Friday, January 4, 2013
Let's Start Year 5: Amazon.Com Loses Preliminary Fight Over Non-Compete Agreement
In mid-2012, Daniel Powers was terminated from his position with Amazon.com as a vice-president in Amazon Web Services. This is not the Amazon.com we all know and love. It was a segment that the retail consumer does not see and dealt with Amazon's effort to sell cloud computing services to businesses.
Powers, like most Amazon.com employees, signed a broad non-competition agreement that contained a number of restrictions. When Google hired him several months after his departure, it limited his job role to avoid any potential problems with Amazon.com. Nonetheless, it seems clear he was providing cloud computing services to Google, even if the parties disputed whether Google's products actually competed with those offered by Amazon.com.
After Amazon.com filed a preliminary injunction motion, a federal judge in Washington granted it very limited relief to enforce only that part of the contract that forbade Powers from working with Amazon.com's business customers. It did not enforce a broader non-compete restriction and found that Amazon.com had not submitted evidence to support an "inevitable disclosure" of trade secrets theory.
From my perspective, there are two interesting elements to this opinion.
First, the court specifically found that there was no evidence that Powers had intended to violate the customer non-solicitation covenant. Yet, it enforced it anyway by way of injunctive relief. This was a mistake. It is unclear to me how Amazon.com could establish a likelihood of success on this claim if there is no evidence of breach. The court's rationale was that Powers resisted the preliminary injunction motion, which suggests he might want to solicit his former business customers. But this proves too much, because any party could then go into court and base its request for an injunction solely on the fact that its opponent contests the motion.
Second, the court seemed to suggest that this non-solicitation covenant gave Amazon.com the protection it needed, and that a further ban on employment (the non-compete covenant) was not necessary. This is best summed up in the following passage:
"[Amazon's] ban on working with former customers serves to protect the goodwill it has built up with specific businesses. A general ban on Mr. Powers' competing against Amazon for other cloud computing customers is not a ban on unfair competition, it is a ban on competition generally."
When a business aims to protect customer goodwill, often times a general non-compete stretches too far. As the Powers court recognized, a customer non-solicitation is often the right fit to protect this interest.
The case is Amazon.com, Inc. v. Powers, C12-1911 (W.D. Wash.). A copy of the Order and Opinion on Amazon.com's preliminary injunction motion is contained below.
Amazon.com v. Powers - Order