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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.