Tom Brady, Deflategate, and Florida Non-Competes

On far too many levels, Tom Brady is a star. “Deflategate” or not. Whether he actively participated in deflategate, passively participated in deflategate, or did not at all participate in deflategate, Tom Brady is a star. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. The committee no-doubt will vote him into the Hall of Fame at his earliest eligibility. He’s earned it.

Brady is competitive. No one questions that Brady’s competitive drive is one of the many keys to his continued success and longevity. Indeed, the well-known fact that Brady is competitive has caused many pundits to presume that he was either actually aware of the deflated footballs or was simply experienced enough to greatly suspect something was awry. Competition drives athletes.

Competition also drives successful businesses.

Free trade, in theory, increases competition. Competition forces innovation, higher productivity, better quality, lower prices or some combination of these elements to allow the marketplace to provide suitable options for everyone. Americans embrace competition. Americans reward competition. Our legal system is intentionally set up as an “adversary system” that demands competition.

Florida law recognizes this.

Florida law also recognizes an individual’s freedom to enter into contracts. When it comes to employment, Florida is called “at-will”. That means, essentially, that as long as you don’t violate Florida or federal discrimination laws (or the company’s internal employment rules or agreements), an employer can terminate an employee at any time, for any lawful reason. As anyone familiar with this blog also knows, Florida law also allows “valid restraints of trade” with regard to employment under certain circumstances found among Florida’s anti-trust statutes. The more common phrases for these valid restraints of trade are non-competition agreements or non-compete agreements. In Florida it is lawful for an employer to have the employee enter into a non-compete agreement as a condition of employment. Even a long-term employee can lose her or his job if the employer demands the execution of a non-compete agreement and the employee refuses to enter one. These Florida statutes neither apply to everyone, nor do these statutes apply equally. Florida law distinguishes among employees, allowing longer periods of non-competition for upper level management. As you might expect, Florida law also mandates that the restraint from future employment is reasonably intended to protect the employer’s legitimate ongoing business interests. Because Florida courts generally favor competition over restraints of trade, all Florida non-compete agreements are strictly construed. As a result, it’s critical to involve an experienced attorney when drafting or reviewing a non-compete agreement.

Tom Brady is one seriously competitive quarterback. Nearly every team in the NFL would substantially improve with Tom Brady under center. What if you’re the best at your position? What if you’re the Tom Brady of your profession? What if your competitive nature resulted in your success beyond even your employer’s wildest dreams? Does Florida law allow an exception? Yes and no. Lawyers are not subject to Florida’s restraint of trade statutes. (Go figure.) However Florida’s “valid restraint of trade” laws apply to doctors and nearly all other employees.

Brady is exceptional in many ways. Fortunately for football fans, deflategate suspension or not, Brady’s competitive spirit remains unrestrained.

The Multi-State Non-Compete Agreement “Drilled Down”

Our February article addressed the options available to the multi-state employer attempting to design its non-compete agreements within the “tangled mess” of the various state laws applicable to agreements for employees who reside within those various states. In that article, we advised that unless management has the resources to design, update and manage separate agreements tailored to each applicable state law, the best alternative is to design an “asset protection program” to include as few versions of the agreement as possible, tailoring each version to as many, similar state laws and job categories as possible. In this and subsequent articles, we will dig deeper into the variety of business and state law issues involved in this process.

Initially, employers should identify all employee/independent contractor responsibility levels and titles to be covered by the company’s non-compete agreements and the states in which those employees/contractors reside. Here, it is important to note that most state laws will not support the enforcement of a non-compete covenant unless the employer has a material, protectable interest supporting its post-employment non-compete restrictions. Translated, this means that most state laws will not support the enforcement of non-compete or even customer non-solicitation covenants signed by non-supervisory, non-sales and non-managerial employees. So, don’t expect to enforce a non-compete or non-solicitation covenant when it comes to your administrative assistant or your production employees. Furthermore, a detailed analysis of each employee category in the context of applicable state laws as opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” agreement will aid in the enforcement process. By way of example, it may be ill-advised to include non-compete and customer non-solicitation covenants within the agreements designated for North Carolina-based scientists because such scientists do not have access to customers or secret formulas which could be damaging if they leave for a competitor. In states such as North Carolina where the enforcement of a non-compete or customer non-solicitation is somewhat unpredictable, a good solid confidential information covenant may be preferred.

