Use the Force (Majeure)

Use the Force (Majeure)

Even if you’re not a lawyer, you’ve probably heard the phrase force majeure, which is French for “use the force, Luke.” Not as clumsy or random as the Latin, vis major. It’s an elegant phrase, for a more civilized age.

Force majeure actually means something like “superior force,” and it’s a concept you find in contract law. It’s the idea that a party to a contract is excused from strict performance of the contract’s terms if some extraordinary event beyond that party’s reasonable control prevented performance.

Force majeure is closely associated with an English phrase, “act of God,” which gives you an idea of the kind of event we’re talking about: hurricanes, tornados, cats and dogs living together.

Force majeure in contract law

Force majeure is an exception to the general rule of contract law. Unlike the law of negligence, contract law is usually not concerned with fault. If a party fails to perform a material requirement of a contract, it has breached the contract and is liable for the resulting damages to the other party. Generally, it doesn’t matter if the breaching party has a good excuse. You might say contract law imposes “strict liability” on the breaching party. It’s a “no fault” regime.

Is that fair?

Here’s one way to look at it: the whole point of a contract is to allocate risk between the contracting parties. Let’s say Pop Tarts are currently trading at $2.00 per box. If we sign a contract that says I will deliver a truckload of strawberry Pop Tarts to your store in 30 days for $2.00 a box, I’m taking the risk that the price will go up, and you’re taking the risk that the price will go down. If there’s a run on Pop Tarts after we sign the contract and the price doubles, I don’t get to complain that the contract price we agreed on isn’t fair.

That’s what I mean here by “strict liability.”

But this concept has its limits. In 1712, the King’s Bakers Company signed a contract to deliver 13 dozen strawberry tarts to Ye Olde Tavern for 15 shillings per dozen. An extraordinary cold snap destroyed that year’s strawberry crop, and the King’s Bakers could not deliver. The English court adopted the rule of force majeure, holding that this act of God was an unforeseen circumstance that excused the seller from performing.

Ok, I made that case up, but that was basically the common-law rule of force majeure. Then lawyers started incorporating this concept into the contracts they wrote. Today, force majeure is no longer a common-law rule that applies to all contracts. The issue now is interpreting the scope of the particular force majeure clause the parties agreed to (if any).

This should make it easy to figure out if a particular occurrence qualifies as a force majeure event. Just look at the definition in the contract.

But I know my Fivers. You’re shaking your heads no. You know it’s going to be more complicated than that.

A typical force majeure clause

Let’s look at an example. Here’s a typical force majeure clause:

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I’m sure you see the obvious problem: no Oxford commas. But let’s set that aside.

This definition has a two-part structure that you see in many legal definitions, whether in a contract or a statute. It defines a key concept by listing specific instances followed by a broader “catch-all” clause.

In this case, there are seven instances listed:

  • fire
  • flood
  • storm
  • act of God
  • governmental authority
  • labor disputes
  • war

Those are the specific enumerated events that qualify as force majeure. They are followed by the catch-all: “any other cause not enumerated herein but which is beyond the reasonable control of the Party whose performance is affected.”

It is, of course, a little more complicated than that, because one of the seven specific things is “act of God,” which is also a kind of catch-all. But you get the idea.

The interesting thing about this kind of structure is that the catch-all informs interpretation of the enumerated events, while the enumerated events inform interpretation of the catch-all. (The latter principle is called ejusdem generis–again with the foreign languages!)

We don’t want to take the specific events out of context. Let’s say I can’t deliver the truckload of Pop Tarts because I set fire to my warehouse to get the insurance money. Under a literal interpretation, the force majeure clause would apply.

But obviously, that’s not the kind of “fire” the parties intended. You can see that from the catch-all, which shows the parties intended an enumerated event would only excuse performance if it was beyond the reasonable control of the party affected.

Should we apply force majeure clauses literally?

Let’s take a harder case. Say there’s a thunderstorm in the Houston area the day the truck is scheduled to arrive, and it causes such bad traffic that the truck is late. That’s a “storm,” and it is not an event under the reasonable control of the seller, so if the storm actually prevented timely delivery, the force majeure clause would apply, right?

Most of you are instinctively resisting this conclusion. But why? If you interpret the clause literally, it seems to apply. Shouldn’t a court enforce the “plain meaning” of the words the parties freely negotiated and agreed to?

I think the problem is that, for all our hard-nosed talk about plain meaning and strict liability, we can’t entirely avoid importing our moral notions of fairness into interpretation of the contract.

Our moral intuition tells us it’s not fair for the seller to avoid the contract just because there happened to be a thunderstorm and bad traffic that day. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to hold the seller liable if the truck couldn’t get to the store because Hurricane Harvey flooded the roads.

Is there a way to rationalize this moral instinct, so that judges have an objective rule they can follow to determine whether a particular event falls under the definition the parties agreed to?

A recent case applying a force majeure clause

Let’s look at a fairly recent attempt to do that. In a 2-1 decision in TEC Olmos, LLC v. ConocoPhillips Co., 555 S.W.3d 176 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, pet. denied), the majority tried to solve this problem with a concept that was not stated in the contract but is pervasive in the law: foreseeability. The dissent, in contrast, tried to solve the problem with textualism.

Did either succeed?

The contract in TEC Olmos was a farmout agreement to test-drill land in search of oil and gas. The contract set a deadline to begin drilling and included a liquidated damages clause requiring Olmos to pay $500,000 if it missed the deadline. Id. at 179. By pure coincidence, the force majeure clause in the contract was exactly the same as the example I used above.

Of course, something unexpected happened after the parties signed the contract. In the summer of 2014 the price of oil was over $100 a barrel. By December 2015 it was around $40. As a result of the significant drop in the global oil market, Olmos could not get the financing it needed to do the drilling. So Olmos tried to invoke the force majeure clause to extend the deadline.

The response from ConocoPhillips? You owe us $500,000.

But Olmos had a simple argument for avoiding liability: under the plain meaning of the force majeure clause, the worldwide drop in oil prices and resulting inability to obtain financing was “beyond the reasonable control” of Olmos.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. The court held that the change in the oil and gas market making it impossible for Olmos to obtain financing was not a force majeure event as defined by the contract. The court reasoned that a “foreseeable” event—such as a decline in the oil and gas market—cannot qualify as force majeure under the “catch-all” provision of the force majeure clause. Id. at 181-82, 186.

Foreseeability was part of the common-law force majeure doctrine, but it was not mentioned in the clause the parties agreed to. So was unforeseeability an implied requirement? The court said yes. “A term’s common-law meaning will not override the definition given to a contractual term,” the court said, but “we may consider common law rules to ‘fill in gaps’ when interpreting force majeure clauses.” Id. at 181.

The court explained that “when parties specify certain force majeure events, there is no need to show that the occurrence of such an event was unforeseeable.” Id. at 183. But when the party seeking to avoid performance relies on a catch-all provision, it must show that the event at issue was unforeseeable. Id. 183-84.

The majority reasoned that it would make no sense to allow a foreseeable event to satisfy the catch-all clause. “To dispense with the unforeseeability requirement in the context of a general ‘catch-all’ provision,” the court said, would “render the clause meaningless because any event outside the control of the nonperforming party could excuse performance, even if it were an event that the parties were aware of and took into consideration in drafting the contract.” Id. at 184.

I’m not sure I follow this reasoning. Dispensing with the unforeseeability requirement may render the clause broad—and maybe broader than what is fair—but it doesn’t render the clause meaningless. And shouldn’t we apply the plain language of the contract the parties agreed to? The word “foreseeable” didn’t appear in the force majeure clause.

