Arbitration Panel Misconstrues Contractor Licensing Law: Court Allows Decision to Stand

If you’ve followed Burr’s e-note over the past year or two, then you know that the United States Supreme Court has issued recent opinions on the power of arbitration tribunals to make legal decisions.  Even if a review of the arbitration decision reveals an error in legal interpretation, the general rule of the land is that parties who contractually agree to resolve their disputes through arbitration accept the possibility that the arbitration panel may interpret the law or the facts (or both) in a final opinion that is very difficult to overturn on appeal.  A recent Florida appellate opinion on contractor licensure emphasizes this nuanced area of the law.

As background, Florida law is clear that a contractor unlicensed at the time of contract cannot maintain an action in a Florida court for unpaid work.  See 489.128(1), Fla. Stat. (2009).  Florida courts strictly construe these statutes.  As a result, litigants in Florida courts can anticipate that an entity that was technically unlicensed at the time it entered into the contract will have an uphill battle in a court of law trying to collect for unpaid work.

We also know that many construction contracts contain arbitration clauses.  A recent case from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal wrestled with the conundrum of determining whether it had authority to overturn the decision of an arbitration panel that appeared to misconstrue Florida’s unlicensed-contractor law.  The Village at Dolphin Commerce Center, LLC v. Construction Service Solutions, LLC (Fla. 3rd DCA 2014).   In Construction Service Solutions the undisputed facts at arbitration showed that the contractor was not technically licensed under Florida law at the time of the contract.  Despite the fact that during the term of the contract the contractor cured the licensure defect, Florida law typically bars a contractor’s action for recovery of unpaid work when the licensure requirements were not met at the time of the contract.  The record also showed that neither the contractor nor the owner objected to the arbitration panel’s jurisdiction or authority to decide the issue.  If either side objected to the arbitration panel’s jurisdiction to decide the licensure issue, the AAA Construction Arbitration rules required the objecting party to object in the answering statement.  Both parties agreed to allow the arbitration panel to consider the issue.

Ultimately, the arbitration panel ruled in favor of the (technically unlicensed) contractor.  Unhappy with that decision, the owner sought a ruling from the Florida trial court seeking to overturn the panel’s decision.  The trial court refused.  Still unsatisfied, the owner appealed to the appropriate Florida appellate court.  The appellate court noted that Florida law would typically bar the contactor’s recovery.  Nonetheless, the appellate court further confirmed and upheld the arbitrator’s decision.

The Owner also argued that the arbitration panel had improperly neglected to consider the issue of the contract’s legality.  In the courtroom, the Owner argued that either (a) the parties never agreed to submit the lien claim to arbitration or (b) the arbitration award did not address the Owner’s affirmative defenses.  Id.  The Third District, however, agreed with the magistrate, holding that the enforceability issue was submitted to arbitration when the Owner filed its answer and raised enforceability as its first affirmative defense.  In its initial arbitration response, the Owner failed to dispute the scope of the arbitrator’s authority to decide the issue.  Id.

Despite an arbitration result that appeared to misconstrue Florida law, the Third District held that the parties willingly submitted to the arbitrator the issue of whether or not the contractor could legally enforce the contract.  Having chosen their preferred venue for dispute resolution, the parties were bound by the results.  And this isn’t a particularly unique position for Florida courts.  While the Florida Arbitration Act allows a court to review an arbitrator’s decision if the arbitration panel exceeded its authority, see Fla. Stat. § 682.13(1)(d), the Florida Supreme Court has refused to disturb an arbitration award for a “mere” factual or legal error.  See Schnurmacher v. Noriega  (Fla.1989).  The U.S. Supreme Court, not surprisingly, takes a similar stance.  SCOTUS’  well-known Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna (2006) opinion distinguishes challenges to the validity of an agreement to arbitrate from challenges to the validity of contractual interpretation.

The lesson is clear:  when agreeing to arbitrate a dispute, when responding to a demand to arbitrate, or when filing your formal response to an arbitration petition, it is imperative to analyze the scope of the arbitrator’s authority and to ensure the scope is in line with your client’s interests.  The other lesson, of course, is to make sure your lawyer knows this.  At Burr & Forman we have nine offices throughout the Southeast staffed with attorneys who routinely navigate these issues.