Along these same lines, this first step will also pave the way for other critical discussions with your counsel. The four primary types of employee restrictive covenants – the non-compete, customer non-solicitation, employee non-solciitaion and confidential information covenants – have varying applications depending on the nature and level of employee to which the agreement is directed. Each occupies what could be described as a “sliding scale of enforceability. Non-compete covenants which, to some degree or another, restrict a former employee’s subsequent employment in the industry are the most difficult to enforce, followed by the customer non-solicitation, the employee non-solicitation and finally, the confidential information covenant. As such a careful categorization of targeted protectable interests for each employee category and the state laws involved for each will help ensure enforcement and reduce the number of agreement versions your Company is required to manage and update.

We will expand on this analysis in future articles, taking a closer look at other key components of this analysis including adequate consideration, blue-penciling laws and the non-compete versus non-solicitation analysis.

Florida Non-Competes and the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

After a wild weekend of some predictably close games and some stunning upsets, the original 68 teams vying to play among “bracketology’s” fortunate 64 are now whittled down to the sixteen teams left standing. The President of the United States picked Villanova to play deep into the tournament. Alas, a scrappy NC State Wolfpack team knocked out the Wildcats from Philadelphia over the weekend. Nonetheless, many of the powerhouse teams remain, including Wildcats from both Kentucky and Arizona. If you prefer other animals, you can always root for Badgers, Bruins or Cardinals. Pugilistic and militia team names are also available. Indeed, unlike many years loaded with animals of various color, this year’s Sweet Sixteen hosts Fighting Irish, Mountaineers, Spartans and Tar Heels. If you’re feeling Devilish, a blue variety plays against Utes later this week.

Only a few more days of college basketball remain before a Monday night in early April when one team will earn the National Championship. All other teams will end their season with a loss. For many coaches, advancement in the NCAA Tournament guarantees another year of coaching at their present school (and possibly a hefty salary increase). For coaches interested in moving to different schools, nothing says “I’m ready!” quite like taking a Cinderella team deep into the three-week national obsession called March Madness.

Yes, the free flow of commerce (specifically the free flow of human commerce in the form of transitioning college basketball coaches) is alive and well in NCAA basketball. On the other hand, for anyone who regularly follows this blog, you know that Florida law allows employers and employees to agree in writing to restrict their future employment in direct competition to the current employer. Can you imagine if college basketball teams enforced non-competition agreements among coaches? Sure, it’s unlikely that coaches at the nation’s premier programs would want to leave their schools. Winning programs attract the best available recruits. The best recruits often create the best future teams. The circle of winning continues. The fan base increases, as does the coach’s salary. Why ever leave?

The same is true for your business. If your employees find themselves at the top of the pay scale and performing at their peak, they may not want to leave. Of course ̶ as you likely know already ̶ your competitors typically seek only your finest employees. And like college coaches, reputation and salary generally drive either the desire to stay at a current position and company, or a desire to display talents from a different arena.

Florida law allows for an avenue to protect businesses from poaching competitors and the losses incurred with departing employees. Florida courts will strictly enforce written, duly executed non-compete agreements among Florida employers and employees. Although there is no statutory format for the actual non-compete language, Florida law has specific boundaries within which a court considers the validity of a non-compete agreement. In very basic terms, Florida law allows increased restrictions on future employment on higher level employees and business owners selling their businesses. Lower level employees entrusted with a company’s trade secrets can also expect future employment and data-use restrictions, however the length of the employment restrictions is typically less than with executives or with employees in management.

At Burr & Forman LLP we have attorneys in nine offices throughout the Southeast knowledgeable in this area of the law. Whether your business needs help drafting a non-competition agreement or enforcing a non-competition agreement, it’s important to seek competent counsel experienced in this area of the law. In the meantime, employers should take solace that only sixteen teams remain in the NCAA tournament. That fact alone will greatly increase productivity from last week… even if your alma mater is a Cinderella with a coach soon to depart for a more lucrative coaching opportunity.

New Year’s Resolution Continued: the Multi-State Non-Compete Agreement

With (most of) 2015 ahead, it is an opportune time to continue with our theme of employee non-compete agreements and resolving to review, assess and update your company’s agreements as a critical component of your ongoing and vital asset protection program. It goes without saying that an otherwise good start to the new year can come to an abrupt end when the company learns that a valued employee has “jumped ship” to the competitor because she knew what we didn’t; that her non-compete agreement with our company was outdated and no longer worth the proverbial paper on which it is written.

If your company employs individuals in two or more states, your “starting point” for this project is different (and more complex) from that of the Company which employs individuals in just one state. The underlying premise is one with which you are probably familiar; the laws surrounding the enforcement (or lack thereof) of non-compete agreements are matters of varying state, not federal law.

