Saturday, May 5, 2012

Case Law and Non-Compete News Update

Some interesting news stories and cases to report on this week.

News Stories

A couple of years ago, FLIR Systems engaged in an ill-advised trade secrets action in California which resulted in a substantial fee award to the defendants under a theory of bad faith. Now, the defendants are going after FLIR's counsel in that case, Latham & Watkins, on a malicious prosecution theory of liability. Apparently, the genesis of the claim against L&W arose when the plaintiffs (that is, the defendants in the original trade secrets case) discovered FLIR was invoking the "advice of counsel" defense. There a number of interesting procedural issues which could come out of this, including the possibility that L&W may have a SLAPP defense under California law. Epstein Becker & Green discusses the case.

In this author's opinion, counsel should not be granted an absolute privilege for bad faith or malicious litigation if they act as a mere instrumentality for their client.

John Marsh discusses the high-profile dispute between sports agent Aaron Mintz and Priority Sports Entertainment, a battle taking place in California over a non-compete apparently governed by Illinois law. Given California's clear public policy on non-competes, there certainly will be questions whether the choice-of-law clause is valid. Mintz joined CAA, which represents NBA stars LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and others. Priority Sports is headed by Mark Bartelstein, a graduate of the University of Illinois and a resident of suburban Chicago. Some salacious details of the suit can be found here.

Reported Cases

The Tennessee case of ProductiveMD, LLC v. 4UMD, LLC, 821 F. Supp. 2d 955 (M.D. Tenn. 2011), contains a good discussion of the "same proof" standard to determine trade secrets preemption. This standard essentially examines whether proof of a non-trade secrets claim would also establish a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets. If the answer is yes, the claim is preempted. Most frequently, the same proof test will jeopardize claims of common law unfair competition, unjust enrichment, breach of the duty of loyalty (at least in part), and civil conspiracy. To my knowledge, Hawaii is the only other state which has adopted the "same proof" test of preemption.

Grace Hunt IT Solutions, LLC v. SIS Software, LLC, 2012 Mass. Super. LEXIS 40 (Sup. Ct. Feb. 14, 2012), discusses the Massachusetts rule which voids non-compete agreements if there has been a "material change" in the employment relationship. The rationale for this rule is that a material change equates to a brand new employment relationship, which requires a new non-compete to be signed. An example of a material change would be a reduction in compensation. Interestingly, in the Grace Hunt case, the court discounted the employer's point that the reduced compensation could be made up through bonuses, because the evidence equivocated over whether those bonuses could realistically be achieved.

Franchise non-competes are usually enforced, as demonstrated by Outdoor Lighting Perspectives Franchising, Inc. v. OLP-Pittsburgh, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53583 (W.D.N.C. Apr. 17, 2012). As I have noted on this blog before, the interests to be protected under franchise covenants are different than those in an employment contract, even though most franchise covenants are non-negotiable. The interest is not only business goodwill, but protection of the franchise system itself. Often times, the court will examine the interests of third-parties, other franchisees, who need protection. The case was interesting in one respect, however. The non-compete extended to a 100-mile buffer around the ceded franchise territory and other franchisees' territories. This was too broad, almost by definition, and the court cut it back to eliminate the 100-mile buffer language. However, the court did state that the restriction on competition within other franchisees' territories was reasonable.

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