The textualist dissent

Justice Brown made this point in his dissent. “The contract does not say that an event must have been unforeseeable to suspend performance,” he wrote. “I dissent because the Texas Supreme Court has repeatedly told us that it is this state’s policy to enforce contracts as they are written.” Applying this policy to the force majeure clause, Justice Brown said “[i]f parties wish to limit the scope of their negotiated force majeure provisions to require that an event must have been unforeseeable to excuse performance, it is not difficult to insert that single adjective into their written agreements.” Id. at 189.

Rather than reading an unforeseeability requirement into the force majeure clause, Justice Brown focused on the language of the clause. He emphasized that the clause used the word “hindered,” which dictionaries define to include “get in the way of” and “to make difficult.” “The word hinder suggests a low threshold before the force majeure clause applies,” he wrote. “The party does not have to be prevented from performing, only hindered.” Id. at 199.

In short, Justice Brown took a textualist approach to interpreting the force majeure clause, rejecting the majority’s notion that unforeseeability was implied.

I’m skeptical about whether textualism provides a definitive basis for deciding if a force majeure clause applies. It’s usually going to come down to a question of whether the event at issue falls within the “catch-all” clause, and the catch-all clause is always a little “fuzzy.” The reason there’s a dispute in the first place is that it’s debatable whether the event at issue is covered by the language of the clause. Still, I tend to agree with Justice Brown that the express language of the clause should take priority over a superimposed concept of foreseeability.

Plus, even aside from the the text, there’s a more fundamental problem with making the scope of a force majeure clause turn on whether the event at issue was “foreseeable.”

The problem with “foreseeable”

The majority in TEC Olmos assumed—and the parties apparently agreed—that a worldwide decline in the market causing an inability to obtain financing was foreseeable. Id. at 181 n.1. This was in part due to precedent that a downturn in the oil and gas market is foreseeable. Id. at 183 (citing Valero Transmission Co. v. Mitchell Energy Co., 743 S.W.2d 658 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1987, no writ)).

But is an extraordinary global market crash any more “foreseeable” than the other “acts of God” typically listed in a force majeure clause? A hurricane, for example, is surely the type of event that can trigger a force majeure clause, but the parties to a contract can foresee that hurricanes happen, especially if they are on the Gulf Coast. An event that has its own “season” can’t be that unpredictable. I would guess a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast more often than the global oil market crashes.

The problem is that you can almost always make a reasonable argument that a given event is or is not “foreseeable.” No, the parties don’t sign the contract expecting that a fire is going to destroy the warehouse. On the other hand, the parties know fires sometimes happen. That’s why people buy fire insurance. So is a fire “foreseeable”?

Foreseeability is a common concept in the law, but after doing litigation for over 20 years, I don’t think the concept is that useful for reasoning our way to a conclusion. I think “foreseeable” is just a label we apply to an event or risk that our intuition tells us a party should be responsible for.

It’s not a binary question of whether an event is foreseeable or not. It’s really a question of how likely the event is, and to what extent the performing party has the ability to mitigate the risk of that event occurring. It’s a sliding scale with these two components.

I think this is the basic calculation we intuitively perform when we decide whether a particular unexpected event is the kind of event that should excuse a party from performance. I confirmed this with a scientific process: going through several hypotheticals with my wife and two kids while we ate tacos at the dinner table. It got a little heated.

But I think my wife hit on something when I asked why a global market drop would not satisfy the force majeure clause. “A market drop is beyond the party’s reasonable control, and that’s what the contract says,” I argued.

“But that’s just not how business works,” she responded. “It’s common sense!”

Common sense. Ultimately, I think that’s the best guide to deciding a force majeure dispute. And whether you agree with that or not, I think that relying on common sense and basic intuitions about fairness is usually what judges are doing anyway, regardless of how they write the opinion.

That’s not very satisfying as an objective basis for deciding disputes. But we just have to muddle through somehow. And based on TEC Olmos v. ConocoPhillips, if you’re a lawyer arguing a force majeure issue, you have to speak the language of “foreseeability.”

Do, or do not. There is no try.

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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 had to cut the whole section on ejusdem generis because, hey, this is *Five Minute* Law.

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.

 

Texas Supreme Court Says Emails “Subject To” Later Agreement Do Not Establish “Definitive Agreement”

Texas Supreme Court Says Emails “Subject To” Later Agreement Do Not Establish “Definitive Agreement”

I don’t always agree with Nathan Hecht, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. But I’ll give him this. The man knows how to start an opinion.

Here’s part of his intro to the opinion issued last Friday in Chalker Energy Partners III, LLC v. Le Norman Operating LLC:

Email can be a convenient way to reach agreement, but it is also a distinctly conversational, informal medium. Hitting send may be deliberate; it may be hasty. And so in this brave new world, or at least this braver new world, we must decide whether an email exchange reflected the meeting of minds required for a contract, given the nature of the transaction and the parties’ expressed contemplations. And we must begin to give certainty to this developing area of contract law.

This is what marketing experts call a “tease.” It draws the reader in, promising something exciting. A brave new world! Certainty!

But then the opinion fails to deliver.

You see, the Texas Supreme Court’s Chalker Energy opinion isn’t really about emails. It’s about a “No Obligation” clause. Chalker Energy held the communications at issue did not constitute a “definitive agreement” required by the No Obligation clause in the parties’ preliminary agreement.

It just happens that the communications at issue were emails. The reasoning of the opinion shows the result would have been the same if the communications had been faxed letters, for example. So we will have to wait for another opinion to deliver the promised certainty for the brave new world of contracting by email.

Still, Chalker Energy is an important case for businesses and the lawyers who represent them. It’s worth looking at what the court decided and what it didn’t.

The “rule” of Chalker Energy

In the first year of law school they teach us to “brief” a case by outlining its facts, holding, reasoning, and rule. The “rule” is the hard part. It’s the abstract principle to be derived from the case and applied to future disputes.

The rule of Brown v. Board of Education, for example, is that the doctrine of separate but equal has no place in public school education. The rule of Texaco v. Pennzoil is that they’ll name a law school library after you if you make enough money.

So what is the Chalker Energy rule?

Before I take a stab at it, let’s understand what a No Obligation clause is. It’s a provision in an initial agreement between the parties to a contemplated business deal. It says the parties will have no legal obligation concerning the potential transaction until they sign a final written agreement.

The purpose? A No Obligation clause allows the parties to communicate freely about the terms of a deal without fear that their communications will establish a binding contract. It also provides certainty (hopefully) about whether the parties do or do not have a legally binding agreement.

With that understanding, the rule established by Chalker Energy is this:

An agreement on deal terms in written communications between the parties is not a definitive agreement contemplated by a No Obligation clause, where the communications reflect that the parties intended the agreement to be “subject to” signing a more detailed written agreement later, even if (a) the agreement is reached after the bidding process the parties agreed to has ended and (b) there is some evidence that the parties thought the emails established a binding agreement.

I realize that’s a fairly complicated “rule.” But that’s because Chalker Energy is a fairly fact-intensive opinion. You may see headlines that proclaim more broadly “Texas Supreme Court Rejects Agreements by Email” etc., but don’t believe the hype. Change one or two key facts, and the result could be different.

But which facts would make a difference?

Ah, there’s the rub. Now we have to get down in the weeds, at least a little.

The essential facts of Chalker Energy, shorn of any extraneous details

Chalker represented a group of working interest owners holding 70 oil and gas leases in the Texas Panhandle worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Chalker invited bids from potential buyers, who had to sign a Confidentiality Agreement. If a seller accepted a bid, the buyer and seller would sign a definitive purchase-and-sale agreement, or PSA.

