Court of Chancery Indicates It May Strike – Not Reform—Overly Broad Non-Compete Clause

When enforcing covenants not to compete, Delaware has long been viewed as a “reformation” state – meaning that when faced with an overbroad covenant, Delaware law allows the court to reduce the scope of the covenant and enforce it to the extent that the court deems reasonable. This view has developed among the lower courts in a number of decisions, but has never been fully addressed by the Delaware Supreme Court.

However, as we noted in an earlier article, it is important to make certain the restrictive covenant you draft is reasonable both in its scope and duration. Employers should not count on a court to “reform” a poorly drafted restrictive covenant that is overly broad or vague. A recent case from the Court of Chancery demonstrates why.

In the case of Delaware Elevator, Inc. v. John Williams, No. 5596-VCL (Del. Ch. March 16, 2011), the plaintiff-employer sued its former employee alleging a violation of the employee’s non-competition agreement. Because the employee admitted that he had engaged in conduct that violated the terms of the non-competition agreement, the only question before the Court was whether the non-competition agreement was overly broad, and therefore unenforceable.

The non-competition agreement at issue had both a non-competition and a non-solicitation provision, each of which restricted the employee’s conduct for 3 years after he left his employment. The non-competition provision prohibited the employee from competing with the employer within 100 miles of its Newark, Delaware office. Under the non-solicitation provision, the employee was prohibited from soliciting any customer who had been a current or prospective client of the employer during the last 6 months of the employee’s employment.

The employee resigned his position with the employer in 2010. Shortly thereafter, the employer discovered that he was competing within 100 miles of the Newark Office, and that he was using a customer list that he developed while he was employed by the employer. When the employee refused to cease and desist, the employer brought suit, seeking to enjoin his violation of the agreement.

The non-competition agreement included a Maryland choice-of-law provision, so the Court’s analysis was conducted under Maryland law. After determining that the 3-year, 100-mile restriction was overly broad, the Court was faced with the question of whether to strike or reform the provision. The Court concluded that Maryland law required reformation under the blue pencil rule. However, the Court declared that it would have handled the question differently under Delaware law.

The Court stated that reformation of overly broad contracts puts an employer in a no-lose situation. If the agreement will be enforced to some lesser extent even if overly broad, an employer has no incentive to draft a reasonable provision in the first place. The Court also noted that for every employee who challenged the provision, others would choose not to, thereby harming consumers and interfering with labor and product markets.

The Court was further troubled by the disparity in bargaining power between low and mid-level employees and their employer. Where such employees are involved, the Court noted, there is no real choice as to whether to sign the non-competition agreement. Moreover, even if there were a choice, most employees do not have the savvy or access to legal advice to bargain effectively. As a result, the Court noted that Delaware law might require that an unreasonable restrictive covenant be struck in its entirety.

While the Court’s statements regarding Delaware law are dicta, they provide a strong indication that overly broad restrictive covenants might not be enforced in any manner by the Delaware Court of Chancery. As a result, employers should exercise caution when drafting non-competition agreements. These agreements should consider, among other things, (1) the employee’s relative position within the company, (2) the extent of the employee’s business-related contacts, (3) the employee’s establishment within the field of business and the surrounding community, and (4) the realistic possibility of relocating or working outside of the geographical scope of the restrictive covenant. As an employee’s position within the company and access to customers and trade secrets increases, so does the employer’s ability to restrict his competition and solicitation of current and prospective customers.

By Scott Holt and Lauren Moak

Contact Information