The World Cup of Non-Competes

Can you imagine if FIFA allowed or enforced non-compete agreements that limited the ability of a player to hold dual citizenship and play for either country?  Would the World Cup have suffered if brothers representing Ghana and Germany had to choose allegiance to only one nation rather than play against one another as respectful opponents?  For that matter, would the United States have survived the “Group of Death” and advanced to the knockout round if not for the array of talented “American” players who grew up in Germany, speaking German.  Whether or not the inclusion of these players aided America’s unquestionable success in this worldwide soccer feast (in case you’ve somehow avoided the news media for the last month, the answer is that “yes, these players were incredible assets for the US team”), you cannot deny that without the ability to utilize the best available talent, it’s difficult to put the best team on the field.

Which brings us to non-compete agreements in Florida.  If you follow this blog, then you already know that Florida law specifically allows employers and employees to enter non-competition agreements under circumstances set forth in Florida’s statutes.  As we’ve discussed many times, the more significant the employee is to the continued operational success of the business she intends to leave, the more restrictive a covenant not to compete she can expect. To continue the sports analogies, it’s a little bit like a no-trade clause in the contract of a professional athlete.  An athlete can leave a team at any time.  It’s just that the athlete cannot leave one team at his/her whim and join a competitor unless the contract allows it.

On the other hand, just like in professional sports, sometimes it’s better to renegotiate a contract than to fight over whether or not an employee is able to leave when an alternate opportunity calls.  In a recent matter, for instance, we represented a corporation that had hired an employee allegedly subject to non-compete agreement.  Our client testified under oath that it was completely unaware of the alleged non-compete agreement at the time of the hiring and terminated the new salesman almost immediately after the former employer filed the lawsuit (which was the first notice of the existence of the alleged non-compete agreement).  Despite the almost-immediate termination, the plaintiff continued the lawsuit against my client.  Instead of seeking an injunction, the lawsuit focused on alleged violation of trade secrets the short-term employee allegedly transferred.  After the parties endured a year of litigation, the matter settled.  Both parties might now agree that reaching an agreement earlier might have saved everyone involved significant time and resources.

Brazil hosted a splendid World Cup.  Its team advanced to the semi-finals until it ran into an indomitable German squad playing at its peak.  As an American soccer fan, it’s nice to know that as long as the rules remain the same, America’s team can benefit from the training some of our best players received in Germany.  As sports professionals, many of those players will join new teams, usually after the transferee team pays a considerable fee.  In the landscape of Florida non-compete agreements, things aren’t always as clear-cut.  When you’re faced with a non-compete question that can affect your business, be sure to consult with an attorney knowledgeable in that area of the law.  Burr & Forman LLP has nine offices in five states throughout the Southeast and a large team of professionals with non-compete experience.

My Non-Compete, Your Salary: Words of Caution for Business Owners and Employees

Without the ability to enforce it, a non-competition agreement can turn worthless, or ˗ perhaps far worse ˗ extremely expensive for an employer whose chooses to file litigation against a former employee.  One area that can turn tricky is the nuanced difference between a “dependent covenant” and an “independent covenant.”  Why does this even matter?  A recent Florida decision sheds some light on this issue.

In a scenario that will surprise no one who follows this blog, this story involves two high-level employees who left their former employer to start their own competing business.  Their employment agreements contained identical non-compete language.  (The differences in the agreements generally dealt with compensation.)  When the employees left to form a competing tower business, the former employer filed a multi-count complaint against them seeking an injunction, enforcement of the non-compete agreements, and damages.  The individuals and their newly-formed company filed a counterclaim seeking, among other things, a determination that the former employer’s prior breaches of the employment agreement (specifically, whether or not the former employer had properly compensated them during their tenure) rendered the non-competition agreement unenforceable.  (Richland Towers, Inc. and Richland Towers, LLC v. Tall Tower Ventures, LLC, et al., Fla. 2nd DCA, March 2014.)

Generally, under Florida law, when an agreement has several components and a variety of obligations from one party to another, one party’s breach of the agreement can cause the entire contractual relationship to terminate.  The logical argument, therefore, is that an employer’s breach of an employment agreement can result in the termination of the employment agreement.  To carry the logic of this argument one step farther: if the employer terminates the employment agreement, then under certain circumstances the employer would lose its ability to enforce the non-competition agreement against its former employee.  Makes sense, right?

