The Multi-State Non-Compete Agreement – Part 3

Our most recent article in this series (May, 2015) addressed the first step of the analysis necessary for the multi-state employer’s design and implementation of a manageable, limited number of noncompete agreements compliant with most, if not all, applicable state laws. That article addressed the identification of the “protectable interests” amongst all employees with the goal of matching the appropriate employee categories with the “right blend” of restrictive covenants needed for each employee group. With that background, we move to the next step in the process; identifying which of the employees’ resident states pose unusually difficult procedural hurdles to the enforcement of restrictive covenants at the onset.

There are essentially 2 such key hurdles. The first involves those state laws which require extra “consideration” beyond just continued employment for the enforcement of employee noncompete agreements. These states include South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Virginia, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and a few others. Most state laws of this type require employers to condition the actual hiring or promotion of the employee on his/her execution of the noncompete agreement or alternatively, for employers to provide some extra, material, monetary benefit in exchange for the employee’s signature. Some state laws such as Illinois go so far as to require “employer clairvoyance,” essentially stating that even signing the noncompete at the time of hire is insufficient if the individual’s employment does not ultimately last at least 2 years. Regardless, employees in these states compile a subgroup deserving of special consideration. For these employees, the multi-state employer can either choose to enter into noncompete agreements only with new-hires or provide the employees of these states with some additional incentive (i.e. bonus) in return for their execution of the noncompete agreement.

The second initial hurdle involves a very limited number of state laws which require that in order to be enforceable, a noncompete must be “ancillary” to an actual employment contract. Translated, this means that a stand-alone noncompete agreement will not be enforceable in these states. The contract must contain other terms covering the actual wages, hours and conditions of employment in order to be enforceable. Here, and for purposes of employee residents of these few states, the multi-state employer will either need to create a separate, all-encompassing agreement, bypass these employees altogether or use the stand-alone agreement knowing in the end, it will be unenforceable.

Stay tuned! The next article in this series will help narrow the field even more, taking a close look at those state laws which sanction the “blue pencil.”

The Chicago Cubs, Errors, and Arbitration of Florida Non-Compete Agreements

Some clients prefer to resolve disputes in arbitration. In theory, an arbitration proceeding can more quickly and — in some instances — more cost effectively resolve disputes. However because most arbitration clauses call for binding arbitration, many clients prefer to litigate disputes in court. At least a defeat in a courtroom carries with it the ability to appeal. If the court makes a clear legal error, the argument goes, an appellate panel can collectively correct the error and “set matters right.”

The Chicago Cubs are a National League baseball team. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Like an arbitration panel, it is difficult to overcome some of their errors. The Chicago Cubs, by almost any standard, had an excellent 2015 baseball season. An impressive pitching staff, an optimistic and experienced manager, and a great second-half team effort allowed the Cubs to win the National League Wildcard Playoff and to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the opening series. Instant replay may have decided some of the calls. None of those calls was subject to arbitration.

Getting back to Florida Non-Competes, a client recently asked the question: “Can parties agree to arbitrate, rather than litigate, an otherwise valid Florida Non-Compete agreement?” The simple answer is “yes.” The question gets more complicated when the sale of a business raises possible violations of the Non-Compete agreement and no arbitration clause exists in the purchase and sale documents relating to the sale. At least one appellate court in Florida determined that the question of whether or not the employee ran afoul of the Non-Compete agreement was subject to arbitration, despite the fact that the documents controlling the sale of the business contained no such provision.

In the matter noted above, the two-year Non-Compete agreement stated that during “the period of his employment… and for a period of two years immediately following the termination of such employment for whatever reason, Employee shall not have any direct or indirect ownership or other financial interest in any business which competes with the Business of the Company.” The employment agreement stipulated that the parties arbitrate disputes. The parties entered into the employment agreement commensurate with an agreement for the Employee to sell the business to the new employer. Unlike the Employment Agreement, the agreements related to the sale of the business did not contain an arbitration clause.

We all know what happens next. The parties have a dispute over their mutual contract performance and alleged breaches. Seller ultimately accuses the Buyer of misrepresentations intended to induce the sale and a series of other acts inconsistent with the agreement to purchase the company. The Seller sues in state court claiming that the Buyer violated the terms related to the parties’ sale and purchase of the business.