Assuming your Company has the financial and human resources to draft, implement, monitor and amend non-compete agreements tailored to the specific laws of each state in which it employs individuals, that is likely your best option. State-law tailored agreements which can be monitored and kept current with the ever changing legal landscape undoubtedly increase the likelihood of enforcement – at least in the short term. But, this is a very time consuming and expensive process that often, for legitimate reasons, falls by the wayside. While multi-state employers start out with great intentions and often spend a significant amount of money and time on the front-end of this project, higher priorities take over and these tailored agreements are rarely monitored in accordance with and therefore left victim to ever-changing state laws.

Most multi-state employers take a different route; limiting the number of versions of their non-compete agreements to one or very few. Certainly, from contract management, assessment and enforcement perspectives, one or a very limited number of versions lends itself to a more manageable program. That said, the drafting and enforcement of standardized, multi-state, non-compete agreements can also be a very complex and somewhat treacherous mine field of issues, deserving of a significant amount of managerial and experienced legal analysis on the front-end. Most often, the adoption of this type of “non-compete program” involves a detailed analysis of the laws of the states where employees reside, the duties and titles of the employees who will be asked to execute and similar issues. But, in the end, the multi-state employer has a solid foundation for this component of its asset management program for years to come.

We will expand on this analysis in future articles, taking a closer look at its key components including adequate consideration, blue-penciling laws and the non-compete versus non-solicitation analysis.

New Year’s Resolution: Review Non-Compete

With the holidays around the corner, college football “Bowl Season” ramping up, and the singing of Auld Lang Syne within earshot, many employers not in the retail or travel businesses are wrapping up 2014 and preparing to start off 2015 with a strong first quarter. Some businesses shut down for the week between Christmas and New Year, understanding that many employees plan either to travel to family or to otherwise take long-saved vacation time. The New Year is sure to bring many changes. Congress will have a new look for at least another two years and the economic uptick across most industries not related to oil production is expected to continue to drive the economy forward in its recovery. http://www.burr.com/NewsResources/Resources/~/media/EF6EAAB39DEA4277AA841FEA92886D09.ashx

As a result, for most business leaders, the outlook for 2015 is positive. Employers also know that positive growth conditions can lead to competition among employers for the best employees. To complete the circle, competitive companies often court the most marketable employees during periods of economic growth. And so we get around to non-competition agreements and the question of whether or not your company’s non-competition agreement can give you a competitive edge when the economy’s opportunities call on your best and brightest.

To start with basics, it is important to understand that in almost all circumstances state law governs the legality and enforceability of non-competition agreements. In Florida, for instance, the legislature has penned a statute that defines the circumstances in which an employer can contractually restrain its current employees and the parameters that courts interpreting Florida law can use to determine the enforceability of a non-compete agreement. Not all states allow these agreements. Many states limit the agreements to certain professions.

Presuming you come from a state whose laws allow agreements that restrict the future employment of former employees, the end of the year is usually a great time to review the parameters of any in-place agreements and to work with your counsel to prepare an enforcement strategy… just in case. Keep in mind that non-competition agreements vary widely both in their complexity and in the length of their term. Some non-competition agreements allow the departing employee to essentially buy their way out of the restrictions. Others simply discuss an area and time frame in which the departing employee cannot compete.

However complicated your agreement, it is always best to develop your enforcement strategy before an employee departs. At Burr & Forman we have attorneys in offices throughout the southeast with the experience to help you develop your non-competition agreements, your enforcement strategy, and — when necessary — to take legal action for enforcement.

