Thursday, October 17, 2013

So, What Is a "Solicitation"?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get when advising clients is deceptively complex:

What does it mean to solicit a client?

On its face, this probably sounds like it should be an easy question to answer. However, it's really not. Since courts are hesitant to enforce broad non-compete agreements (particularly as to sales persons), many disputes hinge on the applicability of a customer non-solicitation covenant. The scope of those covenants can range from the very broad to the much narrower, both in terms of the type of activity prohibited and the customers covered by the prohibition.

A broad non-solicitation covenant reads something like this:

Employee agrees for a period of one year not to solicit, contact, or provide services to a Restricted Customer for the purpose of providing Competitive Products.

A narrow non-solicitation covenant usually reads this way:

Employee agrees for a period of one year not to solicit or entice away a Restricted Customer for the purpose of providing Competitive Products.

The difference between the two is that the narrow covenant does not prohibit so-called "passive" solicitation, where a client reaches out to the employee. As a practical matter, these more narrow covenants lead to just as much litigaton because most times an employer won't know who contacted who. But it will justifiably be concerned about the fact the employee is continuing to work with the client. It only will be able to discover what actually happened through the litigation process.

In these cases involving narrower covenants, the issue of breach often hinges on whether the employee actually solicited the customer, or whether the customer sought out the employee. The First Circuit's recent opinion in Corporate Techs., Inc. v. Harnett illustrates a common fact-pattern and rejected a bright-line "initial contact" test. In that case, the ex-employee's new company sent out a blast announcement that piqued the curiosity of a targeted group of customers that happened to fall within the terms of the employee's non-solicitation covenant. Upon receiving that announcement, customers started contacting the ex-employee.

The court specifically noted that "initial contact" is somewhat amorphous and "can easily be manipulated" depending on the facts of a particular case. This is particularly so with businesses where the selling cycle is long, such that the initial contact would be "unlikely to bear fruit in the absence of subsequent solicitation." It had little trouble affirming a preliminary injunction that enforced the non-solicitation covenant.

The takeaway from cases like Harnett is that employees must understand that the issue of "solicitation" is intensely fact-laden and that it's awfully hard to play cute and end-run the contract. Courts will need to consider how employees typically communicate with customers, and whether the employee set in motion a chain of events designed to lead to contact by the customers themselves. Targeted announcements are an obvious invitation to cause a customer to contact the employee and present a fairly easy case for determining that a solicitation has occurred. Even more problematic are personal e-mails, LinkedIn invitations to connect, and other one-on-one activity that suggests an effort to continue a business relationship.

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