no time limitation whatsoever, then the condition precedent is not met, and reformation is not required.

That’s effectively what the employees in W&O Supply argued, and the judge agreed:

It is the Court’s view that it is empowered only to reform existing terms. Where the Agreement lacks a critical term, such as a time limitation, placing a time limitation in the Agreement is to rewrite the Agreement. The Agreement lacks an unenforceable provision that the Court can revise; therefore, reformation is impermissible.

W&O Supply, 2019 WL 15592090, at *3.

The unavailability of reformation was not academic. Because the non-competes were unenforceable and could not be reformed, the court not only denied a preliminary injunction, it dismissed the lawsuit. Id.

So why is the availability of reformation an unanswered question?

Well, W&O Supply is just one case, and there are other arguments that could be made.

First, you could argue that the court in W&O Supply read the non-compete statute too literally. The purpose of the statute is to provide for reformation of overbroad non-competes. One might argue this purpose should be served as much when the agreement lacks a limitation as when the limitation is too broad.

Second, there are cases saying the court can enter a preliminary or temporary injunction enforcing an overbroad non-compete to a limited extent. See, e.g., Transperfect Translations, Inc. v. Leslie, 594 F.Supp.2d 742, 756 (S.D. Tex. 2009) (noting uncertainty in Texas cases and holding that the non-compete would be temporarily reformed for the purpose of entering a preliminary injunction).

Third, the statute also requires a geographic limitation. See Tranter Inc. v. Liss, No. 02-13-00167-CV, 2014 WL 1257278, at *5 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Mar. 27, 2014) (non-compete that contained no geographic restriction at all was unreasonable and unenforceable as written). Yet there are cases enforcing non-competes that contain no geographic limitation whatsoever. See Gallagher Healthcare Ins. Servs. v. Vogelsang, 312 S.W.3d 640, 654-55 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. denied) (“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”).

If the absence of a geographic limitation is not fatal to a non-compete, why should the absence of a time limitation be any different?

They’re going to put that one in the essay section.

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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. He doesn’t really have that ring tone, but it would be cooler if he did.

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.

*It should be obvious that all the stuff above about the Texas bar exam is made up. Then again, the news about the California bar exam sounded fake too.

Mysteries of Texas Non-Compete Law, Part 1

Mysteries of Texas Non-Compete Law, Part 1

Nineteen eighty nine, the number . . .

A big anniversary is coming at the end of the summer. Yes, August 1 will be the 38th anniversary of the debut broadcast of MTV, which kicked off with “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

But I’m talking about a different anniversary: the 30th anniversary of the Texas non-compete statute, which became effective just a few weeks later on August 28, 1989.

That was a long time ago. The #1 song that week was “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx. I was probably sweating through summer marching band practice at Crockett High School in south Austin, Texas. With no cell phone, no email, and no social media.

It was not long before the statute was amended—in 1993—but otherwise the statute has remained the same for 30 years.

Since that time, the Texas non-compete statute has traveled a long and winding road through the Texas courts. I won’t bore you with the details, but in those 30 years there have been hundreds of Texas appellate opinions applying the statute, including at least a dozen opinions from the Texas Supreme Court. Plus opinions by federal courts applying the Texas statute.

With so many judges writing so many opinions, you would think that any big questions about application of the Texas non-compete statute would be answered by now.

But you would be wrong.

It is surprising how many fundamental questions about Texas non-compete law remain unanswered today. I talked about some of these at a presentation a few years ago called “Advanced Non-Competes: What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know Can Hurt You.”

To celebrate the upcoming 30th anniversary, I’m revisiting that topic. It will be like an MTV countdown, but with non-competes, and less spandex. I’ll pick the most important unanswered questions of Texas non-compete law, explain each one, and look at how some recent court decisions have tried to answer them.

To kick this off, I’m starting with perhaps the most basic unanswered question: to enforce a non-compete against a departing employee, does the employer have to prove that the information it provided to the employee was actually confidential?

And the subsidiary question: how “confidential” or valuable does that confidential information need to be?