As it turns out, whether or not the non-competition agreement remains enforceable is a matter of whether or not the former employer’s alleged breach was a dependent covenant or an independent covenant.  What’s the difference?  Well, for one thing, when a party breaches a dependent covenant “the entire contract is virtually destroyed.”  (See Steak House, Inc. v. Barnett, Fla. 1953)

Whether or not a covenant is dependent or independent is a legal question reserved for the court.  The general rule in Florida presumes dependent covenants.  That is to say, the entire contract is dependent on parties following each of the contract’s terms.  However, Florida law is also flexible in allowing parties to enter an enforceable contract that excludes this general interpretation.  In the Richland Towers matter mentioned earlier, the employment agreements contained “an explicit expression of a contrary intention.”  In fact, the non-competition agreement actually contained a paragraph entitled “Covenants Independent” that stated that “each restrictive covenant” was “independent of any other covenant or provision” of the agreement.

In the Richland Towers matter, the trial court denied the employer’s motion for the Court to enter a temporary injunction, and determined that because the former employer had not properly paid bonuses, the contractual non-competition agreement was unenforceable.  The appellate court reversed.  Based on the “Covenants Independent” paragraph discussed above, the appellate court found that ˗ whether or not the former employer properly paid bonuses ˗ the fact that the parties had contractually agreed that the restrictive covenants and non-competition agreements were “independent covenants” rendered them enforceable.

And the moral of the story is:  be careful out there.  In this case, the inclusion of a “Covenants Independent” clause allowed a former employer to retain the right to seek an injunction against former employees trying to compete within the same markets.  Without that clause, the allegation that the former employer failed to properly pay bonuses may have also led to the unenforceability of the non-competition agreement to which the employees freely agreed.  The scenarios can get complicated, and the litigation that results from these situations can put a financial burden on all parties involved.  Bottom line: if you need advice on how to draft your non-competition agreement, or with an issue attempting to enforce your non-competition agreement, be sure to seek legal advice from a professional familiar with this area of the law.

Burr & Forman LLP has offices throughout the Southeast with attorneys very familiar with these issues.

Peter Vilmos, is a Partner in Burr & Forman LLP’s Orlando office.

It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity

When you live in Florida, you tend to hear that expression for far too many months of the year.  Even during the winter, weather reports often include information on the “sun index” indicating the level of sunscreen you might need in order to survive your next trip to the local grocery store.  Visitors from the southwest, where temperatures earlier this month reached over 100°F, are quick to inform Floridians that it’s hot in Phoenix, “but it’s a dry heat.”

Well, if you’re looking for things other than the weather to make you sweat, you might take a look at your company’s policy on whether or not a departing employee can go to work for a competitor.  Presumably, your direct competitor will now reap the benefit of the many hours and significant financial commitment your business expended.  And as a business owner, you might ask: “What can I do?”  In many circumstances, your best business move is to protect your businesses’ interests with a carefully crafted non-competition agreement.

The rules for non-competition agreements vary from state to state.  Some states basically do not allow them (or greatly disfavor them).  Other states have no legislation concerning non-competition agreements, choosing instead to allow the legal system to define the issue on a case-by-case basis.  Indiana, for instance, recently allowed a five-year non-competition agreement, concluding that both the length of time (five years), and the restriction (a two county area) were reasonable.    See Mayne v. O’Bannon Publishing Co. d/b/a Corydon Instant Press.  In Florida, the legislature has created a statute that specifically defines the basic structure of contracts that Florida law allows to validly restrain trade.  Key among the allowed restraints of trade are non-competition agreements and limitations on the use of a company’s trade secrets after an employee leaves the company.

Although defined in the statutes, Florida law also requires that the courts interpret non-competition agreements in favor of the employee in those circumstances when the agreement is vague or missing terms.  Even when parties are careful to define terms in a non-competition agreement, the contract cannot confine future employment beyond the statutory guidelines, nor are non-competition agreements immune from legal challenges regarding their breadth, their validity, or their applicability to particular circumstances.