The Confidentiality Agreement contained the following No Obligation clause:

Screen Shot 2020-02-29 at 7.54.58 PM.png

It came down to two bidders, LNO and Jones Energy. Both of them submitted bids the sellers did not accept.

The sellers then offered to sell 67% of the assets. In response, LNO sent an email with the subject line “Counter Proposal.” The email listed seven key terms, including price, a closing date, and execution of a PSA.

Then the best part of the email: “We will not be modifying or accepting any changes to the base deal described above and don’t want to be jerked around anymore.”

Oops, I promised no extraneous details.

Anyway, the sellers responded with an email stating they were “on board to deliver 67% subject to a mutually agreeable PSA. We were calling to discuss next steps and timing. Chalker et al will be turning a PSA tonight to respond to your last draft.”

Various emails ensued. One of the sellers congratulated one of LNO’s private equity investors on “winning the bid.” Jones Energy got wind of the deal and emailed a seller, saying it “heard that we lost the deal again.”

Did Jones Energy give up? Come on, this is a Texas oil and gas case about whether two parties had a binding multi-million-dollar contract. You know there’s going to be a third party who stole the deal.

Jones Energy made a new offer, the sellers accepted, and Chalker and Jones Energy signed a PSA. “That same day, unaware of what had happened, LNO’s general counsel sent Chalker a redlined PSA.”

I love that little detail too. I’ve been waiting for redlining to make an appearance in a major contract case. That’s almost as good as a discussion of fonts. Plus, you can just picture LNO’s people going ballistic after finding out Chalker had already done a deal with Jones Energy.

And when business people go ballistic, they file lawsuits.

The exciting “procedural history”

LNO sued the sellers for breach of contract, arguing that the sellers breached the agreement to sell 67% of the assets reflected in the emails.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the sellers, concluding that the parties did not intend to be bound, a PSA was a condition precedent (pre-see-dent) to contract formation, and the No Obligation clause precluded a binding contract without an executed, delivered PSA. (A condition precedent is an event that must occur before a binding contract is formed.)

The First Court of Appeals (Houston) disagreed with the trial court. It held that whether the alleged contract was subject to the bidding procedures in the Confidentiality Agreement and whether LNO and the sellers intended to be bound by the terms in the emails were fact issues, which preclude summary judgment. That meant there would have to be a trial.

The Texas Supreme Court’s reasoning

The Texas Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court reasoned as follows:

  • No Obligation clauses are enforceable under freedom-of-contract principles, especially for “arms-length” negotiations between sophisticated business entities.
  • In two prior Texas Supreme Court cases cited by LNO, there were fact issues about whether a contemplated formal document was a condition precedent to contract formation, but neither case involved the kind of No Obligation clause in Chalker’s agreement.
  • The facts were more similar to WTG Gas Processing, a case where the Fourteenth Court of Appeals (also Houston) held that a No Obligation clause precluded a binding contract where the parties never signed a PSA.
  • The emails in Chalker were more akin to a preliminary agreement than a definitive agreement to sell, and the parties’ dealings suggest they intended a more formal PSA would satisfy the definitive agreement requirement.
  • LNO’s email referred to a PSA, and the sellers’ acceptance was made “subject to a mutually agreeable PSA.”
  • The court threw in one more little fact: no agreement was “executed and delivered” as required by the No Obligation clause.

The Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeals’ reasoning that the emails set out the key provisions such as the assets, the price, and the closing date, noting there were still key agreements to be negotiated including an escrow agreement, non-compete agreement (my favorite!), and a joint operating agreement.

The Supreme Court also rejected the Court of Appeals’ reliance on evidence that some of sellers thought they had a deal:

  • Chalker declared the group was “committed to sell”
  • One seller sent a congratulatory message to LNO
  • Chalker referred to assets as “what is being sold to LNO”
  • Several sellers testified that they intended to sell the assets to LNO as of the date of the email

Pish posh. The Supreme Court said these “one-off musings” of a few sellers out of 18 owners “could be construed many ways” and could not create a fact issue in light of the unambiguous No Obligation clause.

“If mere proposals that contemplate a later-executed PSA and the subsequent exchanging of unagreed-to drafts are sufficient to raise a fact question on the existence of a definitive agreement,” the court said, “No Obligation Clauses will be stripped of much of their meaning and utility.”

The court also rejected the argument that the sellers waived the condition precedent created by the No Obligation clause.

I gather from all this that the Chalker Energy decision rested on two key facts: (1) the preliminary agreement had an unambiguous No Obligation clause requiring a definitive agreement, and (2) the emails LNO relied on made it clear the deal was “subject to” a PSA the parties intended to sign later.

In short, when the parties agree to a No Obligation clause and it’s undisputed they intended to sign a more detailed agreement later, you don’t have a definitive agreement, even if the parties exchange written communications stating agreement on key terms.

That’s the Chalker Energy rule in a nutshell.

What Chalker Energy did not address

But how far does the Chalker Energy rule go?

Let’s change the facts a little. Suppose the emails didn’t reference a later PSA. Let’s even suppose the offer email stated “your acceptance of this offer by reply email will create a legally binding definitive agreement between us,” and the reply email simply stated “we accept.”

That would be a definitive agreement, right? The Chalker Energy rule wouldn’t apply. The condition precedent in the No Obligation clause would be satisfied.

But hold on. There’s a problem. Some of you might remember something else the No Obligation clause said. It didn’t just require a definitive agreement; it required an “executed and delivered” definitive agreement. (Executed is a fancy legal word for signed.)

Can an exchange of emails regarding key terms be an “executed and delivered” agreement?

We don’t know yet. Like I said, the Texas Supreme Court’s Chalker Energy opinion is not really about the brave new world of emails.

So did the opinion promise more than it delivered? Hecht, yes!

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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.

 

 

Let’s Roll: Do’s and Don’ts for Texas Trade Secrets Injunctions

Let’s Roll: Do’s and Don’ts for Texas Trade Secrets Injunctions

Recent case offers lessons on how to get (or avoid) a trade secrets injunction in Texas

When I say “drywall installation,” I’m guessing “trade secrets” is not the first thing that pops into your mind. Personally, I think of John Goodman’s character Dan Conner from the TV show Roseanne.

But a recent opinion from a federal district court in Dallas may change that. See Marek Brother Systems, Inc. v. Enriquez, No. 3:19-CV-01082, 2019 WL 3322162 (N.D. Tex. July 24, 2019).

Marek Brother Systems offered commercial and residential construction services, including ceilings, “acoustical solutions,” flooring, and paint. Juan Enriquez was a Marek project manager. Id. at *1. It does not appear that Enriquez signed any non-compete.

Enriquez did two typical things before resigning from Marek to run his own business. First, he formed an LLC, JP Acoustics and Drywall. Second, he sent a Marek customer list to his personal email address.

Let’s pause here for just a moment. Neither one of these things is necessarily wrongful, but both are a bad idea.

Under Texas law, it is not a breach of an employee’s limited fiduciary duty to make plans to compete with his employer. This can even include forming the entity the employee plans to use to compete. See Fiduciary Duty Lite: What Employees Can and Can’t Do Before Leaving.

But employees, why would you want to do this? Forming an LLC is relatively quick and easy. You can do it the day after you resign, and that’s one less thing for the employer to complain about.