But first, let’s back up a bit to put these questions in context. The Texas non-compete statute has two requirements. First, the non-compete has to be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.” Second, the non-compete has to be reasonable.

For now, let’s put aside the whole “reasonableness” question and focus on the “ancillary” requirement. What does it mean for a non-compete to be ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement?

The Texas Supreme Court has told us one way this “ancillary” requirement can be satisfied: an employer can tie a non-compete to a confidentiality agreement with an employee.

An agreement to provide the employee specialized training can also satisfy this requirement. That’s why my form, the Plain-Language Non-Compete, contains both an agreement to provide confidential information and an agreement to provide specialized training.

But a confidentiality agreement is still the most common way Texas employers try to satisfy the ancillary requirement. There are thousands of Texas non-competes written this way. The employer agrees to provide the employee with confidential information in connection with the employee’s work, and the employee agrees to a non-compete.

Is it enough for the employer to say these magic words? If the agreement says the employee will receive confidential information, is the non-compete enforceable? And what if the employment is at-will, as in 99% of cases? Is there really an “otherwise enforceable agreement” if the employer can fire the employee five minutes after she signs the agreement? Would the employee still be bound by the non-compete?

Texas courts struggled with questions like this for over two decades, but the Texas Supreme Court finally decided to make things simpler in a case called Alex Sheshunoff Management Services, L.P. v. Johnson, 209 S.W.3d 644 (Tex. 2006).

The Sheshunoff court solved the problem this way: a non-compete is ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement if the employer agrees to provide the employee with confidential information and the employer later provides the confidential information. The non-compete becomes enforceable not at the moment the employee signs the non-compete, but at the moment the employee receives the confidential information.

So, if the employer provided confidential information, the ancillary requirement is satisfied, and the non-compete is potentially enforceable (if it’s reasonable). If the employer did not provide confidential information, the ancillary requirement is not satisfied, and the non-compete is unenforceable.

Of course, it’s usually not that simple. You might occasionally get a case where, say, the employee signed a non-compete but quit a few days later, without receiving any information. But in the vast majority of cases the employee received some information from the employer that is at least arguably confidential. It may be as simple as learning the company’s prices, the identity of the company’s customers, and information about the customers.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Is the ancillary requirement satisfied when the employee simply received the same kind of basic information that employees always receive?

This is the unanswered question, and there are two views.

The employer’s argument focuses on a short but important sentence from the Sheshunoff opinion. Addressing the “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement” element of the statute, the Sheshunoff court said:

Concerns that have driven disputes over whether a covenant is ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement—such as the amount of information an employee has received, its importance, its true degree of confidentiality, and the time period over which it is received—are better addressed in determining whether and to what extent a restraint on competition is justified.

Id. at 655-56.

Let me translate. The court is saying let’s not sweat the details about the confidential information when we’re applying the “ancillary” requirement of the statute. We can worry about the details when we apply the second requirement of the statute, reasonableness.

So, for example, if the employee only received a tiny bit of information, or if the information was not highly confidential, the court can consider that in determining whether the scope of the non-compete is reasonable.

The implication is that the amount of information, its importance, and its “true degree of confidentiality” don’t make a difference to whether the non-compete is “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.” One could interpret Sheshunoff to mean that, for the purpose of the ancillary requirement, it’s enough to show that the employee received a little bit of confidential information, and the information doesn’t have to be that confidential, or even important.

The trouble with this interpretation is that it threatens to render the statute’s “ancillary” requirement effectively meaningless. That brings me to the employee’s argument.

It don’t mean nothin’

In practice, the employee will almost always receive information that the employer claims is confidential. Let’s take a typical sales position. A sales person is always going to receive information about who her customers are, how much they pay, and what they buy. Usually you can’t get all that information just by Googling it. But it’s not the secret formula to Coke, either. The sales person could probably put together the same information using a web browser and a telephone.

The employee’s argument is that it’s not enough to show the employee received information that the employer can plausibly argue was confidential. The employer has to prove the information provided to the employee was actually confidential. This simply follows from Sheshunoff’s requirement that the employer prove that it performed its promise to provide the confidential information.

