Monday, April 4, 2011

"Reasonableness" of Non-Compete Must Be Examined In Totality (Delaware Elevator, Inc. v. Williams)

As readers know, a non-compete's enforceability depends on whether it is reasonable under the law. The idea of reasonableness is multi-layered. In most states, a court must consider time, territory, activity limits, impact on the employee, and impact on the public.

Vice Chancellor Travis Laster of the Delaware Court of Chancery wrote one of the best, most well-reasoned opinions I have seen on a non-compete case the past several years. He weaved in and out of timeless legal doctrines and contemporary economic choices that employers and employees make. He also excoriated the blue-pencil doctrine as a boondoggle that encourages poor draftsmanship.

But the most important part of the case centers on how courts should assess reasonableness. Laster favors a cohesive approach where a court examines time, territory and other restrictions of a covenant to determine how they work in combination. In short, Laster states: "All else equal, a longer restrictive covenant will be more reasonable if geographically tempered, and a restrictive covenant covering a broad area will be more reasonable if temporally tailored." He is one of the few judges who emphasize this point.

Laster likely is aware of how lawyers play the reasonableness game. Parse out one term of the agreement, cite a case that holds it is reasonable, and move on to the next point. This is fundamentally the wrong approach. A court needs to examine how the factors operate together, not in a vacuum.

Laster is relatively new to the Court of Chancery, having ascended to the position in 2009. Already, he is viewed as energetic, smart, and willing to challenge lawyers. Any case by Judge Laster is already persuasive precedent.

An excellent article on Judge Laster can be found here


Court: Court of Chancery of Delaware, New Castle
Opinion Date: 3/16/11
Cite: Delaware Elevator, Inc. v. John J. Williams, 2011 Del. Ch. LEXIS 47 (Del. Ct. Ch. Mar. 16, 2011)
Favors: Neutral
Law: Maryland

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