Likewise, sending a company customer list to your personal email address is not necessarily wrong. In most businesses, it’s not unusual for employees to email or transfer company documents to their personal devices or accounts for work at home or on the road. This often happens, even when the company prohibits such personal use on paper. So, if a salesman emails himself an open orders list every week, it’s less suspicious if he does so the week before leaving, and if everybody at the company knows employees sometimes do this.

But again, unless you’re certain you will stay with the company until retirement, why would you do this? You should keep in mind Wolfe’s First Law of Trade Secrets Litigation: whatever company information the employee takes on the way out the door will be the alleged “trade secrets” in the company’s subsequent lawsuit.

Enriquez’s third mistake was naming the company “JP Acoustics and Drywall.” I would have called it “JP Drywall . . .” An “acoustics” company sounds like it has trade secrets; a “drywall” company doesn’t.

But let’s get back to the legal issues. Marek claimed that Enriquez’s email included confidential contact information for Marek’s customers and “proprietary notes” about the customers. Id. at *1. One of Marek’s customers was Muckleroy and Falls, id. at *1, which sounds like a business in a Frank Capra movie. Both Marek and JP Acoustics did work for Muckleroy and Falls after Enriquez left Marek. Id. at *4.

Marek claimed that Enriquez was using Marek’s confidential information to advance his business. Id. at *1. Marek sued Enriquez and JP Acoustics, claiming misappropriation of trade secrets, as well as breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with contract, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Marek asked for an injunction to stop the defendants from doing business with any company that was a customer of Marek during the 12 months before Enriquez resigned. Id. at *2.

Marek claimed it spent years accumulating the customer information, and that it made diligent efforts to ensure the secrecy of its customer information, including restricted access to facilities, computer passwords, and disclosure to employees only on a “need to know” basis. Id. at *4.

The defendants responded that the customer information was readily available online or in the Yellow Pages. Id.

So was Marek entitled to a trade secrets injunction?

Let’s pause again to note that this is about as plain-vanilla a soft trade secrets case as you are going to find. You could have said to me “drywall manager leaves company, company files trade secrets suit,” and I could have guessed the essential facts (except maybe the name of the customer). So the outcome of the case may tell us something about how courts deal with typical customer list cases.

The federal district court judge said no, Marek was not entitled to an injunction.[1] First, the court said that the claims for breach of fiduciary duty and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act were based on conduct that occurred before termination of employment, any resulting damage was “readily quantifiable,” and therefore there was no threatened irreparable harm. Id. at *3. For the authoritative explanation of these concepts, see Injunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

Then the court turned to the claims of trade secrets misappropriation and tortious interference with contract. Illustrating Wolfe’s First Law, Marek claimed that its trade secrets were the customer information Enriquez emailed to himself.

But the court was not persuaded. It started by quoting the Trilogy Software case:

“[I]nformation that a firm compiles regarding its customers may enjoy trade secret status under Texas law.” Trilogy Software, Inc. v. Callidus Software, Inc., 143 S.W.3d 452, 466 (Tex. App.—Austin 2004, pet. denied) (citations omitted). “But this does not mean that trade secret status automatically attaches to any information that a company acquires regarding its customers; if it did, it would amount to a de facto common law non-compete prohibition.” Id. at 467. “Before any information can be a trade secret, there must be a substantial element of secrecy.” Id. (citation omitted). Secrecy requires that the information “is not generally known or readily ascertainable by independent investigation.” Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted). “It is the burden of the party claiming secrecy status to prove secrecy.” Id. (citations omitted).

If this sounds familiar, it might be because I discussed this case in my post When is a Customer List a Trade Secret?

Marek failed to persuade the court that the customer information was not “readily ascertainable.” The court cited several things missing from Marek’s case:

  • Marek did not provide the court with the email attachments containing the alleged trade secrets.
  • Marek did not describe the nature of the “proprietary notes” or why they should be considered proprietary information.
  • Marek did not offer specific facts to support its allegation that it “spent years accumulating” the customer contact information.

Id. at *4.

Maybe Marek should have seen it coming. The same judge had denied a TRO two months earlier in Computer Sciences Corp. v. Tata Consultancy Servs. Ltd., No. 3:19-cv-970-L, 2019 WL 2058772, at *3-4 (N.D. Tex. May 9, 2019), finding there was no evidence the emailed confidential software source code was actually shared with software developers.

But let’s not be too quick to fault Marek’s counsel. The deficiencies in Marek’s evidence seem obvious, but maybe the email attachments were not that helpful to Marek’s case. Perhaps the proprietary notes were not that proprietary. Perchance there were no more specific facts to be offered. Or maybe there was just not enough time to get the evidence needed.

And even if Marek had proven the customer information was a trade secret, there was another big hole in Marek’s evidence: proof of some nexus between the use of the alleged trade secrets and loss of sales to customers. (Picture Marek saying “Causation!” the way Jerry Seinfeld says “Newman!”)

The court said Marek did not allege that Defendants outbid Marek for any particular job or otherwise took Muckleroy and Falls business from Marek. Rather, both parties were servicing Muckleroy and Falls “to neither’s detriment and without direct competition.” In the absence of evidence that the defendants were injuring Marek’s business relationship with the customer, the court said, it could not find that Marek was substantially likely to suffer an irreparable injury due to the defendants’ contact with the customer. Id. at *4.

Injunction denied.

Nevertheless, the story had a happy ending. The parties later signed this Agreed Injunction that barred Enriquez and JP Acoustics from initiating new business with a list of specified customers.

And the Marek case provides lessons for both employees and employers in trade secrets cases.

Employees:

  • DON’T form an LLC for your future competing business any sooner than you really need to.
  • DON’T send company documents to personal devices or email accounts, even for valid reasons.
  • DON’T take customer lists when you leave. Is it really that hard to find the customers? (If so, the list might actually be a trade secret.)
  • If you take a customer list, DO show that the information in it is readily ascertainable.
  • If you do something you shouldn’t have before leaving, DO argue that it can be compensated with damages, so no injunction is warranted.
  • DO watch my video Dumb Things Employees Do Before Leaving a Company for similar tips in convenient audiovisual form.

Employers:

  • DO offer the misappropriated confidential documents as evidence, under seal if necessary.
  • DO specifically explain why the customer information is valuable and not readily ascertainable.
  • DO try to offer evidence that the employee has actually used the confidential information to take specific customer business from you (I know, this is often easier said than done).
  • DON’T expect to get an injunction merely because an employee has taken confidential company documents.
  • DO watch my video Smart Things Companies Can Do to Protect Confidential Information.

Finally, whether you’re an employee or employer, do get advice from a lawyer as early as possible, preferably one with experience handling departing employee disputes. That might help you avoid the common mistakes above. In the words of another John Goodman character, “Donny you’re out of your element!”

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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.

[1] To be precise, the court construed the motion for preliminary injunction as a motion for temporary restraining order, denied a TRO, and set a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

Does the Amended TCPA Still Apply to Departing Employee Lawsuits?

Does the Amended TCPA Still Apply to Departing Employee Lawsuits?

I know what you did last summer

They say that breaking up is like knocking over a coke machine. It’s just not going to happen on the first push. This is also true of my attempt to break up with the Texas Citizens Participation Act, or “TCPA.”

A quick recap: I fell in love with the TCPA when Texas courts started applying its broad definitions so broadly that you could file a motion to dismiss in just about any kind of lawsuit, as long as the claims had something to do with a “product or service in the marketplace.” That included departing employee lawsuits, the focus of my practice.

I’ll admit, it was a toxic relationship, one the Texas legislature probably never intended.