Citing the very broad language of the Non-Compete agreement, the Buyer (Employer) seeks to have the dispute resolved in arbitration in accordance with the Non-Compete agreement, despite the fact that the issues raised in the Seller’s Complaint did not specifically relate to the Employment Agreement or a breach thereof. (See generally Sunsplash Events, Inc., Fla. 4th DCA 2014). The trial court ruled against the Buyer, favoring the argument that the causes of action arose under the agreements to purchase the business (no arbitration clause) and not under the employment agreement (arbitration clause). The appellate court disagreed. In a detailed analysis, the appellate court ruled that the very broad language of the employment agreement was sufficient to encompass the claims Seller brought in the state court. The appellate court found a nexus between the disagreement over the sale of the business and the simultaneously-entered employment agreement. As a result, the appellate court ordered the parties to arbitrate the dispute (rather than litigate it in state court).

Readers of this blog are aware that courts favor arbitration clauses. Generally, courts give very liberal interpretation to arbitration clauses and favor resolving disputes in arbitration whenever the facts allow. In the case noted above, the appellate court surmised that an arbitrator could hear the entire dispute because the issue of whether the Buyer’s alleged fraudulent inducement occurred might also involve a determination of whether the Seller breached the employment agreement. As a result, the arbitration clause of the employment agreement mandated an arbitration proceeding rather than an action in state court.

As for the Chicago Cubs, after a fine season and a triumphant start to the 2015 Playoffs, the journey ended when the New York Mets swept the Cubs in four games to earn a trip to the 2015 World Series.

The take-away is this: the question of whether or not to arbitrate is worthy of discussion with your counsel. In some instances arbitration is required even when not anticipated (or preferred). And if you’re a Cubs fan, there’s always next year. At Burr & Forman we have lawyers throughout the southeast skilled in this area of the law. We do not have attorneys capable of predicting when the Cubs might win the World Series.

Florida Non-Competes: Physicians, Attorneys, Quarterbacks, Oh My…

Regular readers of this blog know that Florida law allows “valid restraints of trade,” under certain circumstances. Those restrictions apply to the employer-employee relationship when written and duly executed in accordance with Florida statutes. These restraints of trade are commonly called “Non-Compete” or “Non- Competition” agreements. There are similar restrictions that can prohibit a departing employee from using a former employer’s trade secrets.

Florida’s valid restraints of trade do not apply to attorneys. As a result, attorneys are not subject to non-compete agreements. Go figure.

Physicians, on the other hand, are often required to enter into non-compete agreements as conditions of employment. Recently a group of Florida physicians asked me whether Florida law recognizes a public policy argument that negates all non-compete agreements attempting to restrain doctors from practicing in the location of their choosing or seeing previous patients. The simple answer is “No,” however the analysis seldom ends there. Generally speaking, there is no statute or case law in Florida that negates the enforcement of an otherwise valid non-compete agreement against a physician or a physician’s practice. (There are cases that have disallowed the agreements, and there are cases in which the physician was found not to have violated the non-compete terms, however there are no cases that courts regularly cite or follow creating a public policy against restricting a physician’s practice after the physician departs from a prior employer.)

So what is a physician to do when she is attempting to relocate her practice or when she hopes to join a competitor? First, and perhaps most obviously, the physician can usually negotiate (read: pay money) to opt out of the non-compete agreement. Many times a physician’s non-compete agreement actually contains the manner and costs associated with the buy-out provision. The second vehicle to challenge a physician’s non-compete agreement is on the grounds of the definition of the reasonable restriction of geographic area. Some patients will travel great distances to see their doctor. The more specialized the physician’s practice, the more likely a court will recognize the need for a greater geographic restriction. (At the same time, the more specialized the physician’s practice, the more likely the physician can argue that an actual public policy concern justifies a court’s decision to allow an argument to render the non-compete void.)

What we have found over the years is that physician practices are not shy about enforcing non-compete agreements with departing physicians. At the same time, nearly all of these physician practice groups are far more interested in resolving these issues through (financial) negotiations than through the continuation of litigation. Either way, the law in this area is very nuanced and fact-specific. As with all non-compete cases, Florida courts are obligated to construe the written, executed agreements according to their plain terms, interpreting all ambiguities in favor of unrestricted employment.