Non-Competition Agreements: Black Friday, Cyber Monday or Bust

This is one of those funny calendar years where Thanksgiving tucked itself deep into the month of November, leaving far too little time for people to contemplate the upcoming holidays and whether or not it’s actually appropriate to wear that 1980’s – style sweater to the office. (As an aside, you may have convinced yourself that your sweater still fits. Office tip: it doesn’t.) So here we all are, scrambling to make the perfect Thanksgiving celebration, wondering how we’re going to complete the year’s remaining tasks before year-end, and otherwise scrambling like we have in virtually all previous holiday seasons. Yes, this is the perfect time of year to practice the annual ritual of attempting a moist turkey using a never-before-tried recipe. If you’re an employer, this is also the perfect time of year to look at your company’s non-competition agreement and how you might enforce it. As with all of these blogs, it’s important to note that ̶ generally speaking ̶ each state has its own rules and laws on the legality and enforceability of employer/employee non-competition agreements. In Florida, the legislature has created a statute specifically on point (hidden as it is among other laws discussing “restraint of trade”). Under a defined set of circumstances, Florida law allows an employer and an employee to enter into a non-competition agreement that limits for a period of time a departing employee’s ability to directly compete with the former employer. Some states specifically disfavor these restraints of trade. Some states allow an employer and employee to enter into a non-competition agreement without the benefit of having a statute on the matter to help define the allowable scope of such an agreement. On Black Friday and Cyber Monday retail stores around the nation and across the internet severely discount their products and services in order to attract customers and in an effort to turn their fiscal year profitable. It is the ultimate competition for consumer dollars. Similarly, businesses of all types are also using the final month of the calendar year to maximize collections and increase annual profits. For many employers this is also a time to contemplate whether and in what amount employees will receive annual bonuses. Knowing this, many employees wait until after their employers distribute bonuses to inform the employer that the employee intends to soon start working at a competitor. For many employers, this is the first time all year that will they look at the terms of their non-competition agreement and attempt to determine whether or not the terms are easily enforceable against the departing employee. However, just like the retailers who plan far in advance for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, employers should also take this opportunity to look over their agreements to determine ̶ in advance ̶ the best corporate strategy for enforcement. Some agreements include a devaluation of company stock for departing employees. Some agreements forbid competition for a defined period of time within a restricted area. Keep in mind that states tend to strictly interpret non-competition clauses. When terms are not clear, courts usually give the benefit of the doubt to the employee, favoring free competition whenever possible. Just like with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it’s difficult to know in advance whether or not your strategy will pan out. To give your company the best shot at success, it makes sense to look over your options in advance.

Burr & Forman attorneys in nine offices throughout the Southeast are available to consult with you on these issues, to develop your strategy, and to work with you when the need to enforce arises.

Halloween Scares and Non-Compete Agreements

Halloween is always a great time for adults and children. Just think about it, for at least one night we intentionally abandon every notion we teach our children about taking candy from strangers, not acting deceptively, not scaring people unnecessarily and otherwise not acting like little hellions. Indeed, we encourage the opposite. Scary little monsters will roam my neighborhood seeking free candy from strangers who often try to frighten them. Under the pretense of nonchalance, parents will watchfully keep a respectful distance from all front doors as their children boldly explore what an unknown witch or werewolf might hand out as “trick” or “treat.”

And so it goes this season all around our great nation.

And so it goes in many an employment agreement as well. Many of our clients require their employees to execute a non-competition agreement as part of their continued employment. While not all states favor agreements that restrain trade (some essentially disallow non-competition agreements altogether), Florida has detailed statutes spelling out the requirements of a valid non-competition agreement and many cases considering the issue to help all parties involved determine how best to deal with a departing employee.

What remains unclear is whether or not the non-competition agreement in force is a “trick” or a “treat” to either the former employer or to the former employee, or to neither. The answer is that it depends on the circumstances. Florida law recognizes that under certain circumstances an employer has the right to protect its trade secrets, its customers and its remaining employees from the competition of departing employees. While this sounds as if it solely favors the former employer, under many circumstances the situation is ̶ to keep with the theme ̶ more tricky. Often the customers whom the former employer seeks to insulate prefer to continue to work with the former employee. We’ve seen circumstances where customers of the former employer actually pull their business because the former employer has initiated legal action against a former employee pursuant to a seemingly enforceable non-competition agreement.

So what is an employer to do? Remember Halloween. Even when it’s seemingly okay to “trick,” sometimes it’s better to offer a “treat.” In a recent matter, the former employer had a stock repurchase agreement in force for departing officers and managers. The repurchase agreement had a formula that discounted the share value for departing employees. The former employer also informed the departing employee that it intended to enforce the (rather restrictive) non-competition agreement. However, when the former employers’ customers complained about losing the person with whom they had forged a professional relationship, the former employer opted to enter into a consulting agreement with the departing employee rather than to initiate a lawsuit. The benefits of this were many and obvious. First, the former employer could mollify its customer and maintain continuity on the job. However additional benefits also resulted. For one, the former employer could both keep tabs on the former employee (and its customers) and at the same time profit from the continued relationship. A supplemental benefit was that it made any violation of the parties’ agreement other than through the consulting agreement seem all-the-more egregious. In that way, if the matter ever made its way to a courtroom, at least the former employer could argue that it took every possible step to act reasonably.

