Thursday, September 4, 2008

Be careful what you ask for

Non-competes are a curious breed. They are often used, but difficult to enforce. What's the harm in trying, you might ask? If an employee signs a non-competition agreement and goes to work for a competitor, why not roll the dice and see if you can extract your pound of flesh from the former employee and your rival?

U.S. Foodservice v Marzich (N.D. Ohio 9/2/08)* illustrates the dangers. As a result of U.S. Foodservices's attempt to enforce a non-compete agreement against former executives, it is now faced with an Opinion and Order from a federal court that its agreement is invalid as a matter of law:

The breadth of solicitation and confidentiality covenants certainly extend beyond the reach necessary for the protection of Foodservice's business interests and presents an undue hardship on the Former Employees in violation of Maryland's law on restrictive covenants.... The Agreement lacks the narrow tailoring necessary to merely prevent the Former Employees from trading on the goodwill they created while serving Foodservice customers. Rather, the restrictive covenants appear designed to prevent any kind of competition by the Former Employees, which is not a legally protected interest under Maryland law.... While Foodservice has a legitimate interest in protecting its customer relationships, it does not have a legitimate interest in limiting ordinary competition. By prohibiting the Former Employees from soliciting business, "directly or indirectly" from any "Persons" in the universe of "Customers" who have ever made "contact" with Foodservice, "whether or not these [contacts] resulted in sales," the Agreement prohibits the Former Employees from engaging in conduct that could only reasonably be construed as ordinary competition.

If the company cannot enforce a non-compete against former executives, who can it enforce it against? A national company with more than 27,000 employees is now faced with the prospect of having an agreement that it can never enforce against anyone. For current employees, it will have to go back to the drawing board. For former employees, in the words of one of my former law professors, it's too bad, so sad, hard cheese.

This case certainly gives companies something to consider the next time an employee goes to work for a competitor.

*Full disclosure: KJK represents the defendants.