Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ohio appellate court tolls noncompete while litigation pending

Homan, Inc. v. A1 AG Services, LLC, decided this week by the 3rd District Court of Appeals, answers the following question: if an employer believes a former employee is violating a noncompetition agreement, but does not seek a preliminary injunction, is the time period in the noncompete agreement nevertheless tolled while the case is litigated?

The basic facts of the case are as follows. Kaiser signed a 3-year, 150 mile noncompetition agreement as a condition of his employment with Homan. In January 2004, Homan filed bankruptcy and either laid off or terminated its employees, including Kaiser. Immediately thereafter, Kaiser and his wife started a new business for the express purpose of competing against Homan. When Homan reminded Kaiser about his noncompete, he stopped working for his new business, but a year later rejoined the business, deciding that 1 year was long enough for him to sit out. Within 3 months, Homan sued to enforce the noncompete. It took nearly 2 years for the trial court to decide in Kaiser's favor.

The appellate court determined that a 2-year noncompete was reasonable, and reverse the trial court's judgment. Notably, the Court found that even though the noncompete had already expired, it was retroactively enforceable against Kaiser:

[A] covenant not to compete may not expire while the enforceability of that contract is being litigated…. [T]he plaintiff "should not be denied the benefit of their bargain simply because the time period specified in the negative covenant all but expired while [the plaintiff] sought to enforce the contract through the court system." … [T]he covenant was not enforced while litigation was pending, leaving the defendant to engage in direct competition with the plaintiff…. [I]f it held that the contract had expired during resolution of the litigation, it would be "sanctioning litigation as a delay tactic. All an individual would have to do would be to contest the negative covenant in court until the restrictive time period elapsed. If this were true, covenants not to compete would be virtually ineffective."

Thus, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred in ruling that the noncompete agreement had expired.

This decision completely ignores the practicalities of litigation in noncompete cases. At the outset of the litigation, the former employer has a clear remedy available to prevent a noncompete from expiring and the case becoming moot while the litigation is on-going – a preliminary injunction. A preliminary injunction maintains the status quo until the litigation is over, keeping the contract in force. If Homan was concerned about Kaiser's noncompete agreement expiring during the litigation, Homan should have moved for a preliminary injunction. No one be punished because a former employer sat on its rights and failed to avail itself of this widely recognized remedy. A holding that noncompete agreements are tolled during litigation rewards the former employer that fails to act to protect its rights.

The bottom line, Homan notwithstanding – don't wait to enforce noncompete agreements. Temporary Restraining Orders and Preliminary injunctions are available to halt employees who are violating noncompetes, and should be timely used to enforce the agreement while its merits are litigated.