Potential Antitrust Implications in Resolving Disputes Over An Employee’s Non-Compete Agreement

Resolving non-compete disputes often involves more than just bringing an employee and her former employer together to reach some agreement; successful resolution may also require the involvement of the employee’s new employer as well. An employer who hires an employee subject to a valid non-compete agreement with a former employer is inviting legal claims by the former employer, including claims for “tortious interference” with contract. The new employer is often named as a co-defendant when a former employer sues the employee for breaching her non-compete. Almost by definition, therefore, when there is litigation between a former employer and a new employer over an employee’s non-compete agreement, this means that there are two competitors involved in the litigation. To resolve such a dispute out of court, an agreement must be reached among competitors. But when two or more competitors sit down and reach an agreement, there exists some risk of anti-competitive effects that could create potential liability under antitrust laws.

One potential antitrust predicament arising out of a dispute over a non-compete agreement can be illustrated by the following hypothetical: Suppose that Acme Widget Company, based in Arizona, has been selling widgets in the Southwest and beyond for 50 years.  As a result of its long track-record and reliable products, Acme Widget has a 90% market share in the Southwestern widget-market, although its market share is lower in the rest of the country (where the demand for widgets is not as great).  Acme Widget’s long-time sales manager, Mr. Wolf, is not sure about Acme Widget’s new business model (which would change the way he sells widgets) and is interested in finding new employment elsewhere.  He learns about a relatively new start-up venture based in Georgia, Coyote Widget Company.  Coyote Widget’s niche is finding customers who have never purchased widgets before, and Coyote Widget has been successfully exploiting the previously-untapped widget-market on the East Coast and in the Southeast.  Coyote Widget does sell widgets to a few customers located in Arizona and does sell to some former customers of Acme Widget.  However, because Coyote Widget’s business model focuses on exploiting previously-untapped markets, Coyote Widget is not particularly interested in selling widgets to Acme Widget’s existing customer-base.

Coyote Widget and Mr. Wolf think that they would be a good fit for one another, but Coyote Widget is concerned about the non-compete agreement that Mr. Wolf entered into with Acme Widget when he became Acme’s sales manager.  Acme Widget, for its part, would just as soon part ways with Mr. Wolf and wants to wish him well in his future endeavors.  Then again, Acme Widget is well aware that Mr. Wolf carries a lot of clout with its established customers and is wary about allowing any other widget-maker ready access to these customers.

The three parties (Acme Widget, Coyote Widget, and Mr. Wolf) remain interested in working out a solution.  At the start of negotiations, Coyote Widget and Mr. Wolf jointly propose that, if Mr. Wolf comes to work for Coyote Widget, he will not contact any customer with whom he worked while at Acme Widget for a two-year period (the term of his non-compete).  Acme Widget likes this proposal but is worried that it could be hard to police and might be subject to cheating.  For example, if one of Mr. Wolf’s former Acme customers contacts him at Coyote Widget, Mr. Wolf could refer him to another salesperson at Coyote Widget.  Mr. Wolf’s referral would likely carry significant weight with the customer, even if Mr. Wolf did not initiate the contact or manage the account himself.  Acme Widget also does not trust Coyote Widget’s representations that its business model is focused on previously-untapped markets and that it is not interested in Acme Widget’s customer-base.  Given Mr. Wolf’s long-time contacts in the industry, Acme Widget is concerned that the temptation could be too great for Coyote Widget; once Mr. Wolf is on staff, it would be too easy for Coyote Widget to start raiding Acme Widget’s customer-base.

However, following several rounds of negotiations, the parties reach what appears to be a solution:  Acme Widget will provide Coyote Widget with a list of customers serviced by Mr. Wolf, and Coyote Widget will agree not to accept business from any customer on this list for the next two years. For good measure, Coyote Widget has also offered to agree not to solicit any new customers in Arizona and has agreed to provide Acme Widget with a list of Coyote Widget’s existing customers in Arizona (a small number in any event). Such an agreement would be easy to enforce — if an Acme Widget customer later moves its account to Coyote Widget, Acme Widget will not have to worry about proving that Mr. Wolf initiated contact with the customer. All that Acme Widget would have to prove is either (i) that the customer moved its account from Acme Widget to Coyote Widget and is listed on Acme Widget’s list or (ii) that the customer is in Arizona and is not on Coyote Widget’s list. From Coyote Widget’s perspective, this agreement has few drawbacks, given Coyote Widget’s focus on the untapped widget-market on the East Coast and in the Southeast.

There is, however, a problem with this solution:  the federal Sherman Act and similar state statutes that may be on the books in states where Acme Widget and Coyote Widget do business. Indeed, whereas many potential antitrust violations are judged under a “rule of reason” analysis (wherein the court will conduct an analysis of potential anti-competitive effects), so-called “horizontal” agreements among competitors to allocate markets may be viewed as per se illegal. The potential antitrust violation in the above hypothetical could subject Acme Widget and Coyote Widget to both criminal and civil liability, and once a per se violation is shown, there are few arguments that either company could make in its defense.  For that matter, given that Acme Widget holds a 90% market share in the Southwestern widget-market and that Coyote Widget is a start-up that has made some inroads (however limited) into this market, this is exactly the sort of scenario that could invite antitrust scrutiny from regulators or from customers unhappy about Acme Widget’s high prices.

In conclusion, employers seeking to resolve disputes about non-compete agreements should be aware of other legal risks and exposures, including antitrust laws.  Too much focus on the non-compete agreement in dispute can sometimes lead to even greater exposures in other areas.

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

Sometimes Hiring a New Employee Can Invite an Unwanted Lawsuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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