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.

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