It cannot be enough, this argument says, for the employer merely to recite the “magic words” in the agreement and then say that the information is confidential. That would make the ancillary requirement virtually meaningless, and we should not assume the legislature included the ancillary requirement for no reason.

In other words, the requirement of providing confidential information must have some teeth to it.

This was the view of the federal district court in the recent case Miner, Ltd. v. Anguiano, No. EP-19-CV-00082-FM, 2019 WL 2290562, at *9 (W.D. Tex. May 29, 2019). The employer argued that the employee, an account executive, was privy to confidential information because the confidential information was required for the work to be performed. At the preliminary injunction hearing, the employer said “the confidential information includes things like business strategy, where are we going, pricing information, margins.”

That sounds like plausibly confidential information. But the court was not having it. “Plaintiff has not persuaded this court that this case involved the dissemination of ‘confidential information.’”

The district court cited DeSantis v. Wackenhut Corp., 793 S.W.2d 670 (Tex. 1990), where “the Texas Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that its supposed confidential information—the identity of their customers, pricing policies, cost factors, and bidding strategies—was protectable under the confidentiality agreement.” The court in Wackenhut explained that the plaintiff “failed to show that its customers could not readily be identified by someone outside its employ, that such knowledge carried some competitive advantage, or that its customers’ needs could not be ascertained simply by inquiry addressed to those customers themselves.”

Applying Wackenhut, the federal district court found that the employer had failed to make a strong enough case that the information it provided the employee was truly confidential:

Like Wackenhut, Plaintiff has not shown its business practices, pricing, margin, or strategy were uniquely developed or not readily accessible. Furthermore, Plaintiff’s alleged “confidential information” is vague at best. Plaintiff struggles to identify and expand upon the alleged confidential information. The court will not infer a fact into existence. The Employment Agreement lacks consideration and is unenforceable.

Finding the non-compete unenforceable, the court in Miner, Ltd. v. Anguiano declined to issue a preliminary injunction to enforce it. (The court granted a preliminary injunction on other grounds.)

The quoted section from Miner suggests that application of the “ancillary” requirement in Texas non-compete litigation still raises a fundamental question: how confidential is “confidential”?

The Sheshunoff opinion said don’t worry too much about the “importance” or “true degree of confidentiality” of the information at issue. But Miner suggests that Texas judges are not going to assume the information is confidential just because the employer says it is. At least not until the Texas Supreme Court says they have to.

Like Richard Marx said, I’ll be right here waiting.

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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.

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.

 

Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over: Texas Legislature Takes All the Fun Out of the TCPA

Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over: Texas Legislature Takes All the Fun Out of the TCPA

Back in my day, there was only one night when you could watch NFL action: Monday. Once Don Meredith started signing “Turn Out the Lights . . .” that was all the pro football you were going to get until the next Sunday. There was no “Thursday Night Football,” or even “Football Night in America.” And we liked it.

The other thing we did back in the good old days, meaning roughly 2017 until now, was file a TCPA motion to dismiss in a lawsuit that wasn’t really about “freedom of speech” or “freedom of association,” at least not in the First Amendment sense. Like a non-compete or trade secrets case.

That was fun, but business lobbies and the Texas legislature were not so amused. They mobilized to pass House Bill 2730 which, like the proverbial Federal Reserve raising interest rates, takes away the punch bowl just when the party gets going.

In broad terms, the amendment to the TCPA does three things:

First, it exempts certain types of claims from the TCPA, most notably non-compete and trade secrets claims. I may be biased, considering that is the focus of my litigation practice, but I see this as the most significant change.

Second, the amendment changes the TCPA’s broad definitions of the right of association and the right of free speech that led to such widespread use of the statute. It does not go so far as making those definitions synonymous with constitutional rights. But the previous definition of the key term “matter of public concern,” which was broad and vague, has been replaced with a definition that is significantly different—but still broad and vague.

Third, HB2730 changes the procedures for TCPA motions. For example, the statute now requires 21 days’ notice of a hearing on a TCPA motion, establishes a response deadline seven days before the hearing, and tweaks the rules for awarding attorney’s fees and sanctions. These changes will be important for practicing Texas litigators to note but probably won’t have any significant public policy impact.

