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August 6, 2014

Drafting Enforceable Non-solicitation Agreements

Significant time, money and resources often goes into developing client relationships. To protect these relationships, more companies are requiring managers and other employees who have significant contact with clients to sign non-solicitation agreements.

However, requiring an employee to sign a non-solicitation agreement and being able to enforce that agreement are two completely different matters. Customer non-solicitation agreements, like traditional non-compete agreements, are considered restraints on trade, and thus most courts, including those in Delaware, will enforce them only if they are “reasonable.”

Courts will traditionally assess the reasonableness of a non-solicitation agreement by evaluating the scope of the restriction as it relates to three factors: 1) the employer’s interest in protecting its business; 2) the employee’s right to work and earn a living; and 3) the public’s interest in free trade and competition. What follows are four points to consider when drafting a non-solicitation agreement under Delaware law.

Be Clear About What You Are Trying to Protect

The most widely recognized protectable interest is the goodwill a business has cultivated with its customers. Delaware courts recognize that a company has an interest in protecting its client relationships against misappropriation by departing employees. This is particularly true where the employee had significant personal contact with the clients.

But employers often overlook a second interest that merits protection. Courts have recognized that companies have a right to protect their confidential information by prohibiting former employees from soliciting clients. In these instances, courts may restrict a former employee from soliciting business from customers even if that employee had no direct contact, so long as the employee gained significant knowledge or understanding of those customers during his or her employment.

An important consideration for this rule is that the information must be of such confidential nature it would give the former employee (and his new employer) and unfair competitive advantage. As a general rule, confidential information would not include general knowledge or skills the employee acquired during his employment or information that is available to the public through other sources.

Set a Reasonable Time Period

In order to be enforced, non-solicitation agreements must have a reasonable time limit. This is often interpreted to be a period no longer than that which is needed for the company to rebuild its customer relationships. The determination of whether a time period is reasonable is fact specific and must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

In some instances, it may be that a period of several months is reasonable for a company to put a new employee on the job and demonstrate his/her effectiveness to the customers. If the selling or servicing of the relationship is relatively complex, a longer period may be justified.

Courts in Delaware have in general presumed that restrictions of two years or less are reasonable, unless circumstances demonstrate otherwise. Longer periods may be necessary to protect the business, particularly if the former employee had access to confidential information which could provide a competitor with an unfair competitive advantage for many years following the employee’s departure.

Avoid the "I Didn't Solicit Them; They Called Me" Defense

A common defense invoked by former employees accused of violating a non-solicitation agreement is that they did not “solicit” the customer. In many cases, an agreement will prohibit employees from "soliciting" customers without defining the term "solicit." In such instances, courts typically defer to the common meaning of the term "solicit" as defined in dictionaries, and will take into account public policy considerations.

Employers can avoid the potential for uncertainty by defining the term "solicit" or by specifying in the agreement that a former employee may not accept business from the employer's customers. Many jurisdictions, but not all, will enforce non-solicitation agreements that prohibit the former employee from “accepting business” from certain clients.

Consider a Liquidated Damages Provision

Finally, institutions should consider including a remedy of liquidated damages against former employees who improperly solicit customers. It is usually easier to sue a former employee for money than obtain injunctive relief from a court, and the potential for a significant award of damages may make the employee think twice about poaching clients. A liquidated damages provision also can make it easier to calculate monetary losses, which are often difficult to quantify at trial.

In order for a liquidated damages provision to be enforceable, it must set forth a reasonable estimate of the monetary loss likely to be suffered, yet relate to an injury incapable of accurate estimate. Reasonable estimates of damages might include the fees or payments made by the solicited customer to the former employer during a certain time frame.

January 16, 2014

Young Conaway Publishes Bloomberg BNA Series on Noncompetes

bloomberg.pngPartners Scott Holt, Barry Willoughby, and William Bowser recently co-authored Bloomberg BNA's Corporate Practice Series on Noncompetition Agreements. The publication provides an in-depth review of the use and enforcement of noncompetition agreements, including practical tips for prosecuting and defending noncompete cases.

