The unfortunate reality of many non-compete lawsuits is that the parties face a vast asymmetry in legal resources. While individuals suing companies in court is hardly a novel concept, an individual usually stands something to gain - money - if she wins. A non-compete defendant is in no such similar position.
As a result, bankruptcy looms as a potential "option" for defendants in a good percentage of non-compete cases. Most defendants don't realize that there's a significant chance that a damages award may not even be dischargeable, though this depends on a host of factors. Blanket statements or conclusions can't be made.
Another vexing issue is a company's ability to pursue injunctive relief to protect customer goodwill or confidential information, even if a non-compete defendant has filed a bankruptcy petition. The most obvious step for companies to take is to file a lift-stay motion. This refers to the fact that all litigation against a debtor is "stayed" (or halted) once he or she files a petition.
Bankruptcy laws serve to relieve an honest debtor from the weight of his financial obligations and give him a fresh start in business life. Injunctive relief, though, is not a matter that impacts the administration of a bankruptcy estate, so courts often confront a company's attempt to lift the stay so that it may seek to pursue an injunction and protect against the loss of customers or trade secrets. Because damages are difficult to prove, injunctive relief still is the preferred remedy for most non-compete plaintiffs.
Since bankruptcy laws do not give a debtor a shield to misappropriate assets or customer relationships, under what circumstances will a court grant an employer's lift-stay motion and allow it to proceed forward with its case outside of bankruptcy?
There are several factors courts have examined in the past, though there is no uniform set of rules:
(1) Likelihood of success - This seems rather obvious, but it poses serious challenges for bankruptcy judges. If a bankruptcy judge weighs in on the merits (even if it's not a decision or judgment), then there is a substantial risk that the court hearing the underlying dispute will be influenced by another judge's thoughts. This is a particularly acute concern when the non-compete case is in state court.
(2) Prejudice to debtor - The most obvious hardship is the cost of litigation. However, in the past, bankruptcy courts haven't found that this practical reality is a significant prejudice factor that would justify a denial of relief.
(3) Prejudice to the estate - In a garden-variety employee matter, the bankruptcy estate rarely has an interest in the non-competition covenant. Put another way, the contract is not an estate asset.
(4) Harm to the moving party - In the decisions addressing lift-stay motions, most courts find that the potential harm to the ex-employer (i.e., loss of customers or impairment of trade secret rights) is the most important factor to consider. Courts seem receptive to the notion that it is impermissible to use the bankruptcy laws offensively to continue violating unexpired restrictive covenants.
It also is important to keep in mind that considerations of lifting a stay are different in Chapter 11 or 13 cases when enforcement of a covenant not to compete may affect a debtor's ability to reorganize and earn income. However, in a typical Chapter 7 case, a bankruptcy court is unconcerned with a debtor's ability to generate post-petition earnings because those earnings are not estate property.
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