The amendments take effect September 1, 2019 and are not retroactive. The previous statute will continue to apply to suits filed before September 1.

You can view the text of HB2730 here, and I have created a handy redlined version of the changes to the TCPA’s definitions that you can view here.

That’s all I’m going to say about the specific changes to the TCPA, because they are relatively self-explanatory, and I’m sure there will be no shortage of articles exploring the nooks and crannies of the textual changes.

I want to focus on some larger questions, like these:

Does the amended TCPA now do a better job of solving the problem it was intended to solve? (Sort of.)

Would it have been better for the legislature to scrap the whole statute? (Probably.)

Is the new exemption for non-compete and trade secrets claims a good idea? (It depends.)

What does this change mean for Texas non-compete and trade secrets law more generally? (Perhaps the time has come for “non-compete reform” in Texas.)

At the risk using a trendy corporate buzzword, let’s “drill down.”

The Empire SLAPPs Back

First, does the TCPA now solve the problem it was intended to solve?

To answer that question, we have to figure out what the problem was. People call the TCPA an “anti-SLAPP” statute. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. So, apparently there was a Strategic-Lawsuit-Against-Public-Participation crisis in Texas before the TCPA.

Funny thing is, in over 20 years of Texas litigation practice, I’ve never seen a SLAPP in my practice. I don’t think I know anybody who has handled one. I probably know more people who have spotted Sasquatch than people who have seen a true SLAPP.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure SLAPPs exist, just like Bigfoot. But here’s the odd thing. Think back to 2010, the year before the TCPA was passed. To jog your memory, the no. 1 song that year was by Ke$ha, who was still using that dollar symbol in her name. Remember how in 2010 Texans across the state were terrified to speak their minds about issues of public concern? Remember how business in Texas courthouses ground to a halt under an avalanche of SLAPP lawsuits?

Yeah, I don’t remember that either. I’m just not convinced that SLAPPs were ever really “a thing.”

But obviously someone was concerned about SLAPPs. Legislators don’t just pass new laws without getting something in return.

I would bet that big media companies had something to do with it. That’s just a guess, but an educated guess.

It would fit a familiar pattern. When doctors and their insurance companies got tired of nuisance medical malpractice suits, they pushed the legislature to pass the Texas Medical Liability Act. When builders got tired of nuisance homeowner lawsuits, they pushed for passage of the Texas Residential Construction Liability Act. You get the idea.

I’d bet that media companies got tired of nuisance lawsuits claiming defamation and wanted the legislature to do something about it. And because the ostensible purpose of the statute was to protect First Amendment rights, they got free speech groups on board.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the First Amendment. In my younger, wilder days I was even labeled the “free speech extremist” in a college seminar. But I always thought the best legal defense to an attack on First Amendment rights was, you know, the First Amendment.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like the notion that the rules of the civil litigation system ought to be the same for all kinds of lawsuits. And if you take that idea seriously, it means sometimes saying no to special-interest exceptions, even when the special interest seems like a deserving one.

Otherwise, you get civil litigation rules that look like the US Tax Code: encrusted with the barnacles of special-interest exemptions.

Hey, I get it. That’s how politics works. Special-interest protections are just the way the game is played and the sausage gets made. But us practicing litigators don’t have to like it, or pretend like it’s a good thing.

And then there’s the more practical problem with special-interest legislation: the unintended consequences. The TCPA’s definitions were so broad that people started filing TCPA motions in cases the legislature probably never intended, like trade secrets cases. See A SLAPP in the Face to Texas Trade Secrets Lawsuits – Part 1.

This did not sit well with Chamber of Commerce types. Business groups were fine with the TCPA in theory, because most businesses have better things to do than filing SLAPPs against defenseless consumers. But businesses do like to file lawsuits when their employees leave to join competitors. So when defendants started filing TCPA motions in non-compete and trade secrets lawsuits, you knew the “pro-business” groups and politicians would not be happy campers.

