Non-Compete and Trade Secret News for the week ended February 24, 2017
Overbroad Non-Competes in Virginia
This week's first two updates could be called a Tale of Two Non-Competes.
A federal district court in Virginia ruled that an employee's non-compete agreement, ancillary to a stock option award, was unenforceable because of its overly broad geographic scope. This case illustrates the perils of linking a restrictive covenant to customers or markets about which an employee has "confidential information." For starters, that may require a court to assess how the agreement treats that defined term - a notorious plot of unruly thatch.
But additionally, a restrictive covenant that is drafted this way often lacks objective parameters. In NVR, Inc. v. Nelson, the covenant's geographic term extended to areas "from which [the employee] received...Confidential Information." Because he received information digitally and since there was no way to tell from where the information originated, the non-compete was overbroad. A copy of the opinion denying the employer's temporary restraining order motion is available here.
Preliminary Injunction in New Jersey
The employer fared better with pursuing injunctive relief in Menasha Packaging Co. v. Pratt Industries, a New Jersey case in which the district court applied Illinois law. This dispute stems from the movement of three ex-Menasha employees to Pratt Industries during the period in which Menasha's client, Mondelez, had put up a packaging contract for bid. Unlike the NVR case, the competition and the immediate threat to Menasha were more tangible and apparent from the record. Menasha also sought very limited enforcement of the restrictive covenant, despite some dispute about whether the contract was facially overbroad. The court enjoined the employees' work with Mondelez, on Pratt's behalf, for the 18-month non-solicit term. The case illustrates the wisdom of narrowing the dispute and seeking relief that is directly tailored to the conduct in question. A copy of the New Jersey' court's preliminary injunction opinion is available here.
Non-Competes in Bankruptcy
The United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois held in United Providers, Inc. v. Pagan that a claim for intentional breach of contract is dischargeable in bankruptcy. The breach arose from the debtor's alleged violation of an employee no-hire agreement in the medical billing field.
The nondischargeability provision of the Bankruptcy Code for "willful and malicious" injuries, Section 523(a)(6), requires that the breach of contract also give rise to an independent tort claim (e.g., breach of fiduciary duty, trade secrets misappropriation). And even then, a court's finding of nondischargeability is not guaranteed. The court's opinion makes sense because many breach-of-contract scenarios give rise to an economically efficient result, regardless of whether the employer likes it or feels as if it has been the victim of a maliciously designed plot. Only if the underlying conduct is intended to produce a harmful result will a viable nondischargeability argument arise. The opinion is available here.
One of the more interesting trade-secret filings in a long time comes from the Central District of California, where Songkick has amended its suit against Live Nation Entertainment and Ticketmaster to allege trade secrets theft. The 91-page Complaint is quite a read, but the pertinent allegations of trade-secret theft appear to rest on a departed executive's misappropriation of thousands of documents in order to benefit Ticketmaster's "Artist Services" division, which is now known as OnTour. Consumers may be familiar with this type of service, since it promotes ticket pre-sales, fan clubs, and more direct fan engagement. Songkick's trade-secret theft allegations bolster a more robust antitrust claim against Live Nation, which vigorously has disputed the veracity of the accusations.
For those interested in exploring the data concerning non-competes' impact on wages and mobility, please see the University of Michigan Working Paper entitled Locked In? The Enforceability of Covenants not to Compete and the Careers of High-Tech Workers. The paper details a number of interesting conclusions, including that technology workers in higher enforcement states (think Florida) earn lower wages than their counterparts in lower enforcement states (think California). This at least seems to support the notion that employers do not share the marginal gains from non-compete regimes with their existing employees, a theoretical justification many on the pro-enforcement side frequently offer.