It has been a while since I surveyed new reported decisions. So over the next few weeks, I'm going to summarize very briefly some of the cases I've seen that piqued my interest. The topics are varied, which is kind of the point.
Non-Recruitment Clauses in Georgia
Georgia courts have proved to be tough venues when it comes to enforcing restrictive covenants. The prevailing rule of non-severability (for older agreements) generally means that an unenforceable restrictive covenant will void other similar covenants, even if they (standing alone) might be considered reasonable.
But as the Court of Appeals in Georgia recently noted, this non-severability rule does not apply to non-recruitment/no-hire provisions that bar employees from soliciting co-workers. Simply put, those types of restraints to do not rise to the upper tier of restrictive covenants. And so a void non-compete will not invalidate a reasonable no-hire clause. Other courts in other States seen to equate no-hire clauses with more restrictive covenants.
The case is CMGRP, Inc. v. Gallant, and it's written by Twitter star Chief Judge Stephen Dillard. A link to the opinion can be found here.
Seventh Circuit Discusses Sale of Business Non-Compete Dispute
The Seventh Circuit hears about one or two non-compete cases per year. They generally involve questions of Indiana, Illinois, or Wisconsin law. And those States have non-compete laws that are interesting and nuanced.
But E.T. Products, LLC v. D.E. Miller Holdings, Inc. did not require the court to delve much into substantive State law (here, Indiana) because the case hinged on whether certain activity amounted to a breach of the non-competition clause. The case involved a business acquirer's attempt to enforce a sale-of-business non-compete against the seller, after the seller rendered post-closing assistance to the acquirer's distributor. The court found that the seller's conduct did not amount to prohibited competition, saying that "a firm whose sole conduct in the relevant market consists of distributing one manufacturer's product plainly isn't that manufacturer's competitor." The court also noted the seller terminated its relationship with the distributor and rendered no assistance at all once the distributor began competing on some product lines. The facts, as the court recited them, amply demonstrated the defendant's good faith and intent to adhere to the non-compete. The pursuit of the case appeared to be vast overreach.
The opinion, written by Judge Diane Sykes, is available here.
The Protocol for Broker Recruiting and "Good Faith"
Those of us who represent advisory firms and financial advisors have a good deal of familiarity with the Protocol for Broker Recruiting. But many don't. The Protocol's design is to foster client choice, a recognition of the intensely personal nature of the advisory relationship. More broadly, the Protocol represents an industry solution to expensive, uncertain non-compete litigation - in effect, a contractual way around flexible legal standards being applied by judges who generally lack deep knowledge of particular industries.
The Protocol's basic tenets allow an advisor to avoid liability if she takes client information to her departing firm (generally, it must be related to those clients she serviced and the information must be provided to her firm on departure). If followed in good faith, the employee will not be bound by any contractual restrictive covenant or held liable under trade secrets law pertaining to the taken (and disclosed) client information and subsequent solicitation efforts of those clients.
The term "good faith" is a bit nebulous and fact-specific. If an employee engages in bad faith, the she cannot avail herself of the Protocol and courts default back to any signed agreement the employee has. The district court decision in UBS Financial Svcs., Inc. v. Fiore, No. 17-cv-993, 2017 WL 3167321 (D. Conn. July 24, 2017), contains a lengthy discussion of good faith in the context of advisor departures. Ultimately, it found that despite some wrongful behavior, the defendants did not forfeit the Protocol's protections since their notice was proper and they took only information pertaining to their client lists. The court focused on the fact that UBS still had all the information it needed to contact the same clients.
In the past, courts have found that the Protocol did not apply when employees took information beyond what was allowed, altered information in a client database, or deleted contact information in a work e-mail account. Like most good-faith inquiries, each case turns on its facts. The Fiore decision is interesting and well worth a read because it is not particularly clear cut factually. The departing defendants complied with the Protocol in the most crucial ways but still did some things that appeared designed to hinder UBS' ability to retain its wealth-management clients.
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