I put “pro-business” in quotes to question whether favoring lawsuits against employees who join competing companies is really pro-business. Usually there are two businesses involved in such a dispute: the business the employee left, and the business the employee joined. What is the real “pro-business” position in such a case, a government decree prohibiting the employee from working for a competitor, or letting the employee go where the market demands?

It would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen to business in a state if non-competes for at-will employees were generally prohibited. Would companies in that state stop investing in innovation and human resources, fearful that their investments would be wasted?

Ideally, the experiment would involve a a state that has no political or ideological baggage, like California, the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Alas, the real world is not a laboratory, so there’s no way to know for sure. But here’s a hypothesis: if Texas really wanted to favor competition and innovation, it would prohibit non-competes except in narrow circumstances like the sale of a business.

Politically, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. For whatever reason, business groups tend to take a short-sighted, conventional view of their interests, so they like enforcement of non-competes. Carving non-compete suits out of the TCPA is the latest proof of that.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

So now we have a special-interest statute, the TCPA, with a special-interest exception, non-compete and trade secrets claims. Which one was the mistake, the original statute, or the exception?

I think you can make a case that the legislature went wrong both times. The original TCPA was ill-conceived and had language going far beyond the purported basis for the statute. You could make a good case for just scrapping the whole thing.

But if we’re going to have an anti-SLAPP statute, I don’t see why it shouldn’t apply to departing employee lawsuits. Granted, that’s probably not the kind of lawsuit legislators had in mind when they voted for the TCPA. But a non-compete or trade secrets suit is just as likely to raise “SLAPP” concerns as any other kind of lawsuit.

Mind you, I’m not bashing plaintiffs in departing employee lawsuits—I’ve represented them and will continue to do so. But any lawyer who handles non-compete cases knows there are plenty of cases of non-compete abuse.

Here’s a common scenario: a high-performing salesperson gets fed up with her job and decides to make a fresh start working for a competitor. She’s careful not to poach any customers from her first employer, but the first employer is still angry. So even though her non-compete is too broad to hold up in court and her industry doesn’t have any real secrets, the first employer sues her for breach of non-compete and misappropriation of trade secrets. They have deeper pockets and want to “send a message.”

Texas already has procedures for dismissing groundless lawsuits, but that won’t do this employee much good, because the employer’s claims are not entirely groundless.

No, what the employee needs in this situation is some way to contest the merits of the employer’s claims early in the lawsuit, before getting buried under a mountain of legal fees. Maybe a procedure where the employee files a motion that requires the employer to offer evidence to support its claims before the employee has to endure the expensive discovery process?

Ok, never mind. That would be crazy. Kind of like pro football on Thursday nights.

*Update: On the eve of HB 2730 becoming effective, the Fifth Circuit carved back the TCPA even more, holding it does not apply in federal court. See Shrinkage: TX Legislature and 5th Circuit Cut the TCPA Down to Size.

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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.

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.

 

Non-Competes in the Sale of a Texas Business

Non-Competes in the Sale of a Texas Business

If you’re buying a business in Texas and the seller agrees to a non-compete, will it hold up in court? The short answer is yes, but the non-compete should be reasonably limited to the purpose of protecting the goodwill that you are acquiring with the other assets of the business. It’s also a good idea to have the purchase agreement recite that the purchased assets include the goodwill of the business.

To understand why, let’s start with the two requirements in the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act, affectionately known as TCNCA: (1) a non-compete must be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement” (whatever that means) and (2) a non-compete must be reasonably limited in time, geographic area, and scope of activity.

How do you make a non-compete “ancillary” to an otherwise enforceable agreement? As I explain in this short video, the most common way is to have a non-compete tied to a confidentiality agreement between an employer and an employee. This is usually sufficient to meet the “ancillary” requirement, as long as the agreement explicitly or implicitly promises to provide confidential information to the employee and the employer actually provides confidential information.

A sale of a business is different. In a typical sale, the buyer acquires the assets of the business, including goodwill. And in this information age, the goodwill is often the most valuable asset of the business.

Trouble is, you can’t just load goodwill on a truck like it’s office furniture or shop tools. Goodwill primarily consists of relationships with customers or clients, and in many cases the customer relationship is with an individual who works for the business, not so much the business itself.