In the real world, employees leave for new positions every day.  They pursue opportunities at other companies.  They perceive opportunities to start companies of their own.  They move on.  Nonetheless, thoughtfully crafted non-competition agreements can significantly help a business retain key employees, or – at the very least – make it far more difficult for departing employees to immediately join a competitor or start a competing business.  As in most contracts, the more specific the limitation (and the more reasonable the limitation relative to the possible damage a departing employee might cause your business), the more likely a court will uphold the contract.  If, for instance, your business is confined to a particular county, then restricting a departing employee from working in an entirely different State makes little sense.  After all, how would that departure negatively impact your business?  So take care to have your attorney tailor your non-competition agreement in a manner that reflects your business and that provides you the protection you deserve for those inevitable situations when an employee critical to your bottom line decides to see if the grass is greener elsewhere.

Which takes us back to the heat and the humidity.  While it’s tough to argue that the humidity can turn your Florida summer from a sauna to a steam bath, it’s also tough to deny that – if nothing else – the rain and the humidity do an excellent job of keeping our lawns green year-round.  If keeping critical employees around makes sense to the financial health of your company, consider hiring an attorney familiar with drafting non-competition agreements.  Under certain circumstances, it could literally save your business.

If you would like additional information on non-compete agreements and trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

Why Go to the Movies?

Summer has arrived.  The Hollywood blockbusters are here.  New animated features hit the big screens this week.  Superman is flying once more.  Sure, if the movies are your cup of tea, then summer is your annual thirst quencher.  However if you’re looking for drama, you need only scan the internet to find your daily dose of serious corporate espionage and the criminal theft of trade secrets from American corporations.

Just yesterday the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story of a scientist working on solar cell technology who pled guilty to several counts of wire fraud in an indictment claiming he stole trade secrets from his employer “and tried to take them to a competitor in China.”  The prosecutors in the case “estimate the total loss from the theft of trade secrets at nearly $22.7 million.”  The Telegraph – a British newspaper – reported this week that cyber espionage is rampant in the UK with “foreign hackers” secretly working in some companies for up to two years “discreetly stealing intellectual property.”  American newspapers recently published articles that our government systems are under constant attack not only from rogue hackers but also from foreign governments utilizing sophisticated programs and systems in an effort to steal American secrets and military information.  Same thing for recent stories of Chinese manufacturer Sinovel and two if its executives, recently indicted for alleged theft of wind turbine trade secrets.  Alleged financial loss to the owner of the trade secrets: approximately $800 million according to SecurityInfoWatch.com.

The problem is rampant and unlikely to go away.  Nor is this something new.  Corporate espionage likely began soon after the first business incorporated.  Of course, victimized businesses take little comfort knowing that others victims also exist.  So what can your company do to avoid, eliminate or minimize this potential loss?  First line of defense, of course, is education.  Educate the people in charge of monitoring the transmission of technical data on the best means to detect the “discreet stealing.”  Depending on the value of the intellectual property (and the potential loss to your business if a competitor was to receive the trade secret information without a license or without compensation), the potential losses could justify the investment in employees whose role is to oversee the data transferred to and from your company’s system.

As most of you who read this post already know, Florida employment is at will.  While termination for a discriminatory purpose is unlawful, termination for violation of company policies (or termination for violation of State or federal law) is common.  However, as these events (and the dozens of other recently reported events) indicate, the most difficult task for American companies lies in screening employees so as to minimize the possibility of trade secret theft, while at the same time ensuring that all potential employees are given an equal opportunity to apply for a position for which they are potentially qualified.

If your company faces a patient, technically savvy and stealthy employee, like the ones described who steal trade secrets with stealth for two years before they are discovered, a well-written policy is not likely to act as a significant deterrent.  On the other hand, Florida law specifically allows employers to create written policies regarding the protection of its trade secrets and to enforce those policies against its employees as appropriate.  In most circumstances, employee education (and continuing acknowledgement) of the employer’s policies, in concert with a method for your business to monitor activity and to “police” itself, can deter most of the individuals who might consider trade secret theft.

If you would like additional information on non-compete agreements and trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

Is An Assigned Non-Compete Agreement Enforceable?