You might find yourself in a circumstance when there are better business alternatives available than simply initiating litigation to enforce a non-competition agreement. Even though it’s the Halloween season, don’t be scared. At Burr & Forman we have lawyers in offices throughout the Southeast that are experienced with these issues and able to advise you in even the most scary situation.

Be Careful What You Ask for: Selecting Forums for Arbitration

On October 2, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rendered its decision in Inetianbor v. CashCall, Inc. A copy of the slip opinion can be found here. Although this case did not involve a non-compete agreement, the Eleventh Circuit’s guidance regarding contractual arbitration provisions may have implications for those drafting and litigating non-competes.

The arbitration clause at issue in Inetianbor was a bit unusual (at least as to the specified forum), but the underlying dispute between the parties was not out of the ordinary. The plaintiff, Mr. Inetianbor, was a Florida resident who borrowed money from Western Sky Financial, LLC. The defendant CashCall, Inc. serviced this loan. Mr. Inetianbor sued the servicer in a Florida court, alleging, among other things, violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. After removing the case to a federal court, the servicer then moved to compel arbitration of the dispute pursuant to the terms of Mr. Inetianbor’s loan agreement with Western Sky. This loan agreement contained the following arbitration provision: “You agree that any Dispute … will be resolved by Arbitration, which shall be conducted by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation by an authorized representative ….

After the trial court initially compelled arbitration in accordance with this provision, Mr. Inetianbor contacted the Tribe in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. In response, Mr. Inetianbor received a letter from a Tribal Judge stating that the Tribe “does not authorize Arbitration,” but after some back-and-forth, a Tribal Elder was eventually chosen to arbitrate Mr. Inetianbor’s dispute. However, at the preliminary arbitration hearing, the arbitrator explained that “this is a private business deal” and that “[t]he Tribe has nothing to do with any of this business.” When Mr. Inetianbor brought the arbitrator’s statements to the attention of the trial court in Florida, the court was persuaded to reconsider its previous orders compelling arbitration.

The trial court determined that it was not possible to conduct an arbitration in accordance with the parties’ agreement, because the arbitration was not being conducted by an “authorized representative” of the Tribe. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision. The dispute between Mr. Inetianbor and his loan servicer will now be resolved through judicial proceedings, not through arbitration.

So what does this mean for non-compete agreements? It is probably fair to say that most practitioners have never encountered a non-compete agreement specifying resolution of disputes through arbitration conducted by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation. However, employment contracts sometimes contain both non-compete provisions and arbitration provisions. As an initial matter, such arbitration provisions may add additional steps to the process of obtaining injunctive relief from a court when an employer seeks to enforce its non-compete provisions. This said, when the arbitration provisions are enforceable, it is the arbitrator — and not a court — who will ultimately determine the scope and application of the non-compete provisions. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Inetianbor underscores the need to pay attention to the forum(s) specified for arbitration when drafting or litigating non-compete clauses subject to arbitration.

Derek Jeter Retires: Can He Compete?

For two decades Yankees fans and baseball aficionados everywhere have reveled in Derek Jeter’s statesmanship and poise. Jeter exemplified leadership. Despite having played alongside several teammates embroiled in controversy, Jeter remained above the fray. He spoke with his bat. He spoke with his glove. His ability to keep his tongue spoke loudly enough for all to hear. He was, as all baseball fans know, a fierce competitor. Yankees fans around the globe imagine a day when Jeter might return to the organization. Will he coach? Will he manage? Will he run the front office?

Jeter is not the first employee to retire after years of dedicated and valuable service. Nor is Derek Jeter a typical employee.   If a professional baseball team offered Derek Jeter the job of Manager ̶ any baseball team ̶ Yankees fans would likely collectively say “Good for you, Captain.”

This author is unaware of any instance in which a retiring baseball player was subject to a non-competition agreement. However not all successful retiring employees in Florida face as easy a path to continued success. Readers of this blog are well aware that under defined circumstances Florida law allows employers and employees to negotiate non-competition agreements that can restrict for a limited period of time the former employee’s future employment. Under Florida law, an employer and its employee can agree on future restrictions pertaining to location, specialty and time period. An employer and its employee can agree on what information constitutes a trade secret and on limitations to the former employee’s use of the employer’s trade secrets.

Can you imagine the trade secrets an athlete like Derek Jeter must possess? Insight on the various pitchers throughout the league could prove invaluable to a Yankees competitor. Jeter’s insight into the Yankees organization itself could prove invaluable to a Yankees competitor. Sure, professionals throughout baseball command high salaries to possess just such insight.   Professional scouts abound. Each Manager is aware of the characteristics of nearly every other player in the league. And yet how many of them has faced a 97 MPH fastball and deftly flicked it into right field with a runner in scoring position to win the game?