The publication is available through the Bloomberg BNA web site

February 16, 2012

Overbroad Forum Selection Clause Dooms Effort to Enforce Noncompete

Many businesses include Delaware choice-of-law and forum-selection clauses in their contracts to take advantage of Delaware law and the Court of Chancery’s strong reputation for reliable and well-balanced decision-making. However, in order to take advantage of Delaware’s judicial system, the forum selection clause must be drafted so that it confers personal jurisdiction over all of the parties. In a recent ruling, the Court of Chancery struck down a plaintiff’s attempt to enforce a noncompete agreement in Delaware because of a poorly worded forum selection clause.

In the case of Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products LP v. Jadczak, C.A. 6695-VCL, the plaintiff brought suit in Delaware to enjoin its former employee from working for a competitor in violation of his employment agreement. In addition to various restrictive covenants, the defendant’s employment agreement included the following personal jurisdiction provision:

Employee consents to and waives any objection to personal jurisdiction and venue in any federal and state courts having jurisdiction in any dispute arising out of the terms of this agreement.

Defense counsel moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, arguing that the clause was over broad. They emphasized that the employee worked in Georgia when employed by Georgia-Pacific, and later accepted a job with a competitor in Kentucky. By contrast, the clause would allow him to be sued anywhere in the United States. In response, plaintiff’s counsel argued that Georgia-Pacific is a national company whose financial interests could be impacted in any state.

After lengthy arguments, the Court granted the motion to dismiss, providing three reasons for its decision. First, the Court noted that while parties may contractually accept the jurisdiction of Delaware’s courts, any such agreement must be clear and express. The Court found the language used by Georgia-Pacific to be ambiguous in its second use of the term “jurisdiction,” and therefore concluded that it did not meet the standard of a clear and express agreement.

Second, the Court found the provision to be so broad as to be unreasonable. Indeed, the Court noted that the language is not even limited to the United States, but could include any country that has a system of state and federal courts. The Court concluded that “a provision this general gives the employee insufficient notice of where the employee could be sued.”

Finally, the Court relied on issues of comity. In other words, the Court was hesitant to impose its will where other states had a much stronger interest in the outcome of the case. Noting that “Delaware does not have a significant interest in this dispute,” the Court instead deferred to the “paramount interests” of Georgia and Kentucky. Vice Chancellor Laster opined that “it risks giving offense to other states and it risks overstepping Delaware’s role in our federal system for Delaware to take ownership of this type of dispute involving an employee.”

This decision reinforces the need for companies to have well-drafted venue selection provisions, particularly if they wish to have their noncompete agreement enforced in Delaware. For Delaware choice of venue provisions, companies should also consider taking advantage of Delaware’s choice of law / venue statute, 6 Del. C. § 2708, which provides that the parties “shall conclusively be presumed to be a significant, material and reasonable relationship with this State and [the agreement] shall be enforced whether or not there are other relationships with this State.”

March 28, 2011

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.chancerylogo60

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

October 19, 2010

Reducing the Risk of Litigation When Hiring Employees with Non-Compete Agreements

Hiring an employee who is subject to a non-competition agreement can be a risky venture.  In many instances, the new employer can find itself on the receiving end of an expedited lawsuit along with the new hire.  But there are a few simple measures new employers can take to reduce the chances of being named as a co-defendant in a lawsuit. 

First, make certain your new hire has “clean hands” before commencing employment.  This means that all documents, computers, PDAs, flash drives, and any other property arguably belonging to the former employer has been returned intact.  The employee needs to be aware that erasing hard drives and databases before returning equipment (even if inadvertent) can often result in a negative ruling from the court or even a spoliation finding.  Once completed, the employee should confirm in writing that all property in his possession has been returned to his former employer. 

Next, make sure the potential new hire does not engage in competition while still at his old job.  In Delaware, it is generally permissible to make preparations to compete while still employed, which would include discussions with other companies about possible employment opportunities.  But employees often cross the line when these discussions develop into actual competition, and if there’s evidence the new employer encouraged these acts, it may open the door for a civil conspiracy claim. 

Finally, before the employee commences work, there should be a written agreement confirming that the employee has returned all property to his former employer, that he will not to disclose any protected confidential information or trade secrets, and address any limitations that will be placed on his job functions and/or ability to solicit past / current customers.  This last point will likely require some analysis of the employee’s agreement not to compete and a decision about which provisions are and are not enforceable.