In the case of a merger or acquisition, the successor company might take an assignment of the current non-compete agreements in favor of the predecessor company.  The enforceability of an assigned non-compete agreement, however, varies from state-to-state, as is true with most issues concerning non-compete law.  Below is a quick survey of how some of the states in the Southeast address the issue:

Georgia – Non-compete agreements, similar to most contracts in the state, are assignable provided that the duties under the agreement do not materially vary from the performance required by the original parties and provided that the contract is not for personal services.  West Coast Cambridge, Inc. v. Rice, 262 Ga. App. 106 (2003) (finding that successor partnership could enforce noncompete agreement against doctor because the law provided no prohibition against the assignment of the agreement and the agreement was expressly binding on successors and assigns, and noting that contract was not for personal services because it only obligated the doctor to not take certain actions).

Tennessee - Tennessee law recognizes that covenants not to compete are assignable absent specific language in the covenants prohibiting assignment.  See Packers Supply Co. v. Weber, 2008 Tenn. App. LEXIS 226 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 14, 2008) (citing Bradford & Carson v. Montgomery Furniture Co., 115 Tenn. 610, 92 S.W. 1104 (Tenn. 1906)).

Alabama - Because non-compete agreements are disfavored as a restraint on trade (see Ala. Code § 8-1-1), a successor employer cannot enforce an employee’s covenant not to compete.  Construction Materials v. Kirkpatrick Concrete, 631 So. 2d 1006 (Ala. 1994) (refusing to enforce noncompete agreement for successor of employer and noting that the legislature’s omission of a specific provision in Ala. Code § 8-1-1 establishing a successor employer’s right to enforce an employee’s covenant with the predecessor employer creates an affirmative interference that this code section was not intended to allow enforcement by successor employers).

Florida - In Florida, the question is answered specifically by  Fla. Stat. § 542.335(1)(f)(2), which provides that a “court shall not refuse enforcement of a restrictive covenant on the ground that the person seeking enforcement is . . . an assignee or successor” provided that “the restrictive covenant expressly authorized enforcement by a party’s assignee or successor.”  Recently, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal held that a general assignment clause (such as a statement that the agreement will “inure to the benefit of and be binding upon . . . assigns and successor) is sufficient to assign the agreement to a successor.  DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc. v. Waxman, 95 So. 3d 928 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1st Dist. 2012).

BURR POINT:  Special attention should be paid when drafting a non-compete covenant to ensure that the assignability of the covenant is in accordance with the parties’ expectations and the applicable state law.

 

If you would like additional information on non-compete agreements and trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

Mass-Mailing To Public Employees Did Not Violate Non-Solicitation Agreement

A Florida court recently held a former employee’s “mass-mailing” to her former employer’s customers did not violate her non-solicitation agreement.  In Variable Annuity Life Insurance Co. v. Laeng, Docket No. 8:12-cv-2280-T-33MAP (M.D. Fla. Feb. 11, 2013), the employer, VALIC, marketed financial services to tax exempt organizations.  As a condition of her employment, the employee, Laeng, executed a “Registered Representative Agreement” under which the she promised to not use or disclose VALIC’s trade secrets and confidential and proprietary information at any time.  Laeng also agreed to not solicit VALIC’s customers for one year after leaving her employment.  However, Laeng was not prevented from competing with VALIC.

After leaving VALIC, Laeng began working at LPL Financial, VALIC’s direct competitor.  Laeng sent a mass-mail solicitation to employees of two local school districts.  The mass-mailing included VALIC’s customers to whom Laeng was assigned.

VALIC filed suit and a motion for a preliminary injunction alleging Laeng violated her agreements to not disclose VALIC’s confidential information, including its customer lists, and to not solicit VALIC’s customers.  VALIC asserted Laeng’s actions resulted in a loss of more than $629,113.32.

The court denied VALIC’s motion for a preliminary injunction on the grounds there was not a substantial likelihood VALIC would succeed on the merits of its case.  Other than its suspicions, VALIC presented no evidence that Laeng took or used any confidential information. Significantly, the court found that even though Laeng’s mass-mailing included VALIC’s customers, the customer information was not unique to VALIC.  Rather, the customers were public employees of local school districts whose identities were publicly available upon request.  The court found Laeng’s mass-mailing was achievable without the use of VALIC’s confidential customer information.