Quarterbacks are entirely different. The typical non-compete comes in the form of untimely interceptions. As a life-long NY Giants fan it’s important to recognize that losing the first two regular-season games when holding a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter is simply non-competitive. This despite Eli Manning’s contract extension that included a guarantee of more than $60 million. Fortunately, the Giants held their fourth quarter lead in the third game. That’s more competitive. Note to Eli: please stay healthy. And Eli, if you suffer an injury, consider receiving your treatment down in Florida. We have some seriously great physicians here. They’re very competitive.

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.

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.

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.

Joan Rivers and Non-Competition Agreements: Can We Talk?

Sadly, Joan Rivers ̶ the famous comedienne who was perhaps best known for sitting down with celebrities and asking “can we talk?” ̶ died recently at the age of 81. Ms. Rivers’ self-deprecating nature and ability to use laughter to put people either at ease or to otherwise coerce them to divulge information often resulted in her getting the scoop. This unique ability allowed her to remain popular and visible for decades. And how, you might ask, does Ms. Rivers’ story relate at all to Florida non-competition agreements? To borrow a phrase: let’s talk.

If you have followed this blog (or merely happened upon it through an internet search) you likely already know that under Florida law the legal bases for non-competition agreements are found in the statutes under the name “Valid Restraints of Trade.” After all, that is exactly what a non-competition agreement does: it restricts, for a defined period, a former employee from working in a field that might compete with the former employer. The result is a “restraint of trade,” which is to say an obvious restriction on the future employment of the former employee. If drafted properly, a non-competition agreement is legally enforceable against the former employee. The question is: Does it always make sense for a company to litigate a potential violation of an otherwise valid non-competition agreement?

This is certainly a topic worthy of serious discussion. Courts strictly enforce non-competition agreements. When interpreting any ambiguities within these agreements, courts are also compelled to reach an interpretation that favors the former employee’s right to unrestricted work. This is an important factor to consider, because almost all non-competition agreements include a provision for the prevailing party in any enforcement action to have the losing party pay its attorneys’ fees and costs. As a result, what might look like a very strong case for a company against a former employee for violation of a non-competition agreement can turn into a prolonged and expensive battle over potential ambiguities in the agreement.

And now the benefit of talking: Ask yourself why your company wanted its employees to execute a written non-competition agreement. Did the employee’s potential departure pose a unique business risk to your company? Ask yourself what exactly it is you want to protect. Is there a specific trade secret at risk? Is there a client relationship at risk? If the overarching reason for the non-competition agreement is a client relationship, then consider whether the client will react positively to knowledge that your company initiated an action to enforce its non-competition agreement, thus potentially keeping the client from working with someone familiar? Once you answer these and any other relevant questions regarding the need and origin of your non-competition agreement, ask yourself one more. Ask yourself: “What is in the best interests of my company right now?” If, after consulting with your legal counsel and the company decision-makers, you remain confident that the best strategy is to quickly file an enforcement action, then the best thing to do is to secure competent counsel and to work with counsel to immediately set a company budget line-item specifically intended to fund the effort. On the other hand, sometimes the best thing about having your employees execute a valid non-competition agreement is your ability to negotiate a reasonable pay-out at the time of the employee’s departure. If you decide to negotiate instead of seeking to enforce, then the manner in which your company can benefit is often limitless. This is also the time when you can exercise an extreme amount of corporate creativity. Will a simple cash pay-out accommodate whatever pecuniary loss your company anticipates with the employee’s departure? Will your company benefit from entering into a joint venture agreement with the departing employee (presumably on favorable terms)? Is there a realistic opportunity to protect existing client relationships in the absence of the former employee? What is the value to the former employee to continue to work with your company’s (otherwise restricted) clients and contacts? In other words, talk it out within the company. You might discover that early interventional negotiation you will better serve the company’s overall goals than an often-unpredictable legal battle.

And so, back to Joan Rivers, sometimes it’s best to ask: “Can we talk?” Litigating a non-competition claim certainly sends a message to all departing employees that the company is willing to seek strict enforcement of its employer/employee agreements. It’s just not always your company’s best legal strategy.

This blog ends, like most others in this series, with some advice. When it comes to a decision of how to enforce a non-competition agreement, to drafting an enforceable non-competition agreement, or to litigating over the validity of a non-competition agreement, it’s necessary to arm your company with competent legal counsel experienced in these matters. At Burr & Forman we have experienced attorneys throughout the Southeast ready to address your questions and concerns.

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.