A non-compete is ancillary to the sale of the goodwill because it is necessary to make the transfer effective. See, e.g., Chandler v. Mastercraft Dental Corp. of Texas Inc., 739 S.W.2d 460, 464-65 (Tex. App.–Fort Worth 1987, writ denied) (“the covenant was necessary to protect the business goodwill, the key asset”). Imagine if the seller, after selling the goodwill, could set up a new business the next day and start soliciting the sold business’s customers. Then the buyer would not really get the benefit of the transferred goodwill.

If the law refused to enforce a non-compete in this situation, it would hurt the buyer and the seller. No buyer is going to pay the full value of the goodwill without assurance that the seller cannot immediately start competing for the customers of the business. And then business owners would not be able to cash out the full value of their businesses.

So, if anything, enforcing a non-compete makes more economic sense in the sale of a business than in the employer-employee context. That explains why even California, which generally prohibits non-competes, has an exception for the sale of a business. See Cal. Bus. & Profs. Code § 16600-16602.5.

It also explains why Texas courts have said that “[a] noncompete signed by an owner selling a business is quite different than one signed by an employee.”[1] Texas courts have been more inclined to enforce long, or even limitless, time periods barring competition after a sale of a business.[2] For example, in Oliver v. Rogers, 976 S.W.2d 792, 801 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1998, pet. denied), the court held that the lack of a time limitation did not render a non-compete unreasonable when it was part of the sale of a business.

But let’s not get carried away. Since 1989, all Texas non-competes are governed by the TCNCA. In addition to the “ancillary” requirement, the statute requires a non-compete to 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). To the extent that any Texas case—especially a pre-1989 case—suggests that these limitations are not required in the sale of business, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

The non-compete statute does give the buyer of a business one advantage that may not be immediately obvious. In an employment agreement, the burden of proving the reasonableness of the non-compete is usually on the employer. But in the sale of a business, the burden of proof will usually be on the seller to show that the non-compete is unreasonable. See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.51(b) (placing burden of proof depending on whether the “primary purpose” of the agreement is to obligate the promisor to render “personal services”).

But again, reasonableness is still required. And here’s the slightly counter-intuitive part: if you represent the buyer in the sale of a business, you don’t want to go overboard on drafting a super-broad non-compete. In fact, it will usually be in your client’s interest to tailor the non-compete as narrowly as possible to the legitimate purpose of protecting the goodwill of the business. Anything more is too much.

What does that mean specifically?

First, you should include a reasonable time period. The time period should be no longer than necessary to protect the goodwill. Will the previous owner’s relationships with customers really have significant value four or five years later? Consider whether a two or three year period would be enough.

Second, you should include a geographic area. This will depend on the type of business, but generally a reasonable geographic area will coincide with the area where the company is doing business with its existing customers.

Third, the scope of activity restrained should be limited. This is perhaps the most neglected limitation. Remember, the purpose is to protect the goodwill of the business, which means relationships with existing customers. If the non-compete would bar the seller from competing in any way, for any customers, a judge might consider it an unenforceable “industry-wide exclusion.” The case law prohibiting industry-wide exclusions focuses on the employer-employee context, but the same concept can be applied to the sale of a business.

Ok, the seller of a business might say, but why not draft the non-compete as broadly as possible, and then if there’s a dispute you negotiate down from there?

Good question. Texas non-compete law is quite “pro-reformation,” especially in comparison to some other states. If a non-compete is unreasonably broad, that’s not the end of the story. The statute requires the trial court to reform the agreement to the extent necessary to make it reasonable. So, all is not lost if the buyer’s lawyer drafts the non-compete too broadly.

But there is a cost to be paid for making the non-compete too broad. First, if things go wrong and the seller of the business starts competing for the business’s customers, the new business owner may need to go to court to get a temporary injunction enforcing the non-compete. As a litigator who handles temporary injunction hearings, I can tell you it will be easier to make a case for a temporary injunction if the non-compete is already reasonably limited.

