Friday, February 26, 2016

When Bankruptcy Law Collides with Non-Compete Obligations

Non-compete proceedings for most employees are daunting undertakings. For that reason, most non-compete disputes get litigated in the "shadows," outside of reported court decisions.

And as any attorney representing an employee knows, the possibility of bankruptcy looms should litigation go poorly. Many employees are generally aware that a bankruptcy suit stays (or puts a stop to) other litigation. Although this can alleviate pressure in debt-collection suits, a stay is by no means a safe harbor when it comes to non-compete disputes.

That is because a creditor can file a lift-stay motion in bankruptcy court, which would allow it proceed against an employee for enforcement of the restrictive covenant. Like many other areas of non-compete law, this one too is somewhat opaque and not governed by a clear, bright-line rule. Generally, a bankruptcy court must balance the hardship to a creditor (i.e., employer) if it is not allowed to proceed with the lawsuit against the debtor. It also must consider prejudice to the debtor, the debtor's other creditors, and the bankruptcy estate itself.

A seminal case from 1984, In re Curtis, sets out twelve separate factors that bankruptcy judges must consider when ruling on a lift-stay motion. Those factors are:

(1) Whether relief would result in a partial or complete resolution of the issues;

(2) Lack of any connection with or interference with the bankruptcy case;

(3) Whether the other proceeding involves the debtor as a fiduciary;

(4) Whether a specialized tribunal with the necessary expertise has been established to hear the cause;

(5) Whether the debtor's insurer has assumed responsibility for defending the case;

(6) Whether the action involves primarily third-parties;

(7) Whether litigation in another forum would prejudice other creditors;

(8) Whether the judgment in another action is subject to equitable subordination (!?!);

(9) Whether the movant's success in the other proceeding would result in a judicial lien avoidable by the debtor;

(10) Judicial economy;

(11) Whether the parties in the other proceeding are ready for trial; and

(12) The impact of the stay on the parties and the balance of harms.


It is important to remember that ongoing compliance with a non-compete is not dischargeable in and of itself, even if defending against the injunction would be costly. But still, an employer must show "cause" under Curtis to lift the stay and seek an injunction. The best argument for relief is that a denial of relief will moot any contract rights the employer has, because non-competes only last a short period of time (usually 6 months to 2 years). Conversely, an employee normally contends that the enforcement will hamper his ability to perform under a plan of reorganization (assuming a Chapter 13 case).

These are difficult interests to reconcile, and for that reason, bankruptcy courts will look to determine the likelihood an employer will prevail in a separate proceeding, and whether a non-compete injunction proceeding was well underway before the bankruptcy filing. Employees should not assume that bankruptcy court provides a safe have to avoid an injunction proceeding, as even that question is so fact-specific that it is difficult to predict accurately how a lift-stay motion will be resolved.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The "New" Defend Trade Secrets Act Gets an Important Revision

Congress is on the verge of agreeing on something.

While it may not be health care reform, a solution to illegal immigration, or taxes, it is agreement nonetheless. Count the little victories.

So what's the agreement? Landmark legislation affecting trade secret rights. The Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 is upon us, now voted favorably out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There is no word yet on when the House of Representatives may consider the legislation or when a floor vote in the Senate may occur. But getting out of committee was a big deal.

The Judiciary Committee also approved two amendments to the DTSA, some of which are technical but one of which appears vitally important. In the proposed section on Remedies, the DTSA provides that a court may grant an injunction to prevent any actual or threatened misappropriation of a trade secret, provided that the injunction "does not prevent a person from entering into an employment relationship, and that conditions placed on such employment shall be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows."

The language, offered in the way of a substitute to the original legislation appears to be a firm rebuke of the so-called "inevitable disclosure" doctrine, which has divided courts across the country. Most attorneys feel there is a fine line between threatened disclosure of a trade secret, and "inevitable" disclosure. In all likelihood, that fine line rests on some indicators of bad faith, which could include facts like misleading a former employer about future plans or deleting e-mails outside the ordinary course of business.

The inevitable disclosure doctrine is badly overused and serves a crutch for employers to bring anti-competitive lawsuits. In reality, the contours of the doctrine should be exceedingly narrow to begin with and the doctrine only should apply to a narrow slice of cases. It always should be the exception, not a default theory of misappropriation.

The presence of this limiting, substitute language could have a profound impact on how and whether employers use a federal statute. For those who seek to bring weak claims founded on the shaky inevitable disclosure doctrine, federal courts may not be so welcoming after all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Non-Competes

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...

--"A Tale of Two Cities," by Charles Dickens (1859).

Perhaps (er, certainly) this is a little dramatic, but this is what I thought of after reading two recent preliminary injunction rulings in non-compete disputes. One comes from Ohio, the other from Minnesota. And they produce results you might not expect given the facts.

The first is Independent Stave Co. v. Bethel, in which the district court partially enforced a broad non-compete agreement against a log buyer, who made less than $100,000 per year. The agreement contained a geographically unlimited non-compete restriction. The court found the employee inherently credible. There was no evidence the plaintiff lost any business, or that the employee misappropriated anything. Yet, the court issued a broad injunction, even if it was not quite what the employer sought.

The second case is Wells Fargo Ins. Svcs. v. King, where a federal court in Minnesota addresses a narrow customer non-solicitation covenant, finds that the employee solicited all his largest accounts, and determines he was in blatant breach of his contract. And in that case, the court refuses to enforce the restrictive covenant, finding money damages adequate and that an injunction would do nothing to cause the "stolen" clients to revert to the employer.


So what to make of this? Non-compete disputes are inherently fact-specific and are not susceptible to easy classification. What may be important to one judge is not necessarily of interest to another. In the King litigation, the judge may have been convinced that the presence of the new employer in the case would provide the plaintiff a deep-pocket in which to satisfy a money judgment. Perhaps in the Bethel case, the court felt it was narrowing the agreement in such a way to craft a middle-ground option for the employee while protecting the ex-employer.


Although this list is not complete, here are a number of A-list factors that may influence a court's decision to award an injunction in a non-compete dispute:

1. Witness credibility (and in particular the employee's good-faith conduct apart from the issue of "breach).

2. Constructing a compelling narrative during an evidentiary hearing, so that the presentation is a story rather than an accumulation of evidence.

3. Whether the degree and impact of competition within the relevant market is explained and understood.

4. The ability to describe actual, as opposed to speculative, harm.

I have written on each of these topics many times, and no doubt there are many more. And it also bears repeating that in about 60 percent of cases that go to an evidentiary hearing, the plaintiff ends up prevailing on at least one of the major issues in the case. But at a micro level, as King and Bethel show, reconciling the outcomes can be awfully difficult.