Then the backlash came. The Texas legislature, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Dallas Court of Appeals conspired to sabotage our relationship. See Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over: Texas Legislature Takes All the Fun Out of the TCPA.

The legislature dealt the cruelest blow. Last summer it amended the TCPA to carve out most claims based on non-competes and trade secrets. See Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 27.010(a)(5).

Like a meddling parent, the legislature was determined to keep me and the TCPA apart. How am I supposed to file a TCPA motion to dismiss a departing employee lawsuit if the statute doesn’t apply to non-compete and trade secrets claims anymore? That’s my bread and butter.

Keep hope alive

But wait. There is hope. Breach of non-compete and misappropriation of trade secrets are not the only claims made in departing employee lawsuits. As I explained in my viral YouTube video What Are the Key Legal Issues in a Departing Employee Lawsuit?, breach of fiduciary duty is another common claim when an employee leaves a company to work for a competitor.

Does an employee really owe an employer a fiduciary duty, the highest common-law duty known to man? Well, sort of. For a brief explanation, see Fiduciary Duty Lite: What Employees Can and Can’t Do Before Leaving.

The typical theory in a departing employee lawsuit is that the employee, while still on the company’s payroll, schemed with others to compete with the company. If the employee crosses the line into actually competing with her employer, that can be a breach of the employee’s limited “fiduciary” duty to the employer.

There’s no exemption in the amended TCPA for claims of breach of fiduciary duty, and Texas courts have applied the statute to such claims. See, e.g., O’Hern v. Mughrabi, 579 S.W.3d 594, 603-4 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2019, no pet. h.) (TCPA applied to suit making single claim of breach of fiduciary duty); Elite Auto Body LLC v. Autocraft Bodywerks, Inc., 520 S.W.3d 191, 194, 205 (Tex. App.–Austin 2017, pet. dism’d) (TCPA applied to claims against former employees including breach of fiduciary duty).

So if you’re on the defense side of a departing employee lawsuit, you may not be able to file a TCPA motion to dismiss the non-compete and trade secret claims, but you could still file a TCPA motion to dismiss the breach of fiduciary duty claim. And even if that motion is denied, you get an interlocutory appeal.

This is especially important when the employee doesn’t have a non-compete. Proving that the employer’s information was a trade secret can be difficult, so in cases without a non-compete, breach of fiduciary duty is sometimes the employer’s strongest theory.

Hey, I just met you

Still, my loyal Fivers know that carving out non-compete and trade secrets claims was not the only change the legislature made to the TCPA last summer. The legislature also changed the definition of “matter of public concern.”

The previous definition of “matter of public concern” was the match that lit the prairie fire that swept across Texas litigation. That definition covered communications about a product or service in the marketplace, which meant just about any kind of lawsuit.

But House Bill 2730 reigned in that broad definition, making these changes:

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Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 2.48.46 PM.png

Is this new definition of “matter of public concern” broader or narrower?

Before, the definition included an issue related to a product or service in the marketplace. That prong of the definition covered a potentially wide range of lawsuits, but its language was fairly specific.

The new definition, in contrast, is vague to the point of being tautological. The statute now effectively defines “matter of public concern” to include “a subject of concern to the public.” Wow, thanks for that clarification, Texas legislature.

So does a claim for breach of a former employee’s breach of fiduciary fall under the new definition of matter of public concern?

And this is crazy

Here’s the argument that it applies. Let’s say a salesman decides he’s not happy with his job. He starts talking with some co-workers, or maybe with a competitor, about leaving the company and forming a new venture that will compete for the company’s customers. Then he starts talking to his customers about it. Maybe he even tells his customers to delay their orders until after he leaves.

Arguably, those communications are about competition in the salesman’s industry, which is a matter of interest to the community and a subject of concern to the public. So if the employer claims breach of fiduciary duty based on these communications, you could argue the TCPA applies.

The counter-argument says this is just too much. If “matter of public concern” is construed to include competition between two private companies, one could argue, then the TCPA would still apply to almost everything. That can’t be what the legislature intended.

That’s essentially what the Dallas Court of Appeals said about the previous version of the TCPA. In a series of decisions, the Dallas court reigned in the scope of the TCPA by holding that communications between private parties about doing business are not matters of public concern, despite the broad “product or service in the marketplace” language that was in the statute. The Fort Worth Court of Appeals took a similar view. See Metroplex Courts Push Back on Broad Application of TCPA.

It’s a safe bet those courts will take the same approach to the TCPA’s new definition of a matter of public concern. They are likely to reject the argument that an employee’s communications about competing with his private employer are a subject of concern to the public just because there is a general public interest in free competition.

But other courts may be more receptive to the argument. The Austin Court of Appeals and the Houston Court of Appeals took more of a “plain meaning” approach to the earlier version of the TCPA. That’s how the TCPA got applied to non-compete and trade secrets claims in the first place. See A SLAPP in the Face to Texas Trade Secrets Lawsuits.

So call me maybe

If you take a similar plain meaning approach to the new definition of matter of public concern, there is at least a reasonable argument that the definition applies to communications about competing with an employer. So, if an employer sues a former employee for breach of fiduciary duty based on the employee’s alleged scheme to compete with the employer, the employee should at least consider filing a motion to dismiss the claim under the TCPA.

I’ve prepared a sample motion that does just that.

*MASSIVE LAWYER DISCLAIMER: Every case is different, and this sample motion is just an idea for Texas litigators to consider; I’m not necessarily endorsing it, and non-lawyers should consult with qualified counsel about these issues.

Keep in mind, the plaintiff can defeat the TCPA motion by offering evidence that the employee owed a fiduciary duty, the employee breached the duty, and the breached caused damages.

But that can be a real hurdle for the employer. Whether the alleged conduct of the employee constitutes a breach may present a legal question for the judge. And even when there is evidence of a breach, it is sometimes difficult for the employer to show the breach caused actual compensable damages. (Another lurking issue is that the fiduciary duty claim may be preempted by the trade secrets statute, but I’ll save that for the “advanced” course.)

Bottom line: filing a TCPA motion to dismiss a breach of fiduciary duty claim in a departing employee lawsuit will sometimes be a good strategy for the defense.

Some will think it crazy to apply the TCPA to a claim against an employee for breach of fiduciary duty. But is it any crazier than the cases that applied the earlier version of the TCPA to departing employee litigation? As discussed above, the new definition of matter of public concern is arguably just as broad as the old definition.

Plus, this may shock you, but sometimes employers use contrived claims of breach of fiduciary duty to try to punish or bully employees who exercise their right to leave the company and compete freely. Isn’t that the kind of claim the TCPA is supposed to prevent?

If so, maybe I’m not so crazy to consider getting back together with the TCPA. The statute promised me it has changed its ways, so maybe I’ll give it one more chance before I finally tip over that coke machine.

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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.

 

Jurassic Non-Competes

Jurassic Non-Competes

Do Ancient Cases Hold the Secrets to Understanding Present-Day Texas Non-Compete Law?

“Non-compete abuse” is a hot topic. The press says some employers now require even rank-and-file employees to sign non-competes. The Jimmy Johns case was perhaps the low point. You’re going to make sandwich makers sign non-competes. Really? Are they going to run off with the secret bread-slicing techniques? Misappropriate goodwill from Jimmy Johns and take it to Quiznos?

Here’s another case I recently read about that just goes too far. The Patterson Institute, a small music school in Hillsboro, Texas, hired young Bill Crabb to teach piano, organ, violin, mandolin, and banjo, as well as music theory, harmony, and history. Crabb signed a 10-month employment contract, which included a non-compete barring him from teaching music in Hillsboro if he quit the job.