Second, if the non-compete is written too broadly, it effectively means that the buyer will be unable to recover damages for the seller’s breach. See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code §15.51(c). That’s a big bargaining chip to give away by making the non-compete too broad.

So if you represent the buyer, consider making the non-compete as narrow as you can while still protecting the goodwill your client is buying.

That brings up one more tip: the agreement should actually provide for the sale of the goodwill. If the purchase agreement does not expressly identify the goodwill as part of the assets being sold, there is a risk that a judge could say that the non-compete was not ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.[3]

You could argue the sale of the goodwill is implied when all the other assets of the business were sold.[4] But why chance it? Unless there is a good reason not to include the goodwill (maybe a tax reason?), the safer course is to include an express recitation that the goodwill is part of the assets being sold.

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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. Occasionally he writes a boring, useful post. 

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.

[1] Heritage Operating, L.P. v. Rhine Bros., LLC, 02-10-00474-CV, 2012 WL 2344864, at *5 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth June 21, 2012, no pet.) (mem. op.).

[2] Id. (citing cases).

[3] See, e.g., Bandera Drilling Co. v. Sledge Drilling Corp., 293 S.W.3d 867, 872-75 (Tex. App.–Eastland 2009, no pet.).

[4] The Texas Supreme Court has recognized that an agreement, such as an agreement to provide confidential information, can be implied in a non-compete. Mann Frankfort Stein & Lipp Advisors, Inc. v. Fielding, 289 S.W.3d 844 (Tex. 2009).

Is a Non-Solicitation Agreement a Non-Compete?

Is a Non-Solicitation Agreement a Non-Compete?

The short answer is yes. A non-solicitation agreement is a form of non-compete.

But why does this issue come up? And what difference does it make?

To understand why, let’s back up a bit. It is common for an employment agreement to contain both a “non-solicitation” section and a “non-compete” section. A non-solicitation clause places restrictions on the employee soliciting company customers after leaving the company. A non-compete clause is broader: it places restrictions on the employee working for a competitor after leaving the company.

Every state limits the enforceability of non-competes in some way. In Texas, where I practice, we have a statute declaring that every contract in restraint of trade or commerce is unlawful.[1] But the statute has a large exception for a “covenant not to compete.”

So what about a covenant not to “solicit”? How does that fit into the statutory scheme?

There are really only two options. A contractual covenant not to solicit is either a “restraint of trade or commerce,” which is illegal, or a form of “covenant not to compete,” which is enforceable if it meets the requirements of the non-compete statute.

It’s pretty easy to see why a non-solicitation agreement is a restraint of trade or commerce. Think about it. Imagine if Apple and Samsung signed a contract saying that Apple will not solicit smartphone customers in Asia, and Samsung will not solicit smartphone customers in North America. The Justice Department would be all over that.

It should be no different if the non-solicitation agreement is part of an employment contract.[2]

You can see where this is headed. It shouldn’t help the company to argue that the non-solicitation agreement is not a “non-compete.” If that’s true, it’s an illegal restraint of trade. I’ve made this point before. See When is a Non-Compete Not a Non-Compete in Texas?

But even aside from this dilemma for the employer, there are two reasons why a non-solicitation agreement should be treated as a “non-compete” that is subject to the restrictions in the non-compete statute.

First, common sense. Let’s say I draft a contract that says the employee shall not “cheat” for a period of one year after leaving the employer, with “cheat” defined as “to work for a company that provides similar goods or services as those provided by Employer.”

Hey, it doesn’t use the word “compete,” so it’s not a “covenant not to compete” subject to the statute, is it?

Of course it is. The law isn’t going to let a company get around the requirements of the non-compete statute merely by using some label other than “compete.” The question is whether the function of the clause is to restrict competition. An agreement not to solicit the employer’s customers obviously restricts competition with the employer and therefore should be treated as a “covenant not to compete.”

blank-business-card-697059
Whether an agreement is a “non-compete” shouldn’t depend on the label

The second reason that a non-solicitation agreement is a “covenant not to compete” is that the Texas Supreme Court has said so. This is more important than the first reason.