While new employers cannot totally eliminate the risk of being named a co-defendant in a noncompetition lawsuit, the above steps should help lower the risk associated with hiring a new employee.  These steps also will prove invaluable should the employer have to defend against a noncompete case.

June 30, 2010

Withholding Wages From Departing Employees May Render Non-Competes Unenforceable

money.jpgFormer employees seeking to get out of their noncompete agreements often throw up a flurry of defenses. Most of these defenses usually pertain to the scope of the restrictions, whether the covenant is designed to protect legitimate business interests, or the balance of hardships. Occasionally, however, employees are able to successfully argue that the non-compete is not an enforceable contract.

One such defense is to assert that there had been a prior material breach of the underlying contract by the former employer. If the employer materially breached the employment agreement, the employee may be excused from compliance with the covenant not to compete.

It is not all that uncommon for companies to withhold wages or bonuses from departing employees who go to work for a competitor or solicit their customers. But employers should think twice before doing this, especially if there is no legal basis for withholding the compensation.

Continue reading "Withholding Wages From Departing Employees May Render Non-Competes Unenforceable" »

June 8, 2010

Balance of Equity Considerations for Non-Compete Agreements

scales.jpgThe Court of Chancery is often hesitant to enforce a covenant that would preclude an individual from earning a living. Where a restriction on the ability to be gainfully employed is involved, the customary sensitivity of the Court to the particular interest affected by its remedies is heightened. As a result, parties seeking to enforce covenants not to compete must use caution so as not to request relief that would essentially render the defendant unable to work.

In balancing the equities, the Chancery Court will analyze whether the consequences of enforcement to the employee are grave and/or whether the interests of the employer are "slight or ephemeral." Disproportionate hardship is often a reason for refusing equitable remedies. If the equities balance in the employee's favor, even a well-drafted covenant may not be enforced.

When determining the balance of hardships, only actual harm is relevant to this determination. Actual harm normally requires there to be specific economic harm. A technical violation of a noncompete that causes no cognizable injury may leave the plaintiff without equitable relief.

The amount of actual harm is also considered. The pilfering of one or two customers may not be enough while evidence of wide spread solicitation will normally prompt action from the Court. The Court may examine whether there is evidence that the former employee is using the employer's customer lists or other proprietary information before granting injunctive relief.

Other considerations include the level and sophistication of the former employee. The Court of Chancery has noted that the more skilled, the higher positioned the former employee, the greater the harm that would inure to the employer if the covenant were not enforced.

Continue reading "Balance of Equity Considerations for Non-Compete Agreements" »

May 25, 2010

General Release thwarts attempt to enforce Non-compete

Releases are a common element of any settlement agreement between parties, including employers and employees. In the case of general releases, however, care must be exercised that the parties do not inadvertently relinquish unintended rights. A recent case from the Court of Chancery illustrates this point when a company apparently unintentionally waived its rights to enforce a noncompete agreement.

Christopher Schaffer was a major stockholder and Executive Vice President of a company acquired by CorVel Enterprise Comp, Inc. On the same day that the stock purchase agreement was signed, Schaffer, for additional consideration, also executed a noncompetition agreement which prohibited him from competing with CorVel for a five year period.

A dispute subsequently arose between Schaffer and CorVel regarding an earn out payment under the stock purchase agreement. That dispute was resolved in February 2009 through a settlement agreement providing Schaffer with a payment of $800,000. Significantly, both parties executed general releases of all claims as part of the settlement.

Continue reading "General Release thwarts attempt to enforce Non-compete" »

May 25, 2010

Consideration Issues can be Key for Covenants Not to Compete

In many cases the consideration element of a noncompetition agreement is mere formality and often taken for granted. But in many states this element, which is an essential part of any contract, can be a critical questions when it comes to enforcement.

Most states, including Delaware, follow the general rule that the initial offer of employment is sufficient consideration to support a non-compete agreement. More problematic is when the employer asks an existing employee to enter into a noncompete. In these cases, choice of law becomes critical, since a significant number of states require additional consideration above and beyond the continued employment relationship.

In Delaware, the Court of Chancery has consistently ruled that continued employment is alone sufficient consideration to support a noncompetition agreement. Still, it is advisable to consider offering additional consideration as an incentive both for morale purposes and to weaken the employee's ability to raise hardship issues when the time for enforcement arrives.