Then tension developed between Crabb and the Institute’s senior music teacher, Mary Rice. Crabb quit and opened a small music school of his own in Hillsboro. The Patterson Institute filed suit and obtained a temporary injunction, but the trial court dissolved the injunction after a trial.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statute prohibiting restraints of trade did not apply. The court reasoned that it would be inequitable for Crabb to teach at an independent school in Hillsboro, that the statute did not bar the restrictive covenant, and that the Institute was entitled to an injunction. The court cited Gates v. Hooper, in which the Texas Supreme Court held that a non-compete in the sale of a business was not an illegal restraint of trade.

But enforcing a non-compete against a small-town music teacher? This is just too much. The Texas legislature should do something about this kind of non-compete abuse.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for Mr. Crabb. You see, his case was decided in 1899. See Patterson v. Crabb, 51 S.W. 870, 871-72 (Tex. Civ. App. 1899).

But his case is a good reminder that non-competes have been around for a long time. By comparison, the Texas non-compete statute is relatively young. It just celebrated its 30th birthday in September.

I’ll confess that, even as a lawyer who has read a lot of Texas non-compete cases, I usually don’t pay attention to case law that predates the 1989 statute. But the statute was largely intended to codify Texas common law on non-competes (or at least parts of it). So, many of the issues found in older cases are still relevant.

Here’s a chronological sampling of some principles in older Texas non-compete cases that still apply today.

1. Texas courts generally favor non-competes in the sale of a business.

Gates v. Hooper, 39 S.W. 1079, 1080 (Tex. 1897), was the case cited in Patterson v. Crabb. It’s the oldest Texas non-compete case I have found so far. (If you find an older one please email me.) You can tell it’s an old case because the opinion is short but the paragraphs long.

This was the Gilded Age when monopolistic “trusts” were a major concern. But the court in Gates upheld a one-year non-compete in a contract for the sale of a mercantile business in Batesville. The court held that the non-compete was not a prohibited “trust” or “combination” because the transaction did not combine the capital, skill, or acts of the parties into any kind of “union, association, or co-operative action.” Id. at 1080-81.

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That was it. Nothing about reasonableness. But it set a precedent favoring non-competes in the sale of a business.

2. Non-competes are uniquely and primarily about protecting goodwill.

The two most common justifications for non-competes are (1) protecting a company’s goodwill and (2) protecting a company’s confidential information.

Reading between the lines, we can imagine both issues were present in Patterson v. Crabb. The opinion is pretty thin on reasoning, but we can assume the Patterson Institute established goodwill with its customers, i.e. its students. We can also assume that Mr. Crabb knew the students, knew the tuition they were paying, and could use that knowledge to set his own school’s tuition just low enough to “undercut” the Institute.

But there’s a fundamental difference between these two interests. There are multiple areas of law that protect an employer’s confidential information. See The Matrix: Making Sense of the Patchwork of Employee Confidentiality Duties.

In contrast, there is really only one legal mechanism to protect goodwill: a non-compete.

And a non-compete always has two fundamental problems. First, it hurts customers. If Mr. Crabb can’t teach music in Hillsboro, the students in Hillsboro may have only one place to go. Second, a non-compete can prevent someone from making a living doing the thing they do best. It doesn’t seem right to force Mr. Crabb to either move out of Hillsboro or change careers.

3. Non-competes should not restrain the right to earn a living.

These problems are not new. Over a hundred years ago, in Miller v. Chicago Portrait Co., 195 S.W. 619 (Tex. Civ. App.—San Antonio 1917, writ ref’d), Mr. Miller signed an employment contract with Chicago Portrait Company, which was in the business of enlarging photographs into portraits. The contract contained a one-year non-compete. Id. at 619.

The Court of Appeals reversed an injunction issued by the trial court. As to confidentiality, the court noted there was “no evidence of trade secrets connected with inducing people to have their photographs magnified into portraits and placed in expensive frames.” Id. at 620.

As to goodwill, the court distinguished between a contract for the purchase of a business and an employment contract, citing an employee’s interest in earning a living:

Courts will not favor contracts that would drive a man out of Texas to seek occupation in a business, with which he is perhaps better acquainted than any other, or put him in another business for which he is not trained or suited. This is a different case from the sale of a business induced by a contract not to engage in a similar business in a named locality in a specified time. The contract in this case is aimed at the right to obtain employment in a similar business. It is an attempt to restrain the right to earn a living.

Id. at 621.

So yes, there is a legitimate interest in protecting goodwill, but that interest must be weighed against an employee’s right to earn a living (and to stay in Texas), especially where no real trade secrets are involved.

Today, the Texas non-compete statute does not expressly refer to the employee’s interest in making a living, but that interest is embedded in the statute’s key concept: reasonableness.

4. Reasonableness is the key to non-compete law.

Given the competing interests at stake in any non-compete dispute, the fuzzy standard of “reasonableness” is critical.

The idea of measuring the enforceability of a non-compete by its reasonableness made an early appearance in Texas law in Randolph v. Graham, 254 S.W. 402 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1923, writ ref’d). In that case, Dr. Randolph sold his medical practice to Dr. Graham, who agreed not to practice medicine within a 20-mile radius of Schertz, Texas. Id. at 402.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s temporary restraining order enforcing the non-compete. The court first cited the policy in favor of enforcing non-competes tied to the sale of a business, reasoning that “professional men” or “skilled artisans” ought to be able to sell the goodwill of their businesses, and invoking “liberty and freedom of contract.” Id. at 402-3.

But the court implicitly recognized the limits of freedom to contract by then addressing the reasonableness of the restriction. The court cited cases from other jurisdictions holding that a contract in restraint of trade is unreasonable and void when it is unlimited in time and space. While the non-compete at issue was unlimited in time, it was limited to the Schertz area, and the court found that limitation sufficient to make the non-compete reasonable and enforceable. Id. at 403-4.

This would not be the last time that parties argued about whether the scope of a Texas non-compete was reasonable.

5. Reasonableness means a non-compete injunction should do no more than necessary to protect the goodwill the employee developed for the company.

By 1925, the essential elements of early Texas non-compete law came into focus, as illustrated by City Ice Delivery Co. v. Evans, 275 S.W. 87 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1925, no writ).

That case involved an employment contract between a driver and an ice delivery business in Dallas. The business divided its territory into districts, assigning each district to an employee. The contract prohibited the driver, Mr. Evans, from engaging in the ice business within the territory covered by his route, or within five squares of his route. Id. at 88-89.

By this time, the court said it was the “settled law” of Texas that a contract for the sale of a business may include a non-compete reasonably necessary to protect the purchaser’s interest in the goodwill of the business. Id. at 89.

But did the same principle apply to an employment contract? Looking to authorities outside Texas, the court found that non-competes in employment contracts should be governed by the same principles:

The test generally applied to determine the validity of such a covenant in a contract of employment depends upon whether or not restraint placed upon the employé after employment has ceased is necessary for the protection of the business or good will of the employer, and whether it imposes on the employé any greater restraint than is reasonably necessary to secure protection to the business of the employer or the good will thereof. If the covenant in question goes no farther than to accomplish this purpose, it is generally held to be valid.

Id. at 90. (NB: An “employé” is an employee who speaks French.)

In short, like a non-compete in the sale of a business, a non-compete in an employment contract is governed by the related principles of reasonableness and necessity to protect goodwill.