In Marsh USA Inc. v. Cook, 354 S.W.3d 764, 768 (Tex. 2011), the Texas Supreme Court clarified Texas law on enforceability of non-competes. The agreement in Marsh prohibited the employee from soliciting a certain type of business from people who were clients or prospective clients of his employer within two years of his termination.

Under the heading “Enforceability of the Covenant Not to Compete,” the Texas Supreme Court began its analysis by stating:

Covenants that place limits on former employees’ professional mobility or restrict their  solicitation of the former employers’ customers and employees are restraints of trade and are governed by the Act [meaning the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act].

In support, the court cited two state court cases and two federal court cases treating non-solicitation agreements as non-competes.

So that should settle it. A non-solicitation covenant is a kind of “covenant not to compete.”

But what difference does it make?

It matters because a covenant not to compete must meet the two requirements of the statute. First, it must be “ancillary to an otherwise enforceable agreement.” Second, it must be reasonable in time, scope, and geographic area. You can watch a brilliant five-minute video on these requirements here.

The geographic area requirement is often a sticking point. Despite the unambiguous requirement in the statute, it is not unusual to find a non-solicitation clause, or even a broader non-competition clause, that contains no geographic limitation. When that happens, the employee can argue that absence of a geographic limitation renders the clause unenforceable as written.

That’s exactly one of the arguments the employee made in the recent case White v. Impact Floors of Texas, LP, No. 05-18-00384-CV, 2018 WL 6616973, at *3 (Tex. App.—Dallas Dec. 18, 2018, no pet. h.).

In Impact Floors, the trial court granted a temporary injunction enforcing the non-solicitation and non-disclosure provisions of an employment agreement. Id. at *1-2. On appeal, the employee argued the trial court was wrong to enter the injunction because the employment agreement contained no geographic limitation. Id. at *3.

That should have been a pretty easy issue for the Court of Appeals, right? As we’ve seen the Texas non-compete statute applies to a non-solicitation agreement, and the statute expressly requires a reasonable geographic limitation.

But the Court of Appeals rejected the employee’s argument on the ground that the injunction only enforced the non-solicitation and non-disclosure provisions of the agreement, not the non-compete provision. Id. at *3.

I’ll leave it to the appellate specialists to argue whether the Court of Appeals got this right on narrow procedural grounds.[3] But as discussed above, the Texas Supreme Court has specifically said the requirements of the non-compete statute apply to a non-solicitation agreement. So, to the extent that Impact Floors says otherwise, it is wrong.

But there is another way to get to the same result. Despite the plain language of the statute requiring reasonable limitations as to “geographical area,” some Texas courts have said that a limitation on the scope of a non-compete—such as limiting it to the employee’s clients—can be used in lieu of a geographic limitation.[4]

So if you’re the lawyer representing the employee, don’t get too excited if the non-solicitation clause has no geographic limitation. It might still be enforceable as written. And even if it’s unenforceable as written, the trial court judge could still grant a temporary injunction enforcing it to a more limited extent.

But don’t let the employer’s lawyer get away with arguing that a non-solicitation clause isn’t a non-compete. That’s just incorrect.

In my opinion.*

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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.

*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.

[1] Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 15.05.

[2] See, e.g., Rimkus Consulting Group, Inc. v. Cammarata, 255 F.R.D. 417, 438-39 (S.D. Tex. 2008) (stating that a “nonsolicitation covenant is also a restraint on trade and competition and must meet the criteria of section 15.50 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code to be enforceable”).

[3] The Court of Appeals reasoned that the employee complained on appeal only about the non-compete provision, but that the temporary injunction did not enforce the non-compete provision, so therefore the employee’s complaint presented nothing for appellate review. Id.

[4] See Gallagher Healthcare Ins. Servs. v. Vogelsang, 312 S.W.3d 640, 654-55 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, pet. denied) (“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”); M-I LLC v. Stelly, 733 F.Supp.2d 759, 799-800 (S.D. Tex. 2010) (taking “holistic” approach and holding that absence of geographic restriction did not render non-compete unenforceable where time period was only six months, employee held upper management position, and employee had access to company’s trade secrets).