The court did not discuss Laeng’s non-solicitation agreement which, on its face, would prevent Laeng from soliciting VALIC’s customers regardless of how the customer information was obtained.  Rather, the court focused on the fact that the customer information was publicly available.  Hence, the court’s ruling could be read to support the position that a former employee does not violate her non-solicitation agreement when the employer’s customer information is not confidential.

If you would like additional information on non-compete agreements and trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

Florida Appellate Court Says: “Independent Contractor” Still an Employee for Purposes of Enforcing Non-Compete Agreement

You hire an employee and pay her a salary.  In order to earn more money at your business, she voluntarily chooses to transition to “independent contractor” status.  Question:  Does that transition trigger the non-compete agreement executed at the time the employee started at the company?  Broadly interpreting the employer/employee employment contract, a Florida Appellate Court recently held that the employer could argue that the transition did not negatively affect the otherwise valid restriction.  This employer friendly decision ‒ a reversal of the trial court’s findings ‒ involved the following basic facts:

  • Employee signed a seemingly valid non-compete agreement restricting future employment for a 2 year period within a 100 mile radius of “any store, office, or facility of the company.”
  • During training, the former employee held a salaried position;
  • Once trained, the employee chose to act as an “independent contractor” allowing her to earn a commission and subjecting her to payments for her share of the business’s rent, supplies, utilities and insurance.  She was also responsible to pay taxes on her commissions;
  • The agreement contained the clause “Any subsequent change or changes in my duties, salary or compensation, will not affect the validity or scope of this Agreement . . . ;”
  • More than two years after her transition to “independent contractor,” the former employee started a competing business approximately 5 miles from the company’s offices.

In the employer’s suit to enforce its non-compete agreement it cited Florida Statute §542.335(1)(b) claiming that it had a legitimate business interest justifying the restrictive covenant.  The motion properly alleged that the restrictive covenants were reasonably necessary to protect the company’s established business interests pursuant to Florida Statute §542.335(1)(c).  Also included in the employer’s motion were the 4 elements required for a temporary injunction (irreparable harm, lack of an adequate remedy at law, substantial likelihood of success on the merits, and a public interest favoring entry of the injunction.)

In response, the former employee argued that even if valid, the 2 year restrictive period began to run when the former employee chose to become an independent contractor and was no longer salaried.  See Anarkali Boutique, Inc. v. Ortiz (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

The appellate court reversed noting that Florida courts are required to construe a contract as a whole and to broadly give effect to every provision of the agreement.  Using that more broad interpretation of the contract, the appellate court held that the change in the former employee’s status from an employee to an independent contractor “did not cause the 2 year non-compete period to begin running.  Instead, the two year non-compete period did not begin running until the worker left the company.”  Id. Ultimately the Anarkali Boutique Court remanded the matter to allow the trial court to make factual findings as to whether or not the employer had proven the requirements set forth in Florida Statute §542.335.  Nonetheless, this case was a clear victory for the employer whose decision to allow employees to earn a larger salary and build a client base was not manipulated to undermine an otherwise duly negotiated restrictive covenant.

Practitioner’s Note:  Although the employer was able to pursue its arguments upholding its restrictive covenant, this case demonstrates another example of the importance of tailoring your non-compete agreement to the specific situation your business faces.  Had the non-compete agreement in this case ‒ where the employer knew in advance that it would offer salaried employees an opportunity to work on a commission-only basis ‒ it could have included in its non-compete agreement language broad enough to specifically address that situation.  Had the contract contained that language, the employer may have more easily retained its customers and would have, almost assuredly, limited the costs of litigation and enforcement.

If you would like additional information on trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.

Does Bird’s Eye View Render Executive Non-Compete Unenforceable?

So here’s a good one for employers to ponder.  Let’s say you have an executive subject to a valid and seemingly enforceable non-compete agreement.  Because the agreement concerns an executive, we would normally presume that a court is likely to strictly read the terms of a non-compete agreement and enforce it accordingly.  Well, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a decision that an executive whose level of seniority limited his knowledge of the details rendered him not subject to the terms of his otherwise-valid non-compete agreement.

