Lawyers deal with rules that are substantive and procedural.
For the most part, substantive rules - those governing the merits of a claim - contain some flexibility. That is particularly true in non-compete cases, where the flexibility is a direct reflection on the fact-specific nature of each dispute. Bright-line rules don't work as well because they are subject to manipulation. That is, they run counter to the idea that judges must rule on each case according to the facts presented.
Procedural rules, however, benefit from rigidity. Take the rules concerning time limits on when a party must file a case or respond to discovery. Without bright-line standards, there are no rules for how to conduct the litigation. The whole system becomes a game.
One area of procedural law that is smartly inflexible is appellate jurisdiction.
For many years, courts have noted that clear jurisdictional rules are essential. The Supreme Court, for its part, has worked in recent years to eliminate holes in old case law suggesting that some cases are "practically" or "effectively" final for appeal purposes.
Rules of appellate jurisdiction are crucial in non-compete disputes. Why? Most cases are practically decided at the preliminary injunction stage. In federal court, a grant or denial or injunctive relief affords the litigants a right to appellate review, even if the action itself may result in a damages trial down the road. This basis for appellate jurisdiction - known to lawyers as an "interlocutory" appeal - is crystal clear and provided for by statute.
Not all State court systems follow the federal rules, of course. In Illinois, rulings on temporary restraining orders are immediately appealable. Not so in federal court. One particularly odd rule, though, comes from North Carolina.
There, appeals from interlocutory orders - which preliminary injunctions are, because they are not "final" - are allowed only if they deprive the appellant of a "substantial right that will be lost absent review before final disposition of the case."
North Carolina's rule, as applied to preliminary injunction orders, is hard to square with the common-sense proposition that, above all, jurisdictional rules must be clear to lawyers and litigants.
What, for instance, is a "substantial right"?
That issue has led to some strange decisions involving non-compete cases. For instance, the North Carolina appellate courts have found that bona fide non-competition clauses that bar work in an industry rise to the level of a "substantial right." But they also have found that restraints on working with customers (non-solicitation covenants) do not meet this standard. The idea is that these activity-based restrictions do not prevent a person from earning a living. They merely limit it.
But what if the individual's customer contacts are her stock in trade - the way she makes her living? How is an appellate court to make that decision in the context of a jurisdictional inquiry? In fact, a 2015 case called A&D Environmental Services v. Miller noted this very problem. The court dismissed an employee's appeal from a preliminary injunction order, which limited his work with certain customers. The rationale was that the order only limited his right to earn a living but did not prevent him from doing so. In a footnote, the court then stated the problem with this approach: "We do not suggest that an injunction which merely prevents a person from working with a defined group of customers could never affect a person's substantial rights."
Good luck figuring that out when deciding whether to appeal.
I have no idea why North Carolina courts would embrace such an odd jurisdictional regime, where the appellate court must examine the substance of an injunction order to evaluate the "substantial right" argument and then determine whether the appeal from that order was jurisdictionally sound. The court's work, by that point, is already done. Why not rule on the merits? The obvious danger in avoiding the merits is that by the time the case reaches true finality, the non-compete will by over and therefore moot.
Strangely, North Carolina's appellate jurisdiction analysis may actually incentivize employers to seek narrower relief. If an employer, for instance, has two different restraints to enforce, why go for the broader non-compete if you can foreclose immediate appellate review by enforcing through a preliminary injunction only a non-solicitation covenant? This decisional process, of course, depends on the strength of the evidence and what the employer is trying to protect. But the current appellate jurisdiction case law would seem to discourage enforcement of broader, market-based restraints against salespersons whose value to a third-party employer lies in her customer contacts.
To be sure, that is an odd way for appellate courts to handle non-compete cases and injunction orders. Jurisdictional rules - as opposed to substantive ones - are meant to provide firm, clear guidance. North Carolina's framework does anything but.