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Thus, the court said, the burden is on the employer to establish both the “necessity for” and the “reasonableness of” the non-compete. Applying this principle to the employer’s claim for an injunction, the court said that the evidence clearly established the necessity of the non-compete as to the immediate territory where Evans delivered ice to the company’s customers. Id.

But there was no such necessity for the five squares outside of his territory, the court reasoned, because the company had no goodwill outside of the employee’s territory that was due to the employee’s “personal contact” with the trade while in service of the employer. Id.

This critical principle is sometimes ignored but still applies today. An injunction should extend no further than necessary to protect the goodwill that the employee developed on behalf of the employer.

Seven years later, the Dallas Court of Appeals would cite City Ice Delivery and other cases and distill the essential requirements of Texas non-compete law as follows:

(1) Is the restraint placed upon the employee, after the employment had ceased, necessary for the protection of the business or good will of the employer?

(2) Does it impose upon the employee any greater restraint than is reasonably necessary to procure protection to the business of the employer or the good will thereof.

Martin v. Hawley, 50 S.W.2d 1105, 1108 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1932, no writ).

This language is strikingly similar to the language the legislature would use over 50 years later in the 1989 non-compete statute. The court also cited the general principle that “contracts restricting the liberty of employment are not viewed by the courts with favor.” Id. at 1108.

Thus, even back in 1932, we can clearly see the two competing considerations: protect the employer’s goodwill to the extent necessary, but without unduly restricting employee mobility. The dividing line is what is reasonably necessary to protect the employer’s goodwill.

6. Generally Texas courts will enforce an unreasonable non-compete to a reasonable extent.

While the basic reasonableness concept took shape in Texas cases as early as the 1930s, it was not entirely clear what a Texas court was to do if a non-compete was unreasonably broad.

This issue was implicit in City Ice Delivery, where the court enforced the non-compete only in part, to the extent of prohibiting competition in the driver’s immediate territory. Later the Texas Supreme Court addressed the issue more directly in Lewis v. Krueger, Hutchinson & Overton Clinic, 269 S.W.2d 798 (Tex. 1954).

In that case, young Dr. Lewis signed an employment contract with a clinic that barred him from practicing medicine in Lubbock County if his employment ceased. The trial court found the non-compete entirely unenforceable because it had no time limitation. The Court of Appeals disagreed but reduced the limitation to three years. Id. at 798-99.

Dr. Lewis argued the court could not make a new and different contract for the parties, but the Texas Supreme Court rejected this argument. Even though the non-compete could be interpreted as applying for life, “it would hardly be doing violence to the established principles to hold that the restriction is merely void or unenforceable with respect to that portion of the time beyond what the court considers reasonable.” Id. at 799-800.

This “blue pencil” rule allows the court to effectively rewrite the non-compete, and it still applies today. Enforcement of a non-compete is not all or nothing in Texas. Generally, if the non-compete is unreasonably broad, it can still be enforced, but only to a reasonable extent.

7. You can’t get damages for breach of an unreasonably broad non-compete.

But what about damages? Can the employer get damages for the employee’s breach of a non-compete that’s unenforceable as written?

The Texas Supreme Court addressed this issue in Weatherford Oil Tool Co. v. Campbell, 340 S.W.2d 950 (Tex. 1960). Citing Martin v. Hawley, the court said the non-compete as written was unreasonable because it had no territorial limitation. Then, citing Lewis, the court said an injunction could still be granted to restrain the employee from competing within a reasonable area. Id. at 952.

But the court said a claim for damages was not available prior to reformation. “We hold that an action for damages resulting from competition occurring before a reasonable territory and period have been prescribed by a court of competent jurisdiction must stand or fall on the contract as written.” Id. at 953. In other words, if the employer drafts a non-compete that is too broad, the employer can still seek an injunction, but it can’t get damages that occur before the court narrows the scope of the non-compete.

The Texas Supreme Court later clarified that the court’s power to reform the non-compete applies to both time and area. Justin Belt Co. v. Yost, 502 S.W.2d 681, 685 (Tex. 1974).

The Weatherford rule concerning damages was later codified in the 1989 statute. Five years later, Jimmy John’s started franchising. And the rest is history.

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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. Be sure to follow the Five Minute Law Facebook account, if anybody still uses Facebook.

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.

What is “Hearsay” Anyway? Tips for Lawyers and Non-Lawyers

What is “Hearsay” Anyway? Tips for Lawyers and Non-Lawyers

Early in my legal career, I worked on a couple big embezzlement cases. In both cases my firm represented the embezzle-ee, not the embezzle-or (are those real words?). And in both cases, the core evidence of the embezzlement was hearsay.

“Hearsay” has been in the news a lot lately. It’s kind of the evil twin of another term getting a lot of play: “direct knowledge.” Hearsay and direct knowledge are not exactly opposites, but you could say they are two sides of a coin.

As a trial lawyer with at least a basic understanding of the hearsay rule, I cringe when people use terms like “hearsay” and “direct knowledge” without really understanding what they mean.

But we lawyers mustn’t carp too much. “Hearsay” has an ordinary meaning in popular discourse that doesn’t pretend to match the legal definition of hearsay. When an ordinary person says that information is hearsay, they just mean it’s secondhand knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with using the word “hearsay” in that ordinary sense—in theory.

Plus, even lawyers have a hard time with the legal definition of hearsay. I doubt the average non-litigator lawyer could give you a good definition. Even some litigators might struggle to explain it. And in my experience, even the average trial court judge doesn’t have a firm grasp of the hearsay rule.[1]

So what is hearsay? The legal definition is simple: an out of court statement offered for the truth of the matter asserted.[2]

But there’s a lot wrapped up in that definition. Plus, as any Law and Order fan knows, there are exceptions to the hearsay rule. More about that later.

The “out of court statement” part is not too difficult. Let’s say I’m trying to prove that Dawn Davis embezzled money from her former employer, Paula Payne Windows. I call Paula Payne, the owner of the company, to the stand. “Ms. Payne,” I ask, “how do you know Ms. Davis forged those checks?” “Because my bookkeeper told me she saw Ms. Davis do it,” she answers.

In this case, it’s an “out of court” statement, meaning the bookkeeper is not there testifying to the statement she made. Instead, it’s Payne testifying about the bookkeeper’s statement.

And notice something else: Payne does not have direct knowledge, i.e. “personal knowledge,” that Davis forged the checks. She only has “secondhand” knowledge. That’s the connection between hearsay and direct knowledge.

In this case, it is clear that the statement—“I saw Davis forge the checks”—is offered for the truth of the matter asserted. Payne is trying to prove that Davis forged the checks. The statement is that Davis forged the checks. So, the statement is offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

But trust me, the “truth of the matter asserted” is where the hearsay rule gets hard. It’s the part that even some judges and lawyers struggle to understand. And that’s before we even get to the exceptions.

Let’s start with a relatively easy example where a statement is not offered for the truth of the matter asserted.

“Ms. Payne,” I say, “please take a look at Plaintiff’s Exhibit 10, is that an email from Ms. Davis to your bookkeeper?” “Yes,” Payne says. “What did Ms. Davis say in the email?” I ask. “She said can you please take care of getting the attached invoice paid,” Payne answers.

Here, the statement in the email is clearly an out of court statement. But is it offered for the truth of the matter asserted?

It depends on what I’m trying to prove. Let’s say that the point is to prove a scheme to submit fraudulent vendor invoices on behalf of a company that Davis secretly owned. In that case, I am not offering the email for the truth of the matter asserted. If anything, I’m offering Davis’s statement in the email to prove the opposite of what it asserts.

So in this case, if opposing counsel says “objection, hearsay,” the judge should say “overruled.”