In the typical case, an employee with specific knowledge – let’s use the example of an engineer – enters into a non-compete agreement that states, for instance, that he will not work for a competitor within the same geographic area of his current job responsibilities for one year after his departure, regardless of the reason for his departure.  If the agreement is otherwise enforceable, a Florida court would typically view the above-described restriction as valid.  After all, the engineer has specific knowledge the details of which could, in theory at least, give a competitor an advantage over the former employer.

Taking this analysis one step further, however, led at least one court to determine that the senior executive was so far removed from the mundane specifics of the actual work product, he was actually no longer subject to the non-compete agreement he voluntarily executed.  Which brings us to IBM v. Visentin, 2011 WL 672025 (SDNY 2011), aff’d 437 Fed Appx 53 (2d Cir. 2011).  I’ll keep the facts short, although the somewhat unique nature of the facts obviously resulted in a seemingly unexpected opinion.  Visentin worked at IBM, very successfully, for over a quarter of a century.  So successfully, in fact, that at the time he departed IBM for competitor Hewlett Packard he was in charge of a multi-billion dollar business unit.  He had executed a non-compete with a one year work restriction that on its face appeared to encompass his prospective employment with Hewlett Packard.  The agreement Visentin executed included a relatively standard three-year look-back stating that the agreement only pertained to those areas of IBM’s business in which Visentin worked in the three years prior to his departure.

When Visentin left, IBM sued, seeking injunctive relief based on Visentin’s alleged violation of the non-compete described above.  The federal district court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction.  (In cases to enforce non-compete agreements, denial of the preliminary injunction usually ends the dispute… unless the former employer appeals.)  IBM appealed, only to have the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal affirm the lower court’s ruling.

While the denial of the preliminary injunction motion in Visentin presents a unique situation due to Visentin’s high level executive position, the district court’s lengthy holding contains some valuable insight in the analysis of non-compete issues.  Among the points raised was that the high level of the former employee’s position allowed him a supervisory capacity (he was a manager of a business line with expertise in making operations “efficient”), and yet insulated him from the specific technological goings-on and to detailed data potentially protected as a trade secret.  So in essence, because he maintained a bird’s-eye view of operations, rather than a position with direct creative input or a position “on the line,” he was insulated from information that would negate his former employer’s presumed competitive advantage.

The district court opinion went even further, at one point discussing that among known competitors with significant resources, the open flow of intelligence in the marketplace rendered the probability of harmful disclosure somewhat remote (if even possible).  Also interesting was the emphasis that success on a motion for preliminary injunction was challenging in the absence of known instances of disclosures of detailed information that clearly violated the non-compete agreement, or detailed information that the employee’s new position would require improper disclosure.  Given the bird’s-eye view Visentin had over the IBM business unit, pointing out specific instances of wrongful disclosures proved difficult.

So where does that leave employers seeking to enforce these agreements?  Certainly in Florida, there a many instances in which the courts uphold these agreements.  What is important to keep in mind, however, is the necessity of providing either enough detail in your non-compete/non-disclosure agreement to make enforcement easier, or to allege with enough specificity the actual information or trade secrets the disclosure of which could cause actual harm.  The case discussed in this article also points out that despite possible factual similarities, each non-compete rests on its own merits and brings to the dispute its own facts.  It is the nature of the information the employer seeks to protect and the factual circumstances surrounding the former employee’s duties and experience that will form the foundation of any successful argument regarding enforcement.

This is the part where I counsel you to get counsel.  Better yet, make sure you get counsel familiar with these issues.

Author Peter C. Vilmos, Esq. works in the Orlando office of Burr & Forman LLP, 407-540-6600.  Contact Peter or any attorney in Burr & Forman’s Non-Compete and Trade Secrets group for more information or for further inquiries.

Sometimes Hiring a New Employee Can Invite an Unwanted Lawsuit

Let’s set the scene:  Your search for an employee with the required job skills and experience results in your Florida-based company’s decision to hire someone presently working for your competitor.  During the salary/benefit negotiations, you learn that your prospective employee executed a non-compete agreement with her present employer.  “Not to worry,” you tell her.  “If your present employer sues you to enforce the non-compete we will pay for your defense.  In fact, we’ll make it part of your contract if you come for us.”  Bad move.

