I thought of the great successes my clients and I have had this year. I began the year arguing in the Third District Appellate Court, site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, on a non-compete judgment entered in favor of my client, a former staffing industry sales employee, after a bench trial. Work then pivoted to a monster appeal in the Second District, which recently affirmed a bench trial judgment in our favor and affirmed a nearly $1.5 million fee award under corporate indemnification procedures. We now have pending, again in the Third District, a discretionary, interlocutory appeal on an issue of contract interpretation concerning non-competes. We are hopeful that this case, too, will establish precedent and continue to move the ball down the field of rationality.
In the trial courts, my work was no less significant. And again, our results--for awesome clients--continued to be great. We successfully dismissed an inevitable disclosure action in Illinois state court, with a factual and procedural context so utterly inane and bereft of competence that I cannot do it justice. But I tried, in my blog post "38 Minutes of Hell," which garnered a lot of classic feedback.
June and July were consumed with one of the truly weirdest cases I'll ever see, a replevin claim in Cook County Circuit Court, where we prevailed in a bench trial. Next, we headed to the East Coast and defeated a preliminary injunction in the Delaware Court of Chancery, following a failed business acquisition. This time, too, the merits were a real head-scratcher, with the plaintiff pursuing a claim based on a no-hiring clause that limited our ability to hire employees of the potential target company. Problem: we hired an independent contractor. Once again, we see litigation as an ex post attempt to strike a business deal that the parties never adopted. That lawsuit's in the ditch now.
Then we stepped into a federal non-compete and trade secrets case that had been pending for several months. After getting subbed in for defense counsel, I read the file and concluded rather quickly that this case, too, was purely abusive. We then immediately contacted non-party witnesses, obtained statements that undermined the plaintiff's claim of breach (and trade secrets theft) in toto, and served our initial evidence disclosures. You could almost hear the plaintiff back-pedal, as it filed a motion to dismiss the case with prejudice, conditioned of course on the "with each party to bear its own costs and fees." Ain't that easy, partner. We moving for fees. May not get 'em. But we tryin'.
We're now in yet another one of these cases, with similarly weak facts from the plaintiff's perspective. And as I'm litigating that one, I can't help but feel we're reaching an inflection point on non-compete cases. What I continue to see is canned pleadings and complaints, invoking the same shop-worn phrases about what it is the plaintiff is trying to protect through covenants both broad and narrow. What is missing from many such cases is a deconstructed analysis of these interests and how the enforcement action is designed to protect them from an unfair competitive threat.
In the main, these business interests sound reasonable and decent. Customer relationships and confidential information, though, are interests only protectable if the facts justify market-distorting protections. I believe that, in opaque industries not intuitively familiar to the average person, the notion of "customer relationships" can be awfully difficult to deconstruct and analyze. Put another way, the term (or the asserted interest girding the restrictive covenants) quickly gets disaggregated from the actual, relevant facts.
Business-to-business relationships, which are what most non-competes are designed to protect, are complex. The question, for instance, of who a customer even is can be iterative, not obvious. Furthermore, we live in an era (call it the post-Industrial era, since no one knows what else to call it) where businesses are becoming more and more fragmented and specialized. This is what I wrote on LinkedIn last week:
...Extreme market fragmentation within industries means that companies once deemed "rivals" now operate in a manner adjacent to, not competitive with, each other. Contractual restrictions on competing in the "same or similar line of business," once thought acceptable, now fail to account for this macroeconomic shift towards hyper-specialization....
I stand by that and think that we need to keep this in mind when assessing whether to file suit and how to defend a suit.
What I see in non-compete cases is this. Plaintiff recycles a complaint with a very nice series of allegations about customer relationships. Those allegations have no fit whatsoever to the industry they happen to be litigating. A trial judge operates under a familiar framework, constrained by time and resources, all the while failing to grasp the nuances of the business that is the subject of the dispute during an emergency hearing. The allegations may be enough to get a plaintiff a few first downs. But ultimately they get three holding penalties in a row, the punter fumbles the ball, and the team is totally blown out by halftime. (As a Chicago Bears fan, the analogy seemed obvious and temporally appropriate.)
So what is my point? The protectable interest question is really, really important. It is not nearly enough to rest on the laurels of past pleadings that survived a motion to dismiss and that invoke the black-letter principles we all now know. What is demanded is a strong look at just how the defendant, who signed a restrictive covenant, can move business in a manner that deprives his ex-employer of a fair chance to compete for the business on an even playing field. After hashing out a number of different tests, standards, or formulations, I think this is the inquiry for whether enforcement of a reasonably drafted non-compete is permissible to protect customer relationships. Anything broader restrains fair competition in the market, despite what the contract says.
To be sure, some industries are more susceptible to allowing enforcement. But many come nowhere close. I guess what I'm saying is this: I'm not tired of non-compete lawsuits. I'm tired of crappy non-compete lawsuits. And I'm absolutely done with lazy lawyering.
As I often do, I checked out Russell Beck's Fair Competition Law and learned Pennsylvania legislators have proposed a California-style ban on non-competes. The text of House Bill No. 1938 is available here. Of more interest, candidly, was Russell's hat-tip to a recent article published by Norm Bishara and Evan Starr, The Incomplete Noncompete Picture. Bishara and Starr conclude that some basic questions are left unanswered by empirical research. One area that seems to be problematic for researchers is the ability to track employees over time, in terms of their job advancement and wage rates. And if you think about it, incentives for these employees may change.
For early-stage employees, they are very likely to change jobs and face advancement constraints posed by non-competes that they are unable to litigate. They have, and should have, very coarse feelings about them. But over time, they may change their mind, particularly if they are entrepreneurial and can benefit from restrictive covenants imposed on others.
Finally, for this year, I thought the Sixth Circuit's opinion in Hall v. Edgewood Partners Ins. Center, Inc., No. 17-3744, is well worth a read for practitioners and laypersons alike. It addresses a rather common question I face regarding assignability of employee restrictive covenants following an asset sale. I will not deconstruct or case-summarize here, but I do provide a link to Judge Thapar's eminently readable opinion on an issue that is often misunderstood and extremely important to get right.
With that, I bow out for 2017. See you in a week or so. And thanks again for reading!
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