It’s true, an employer and employee in Florida can agree on limitations to the employee’s future employment upon his or her departure from a current job. If you’re subject to non-competition agreement in Florida and are restricted from working in your chosen field for a period of time, you need not panic. Rumor has it that a job is now available in the Bronx. The Yankees need a shortstop.

On the other hand, if you lack that particular talent and need legal advice on Florida non-competition agreements, make sure you call an attorney experienced in this area of the law. At Burr & Forman we have attorneys in nine offices throughout the Southeast experienced in dealing with these issues. And yes, Derek, we also need a shortstop…

Georgia Court of Appeals Provides Ammunition for Saving Unenforceable Non-Competes

In the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks and his platoon of grunts cross dangerous enemy territory to rescue an American soldier before he becomes the fourth member of his family to be a casualty of the Big One.  In similar fashion, a trial court and a Georgia Court of Appeals panel in Fab’rik Boutique, Inc. v. Shops Around Lenox, Inc., 2014 Ga. App. LEXIS 612 (Ga. Ct. App. Sept. 8, 2014), led by Judge McFadden, recently marched through 40-plus years of hostile Georgia non-compete law to save an equally vulnerable restrictive covenant.

If you’ve been paying attention to this Blog or Georgia non-compete law in general, you know that May 11, 2011, is Liberation Day for Georgia restrictive covenants.  Following the enactment of Georgia’s  new non-compete statute, O.C.G.A. §13-8-50, et seq., restrictive covenants in agreements executed on or after May 11, 2011, were freed from the often draconian constraints of the prior body of case law governing, and usually dooming, Georgia non-compete agreements.  Of most significance, the new law allows a Court to blue-pencil (or modify, for you non-lawyers out there) an overbroad covenant so that it can be reasonable and thus enforceable.  Agreements that pre-date Non-compete Liberation Day, however, must strictly comply with the applicable body of case law or else be deemed not worth the paper they’re written on.  Decisions from state and Federal courts following the enactment of the new statute made it clear that they understood that Georgia non-compete law now existed in two parallel but supremely disparate dimensions — a litigant seeking to enforce a post-May 11, 2011 restrictive covenant could expect a benevolent jurist with a newly-sharpened blue-pencil eager to assist the over-zealous drafter of the non-compete by softening the effect of the over-reaching contractual language.  For those non-compete plaintiffs with a an older covenant, however, the judge’s ruling would likely continue to be as deadly as the bible-quoting sniper in Tom Hanks’ platoon.

InFab’rik,the Court of Appeals construed a restrictive covenant in a lease that prohibited the tenant, a women’s clothing boutique, from opening or operating “another store” within five miles of the leased premises.  Read literally, the clause would prevent the tenant’s owners from opening up an ice cream shop or hardware store in the restricted area, even though such uses would not be competitive with the tenant’s clothing store in the landlord’s retail center.  The tenant argued that under the pre-2011 strict scrutiny to be applied by Courts to restrictive covenants, the provision was grossly overbroad as drafted and thus unenforceable.

If I were a gambling man, I would have put my money on the tenant in succeeding in this argument, having seen many a similarly vague restrictive covenant felled by the prior body of employee-friendly non-compete law. I’m glad Vegas doesn’t take odds on appellate cases, however, because my wallet would be a little lighter today.  The Court of Appeals, recognizing that it could not use the new statute to blue-pencil the covenant, instead applied the rules of contract construction to narrow what it deemed to be an ambiguous phrase and held that, following such judicial construction, the covenant was reasonable and enforceable against the tenant.  In rationalizing its decision, the Court said that “the application of the rules of contract construction, and not the ‘blue pencil’ method, resolve any ambiguity in the lease.” Id. at *7.  It would be interesting to see how many of the legions of unenforceable non-competes from past opinions could be saved in similar fashion, but alas, that is an endeavor well-beyond the scope of this casual blog post.

BURR POINT:  The prevailing thought among non-compete lawyers In Georgia has been that pre-May 11, 2011 non-compete agreements would not receive any benefit of the change in public policy towards restrictive covenants heralded by the 2011 statute.  The most recent Court of Appeals case on the issue perhaps signals that there may yet be hope for Private Ryan-like older non-compete agreements under attack by a barrage of unfriendly pre-statutory case law.