Many prospective employers believe non-compete agreements only have legal consequences for prospective employees.  However if ─ as in the example above ─ the prospective employer is aware of the agreement before hiring the employee, then the prospective employer runs the risk of liability to the former employer for tortiously interfering with the non-compete agreement. While the past employer will have to prove the new employer had knowledge of the non-compete agreement as part of a tortious interference claim, a new employer makes this task easier when it includes a provision agreeing to indemnify the employee for any litigation over non-compete agreements.

To prove tortious interference with a non-compete, Florida courts apply a four-prong test:  1) existence of a business relationship; (2) knowledge of the relationship on the part of the defendant; (3) an intentional and unjustified interference with the relationship by the defendant; and (4) damage to the plaintiff as a result of the breach of the relationship.  Tamiami Trail Tours, Inc. v. Crosby, 463 So. 2d 1126 (Fla. 1985).

How then does a prospective or subsequent employer protect itself from the former employer’s tortious interference claim?  For starters, avoid agreements to indemnify the new employee and/or pay for legal defense costs associated  with possible breach of the non-compete agreement.  As recently as May 2012, a Florida federal court reasoned that the plaintiff was “substantially likely to prevail on the claim of tortious interference” in large part because the new employer “expressly acknowledged the Agreement between [the employee] and [the plaintiff] and the restrictive covenants contained therein.”  The new employer, as part of its agreement with the employee, “agreed to assume [the employee's] defense in the event she [was] sued by [the plaintiff] over the terms of the Agreement, and indemnify her from any and all expenses, fees, damages, judgments, and amounts incurred by her in connection with the action.” The court held that this express knowledge of the non-compete agreement was evidence that the new employer caused the employee to breach the non-compete agreement. See Electrostim Medical Services, Inc. v. Lindsey, (M.D. Fla. 2012).

And this isn’t the first time a federal court in Florida found that a former employer could sue a subsequent employer for tortious interference.  In a 1998 federal court opinion the  employee testified that he had informed the new employer about his employment agreement with the plaintiff without actually providing a copy.  When coupled with testimony that the new employer hired the employee to essentially recreate the former employer’s products, the court found enough evidence to reason that “the facts . . . support a substantial likelihood that Plaintiff [would] ultimately prevail on the claim of tortious interference.”  See Stoneworks, Inc. v. Empire Marble & Granite, Inc. (S.D. Fla. 1998).  In 2009 a court found that the new employer had knowledge of the non-compete agreement with the plaintiff because it “expressly acknowledged the existence of that agreement in the employment contract signed with [the employee].”  The result: an opinion that the plaintiff had “shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of its claim that [the new employer] tortiously interfered with the . . . contract for [the employee] not to compete with [plaintiff].”  See The Continental Group, Inc. v. KW Property Management, LLC (S.D. Fla. 2009).

Similar findings appear in Florida appellate courts.  In 2010, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal held that allegations that 1) the employee gave a copy of the plaintiff’s employment contract to the new employer and; 2) that the new employer “devised a plan to allow [the employee] to quit her employment with [the plaintiff] and to . . . work for [the new employer] . . . without compensating [the plaintiff] as required under [the contract]” stated a cause of action for tortious interference against the subsequent employer.  See  Southeastern Integrated Medical, P.L. v. North Florida Women’s Physicians, P.A. (Fla. 1st DCA 2010).

What now?  Well, if you’re subject to a non-compete agreement, read it carefully.  They are often narrowly tailored.  As we discussed in previous posts, even valid non-compete agreements can prove ineffective to stop future competition.  On the other hand, because Florida allows non-compete agreements, it is important to understand the restrictions of a particular agreement and the risks of violating it.  Do you have the right to employ someone seemingly subject to a valid non-compete agreement?  Of course you do.  Just keep in mind that knowingly hiring someone subject to a non-compete agreement can result not only in additional legal fees and costs resulting from the employee’s breach, it may also subject the new employer to substantial damages resulting from a claim for tortious interference with the former employer/employee relationship.  Remember that courts have determined that prima facie evidence of tortious interference exists when a subsequent employer agrees to indemnify the new employee and/or pay defense costs if the former employer files an enforcement lawsuit.

This is the part of the blog where we suggest you seek competent legal counsel when you face these issues.  The nuances of this area of the law and the specific factual circumstances surrounding each situation deserve a sound initial legal opinion. Our Burr & Forman attorneys would be happy to assist you in these matters.