Harder Cases

But it’s not always this easy. Sometimes, a statement is offered both for the truth of the matter asserted and for another purpose.

Let’s say I’m trying to prove that Davis secretly accepted a job offer from Paula Payne’s fierce competitor, Real Cheap Windows. “Mr. President of Real Cheap Windows,” I say, “what did Ms. Davis say to you when you offered her a job at your company?” His response: “she said yes I would like the job.”

“Yes I would like the job.” That’s an out of court statement. But is it offered for the truth of the matter asserted? Well, yes. And no.

On the one hand, I am trying to prove that Davis wanted the job and accepted the job offer. So the statement is hearsay, right?

No, not really. Here’s the thing. It’s not a question of whether the statement “I would like the job” is true or not. The relevant fact is that Davis accepted the job offer.

As my law school Evidence professor used to say, it’s a case where the “saying of the words” itself, not the truth of the words said, is significant. You could also call this a “verbal act.” Some older court opinions tend to call this sort of statement res gestae (“things done”).

Another way to put it: the statement is not hearsay because the probative value of the statement does not flow from the speaker’s belief in the truth or falsity of the statement.

Confused yet? That’s ok. It’s a subtle distinction.

And, frankly, it’s one that a lot of judges may struggle to grasp. Picture this:

Me: What did Ms. Davis say when you offered her the job?

Opposing Counsel: Objection, hearsay.

Me: Your Honor, it’s not hearsay, it’s a verbal act. 

Judge: Verbal act? What exception is that?  

Me: Uh, that’s not really an exception per se. It’s just that the statement is not hearsay because, well I’m not so much offering it to prove the truth of the matter asserted. 

Judge: You’re not offering it to prove she accepted the job?

Me: Well yes, your Honor, I am trying to prove she accepted the job, but . . .

You get the idea. It’s hard enough to explain this subtle distinction. It’s even harder in the heat of a courtroom battle, especially when opposing counsel is happy to contribute to the judge’s confusion.

Luckily, in this case there is an easier way out of the problem. I could simply say “it’s an admission by a party opponent, your Honor, an exception to the hearsay rule.”

This leads me to my Hearsay Practice Tip for lawyers: If a hearsay exception clearly applies and is easy to explain, argue the exception first, rather than trying to make a subtle argument about the “truth of the matter asserted.”

Hearsay Exceptions 

I promised we would get to the exceptions.

But first, there is a slight complication. There are two different types of hearsay exceptions. First, there are exceptions that are defined as “not hearsay.” If they are not hearsay in the first place, then you might say they are not “exceptions” at all, but let’s not be pedantic. Second, there are exceptions for certain types of statements that are admissible, even though they are hearsay.

For simplicity, let’s just call both types hearsay “exceptions.”

I once made it a goal to memorize all of the hearsay exceptions. I count 31 of them in the Federal Rules of Evidence and 30 in the Texas Rules of Evidence (they are largely the same).

My heart was in the right place, but this was not an efficient exercise. I mean, it’s great to know that there is an “ancient documents” exception to hearsay, but over 90% of the time there are only a handful of hearsay exceptions a litigator needs to know.

You can probably get by with a thorough understanding of just three of the hearsay exceptions:

  1. Impeachment with prior testimony (like a deposition)
  2. Admission by party opponent
  3. The “business records” exception

You can look up the other exceptions when needed, or memorize them if you are really nerdy. But these three should be second nature to any litigator.

The first one, impeaching the witness with prior testimony, is a trial lawyer’s bread and butter. I probably don’t need to say much about it, although the rule has some little twists and turns that are worth checking.

Admission by Party Opponent

I shouldn’t have to say much about the second exception either, but maybe I need to anyway. I once had a trial where I offered an email from the opposing party’s president to an agent of my client. Opposing counsel jumped up and objected, “hearsay!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought to myself. “Your Honor, this is an email from Mr. X as a representative of the company,” I said, “it’s an admission by a party opponent.”

“What exception is that?” the judge said. And this was not a new judge.

It took some discipline for me not to roll my eyes. Instead, I flipped open my Texas Rules of Court to Rule of Evidence 801. “Here it is, Rule 801(e)(2)(A), the statement is offered against an opposing party and was made by the party in an individual or representative capacity.”

Lawyers with trial experience know that exception should have been obvious to the judge. Maybe I was just being tested. And to the judge’s credit, the objection was overruled.

The Business Records Exception

Then there is the business records exception. The actual words are “records of a regularly conducted activity,” but everyone calls it the business records exception. It has a four-part definition they made us memorize in trial advocacy class, but the definition is pretty abstract. It’s easier to give examples: monthly bills, bank statements, receipts, invoices, etc.

Documents like these are admissible “business records” when they are “kept in the course of a regularly conducted business activity” and making the record was a “regular practice.”[3] Documents like these are routinely admitted in evidence even though they are hearsay. (But remember, just because they are admitted doesn’t mean they have to be accepted as true.)

In practice, the business records exception is the most formulaic hearsay exception. It leads to two rituals. First, the lawyer going through the four-part definition with a witness on the stand to “prove up” the business records. Second, the pretrial “business records affidavit,” a signed and notarized statement from a records custodian reciting the four elements of the definition and swearing that the 8,000 pages of attached records meet all those elements.

In both cases it is rare that the witness really has personal knowledge of how each record was generated. But everybody kind of “looks the other way.” Opposing counsel usually doesn’t want to be a jerk and object, knowing you could pull the same move when she offers her business records. And most judges don’t require proof of the business records exception that is truly based on personal knowledge.

That’s probably the way it should be, especially when it is obvious that the documents at issue meet the exception. If it’s the type of document that is clearly a business record—like a monthly bank statement—no time should be wasted going through the elements of the exception. It’s not the time to pull a “gotcha” and suddenly become a stickler for “personal knowledge.”

Direct Knowledge

Personal knowledge, which is essentially what people mean by “direct knowledge,” is important, but sometimes you have to rely on hearsay.

Imagine the owner of Paula Payne Windows gets a call from an anonymous tipster. “Paula, you don’t know me, but I’ve got some important information I feel I need to share with you. I have a friend who heard from someone who has reason to know, and that person said that Dawn Davis has been embezzling thousands of dollars from your business every month. You should probably look into it.”

What is Payne going to say? “I appreciate your call, Mr. Tipster, but I can’t rely on this information, because it is clearly hearsay. I’m not going to accuse someone of stealing based on secondhand information.”

No, obviously, that is not what Payne is going to do. She’s going to investigate this serious allegation to find out if it’s true.

So Payne calls Davis into her office the next day. “Dawn, I hate to ask you this, but I received an anonymous tip that you’ve been stealing money from the company. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“That’s hearsay!” Davis says. “That person doesn’t have any direct knowledge that I embezzled money from you.”

This response does not exactly inspire confidence. Wouldn’t you expect Davis to deny the tipster’s allegation, if it wasn’t true?

Which leads me to my Practical Tip for lawyers and non-lawyers alike: Don’t confuse courtroom rules of evidence with practical rules of life. People reasonably rely on “hearsay”—or secondhand knowledge—to make important judgments about business, politics, and life in general all the time.

Of course, testimony based on personal knowledge is generally more reliable than hearsay or other secondhand information. But it’s not everything.

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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.

[1] This is not really a problem, because of course most trial court judges are above average.

[2] More precisely, hearsay is “a statement that: (1) the declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and (2) a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement.” Fed. R. Evid. 801(c); Tex. R. Evid. 801(c).

[3] Rule 803(6).