Posts tagged with "competition"

Non-Compete Invalidated Due to Unnecessary Restrictions on Future Employment

Non-Compete Invalidated Due to Unnecessary Restrictions on Future Employment
Connecticut Bathworks Corp. v. Palmer, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2193

Connecticut Bathworks Corporation was a company servicing New Haven, Fairfield, and Litchfield counties that remodeled bathrooms via the installation of prefabricated acrylic bathtub liners and wall systems. The company employed Mr. Palmer from approximately the beginning of April 2001 to February 28, 2003 at which point Mr. Palmer voluntarily terminated his employment. He began to work for Re-Bath of Connecticut, a company in direct competition with Bathworks, the next day. The issue in this case is that Mr. Palmer signed a “Company Confidentiality Agreement” when he began to work for Bathworks that contained a covenant not to compete that prohibited him from “being employed by any business in competition with the plaintiff [Bathworks] within any county in which the plaintiff is doing business for a period of three years from the termination of his employment with the plaintiff”. This created a three-year prohibition on working for a competitor with the tri-county area of New Haven, Fairfield, and Litchfield.
Bathworks sued Mr. Palmer in Connecticut state court and requested an injunction to enjoin him from further violations of the non-compete agreement. The court analyzed the facts of the case, held in favor of Mr. Palmer, and denied Bathworks’s request for injunctive relief. The court’s decision ultimately came down to the issue of whether Mr. Palmer’s employment with Re-Bath would negatively affect Bathworks’s interests and business operations. Bathworks carried the burden of establishing the probability of success on the merits of the case and the court held that it failed to present sufficient evidence to indicate it would be directly and immediately harmed due to breach of the restrictive covenant.
Bathworks argued that Mr. Palmer acquired valuable trade secrets and information during his employment with the company and that his continued employment with Re-Bath would harm its operations. The court however found that Mr. Palmer, as an installer, did not have access to Bathworks’s confidential information or any trade secrets that would put the company at a competitive disadvantage. The court further noted that while Mr. Palmer was a skilled laborer, he was not a high-level executive, nor did he provide “special, extraordinary, or unique” services. Bathworks also failed to present any evidence to show that Mr. Palmer knew of or took part in the company’s sales/marketing activities or the development of a business strategy.
The court stated that its role in deciding the case was to balance the parties’ interest to fairly protect Bathworks’s business while not unreasonably restricting Mr. Palmer’s right to seek employment elsewhere. This agreement however, according to court, unnecessarily restricted Mr. Palmer’s right to work at another company because there was nothing about that employment which would disadvantage Bathworks in the industry. The non-compete agreement went beyond what was reasonably necessary to protect the company’s interests and as such, the court denied Bathworks’s request for an injunction.
If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Non-Compete Enforceability: Must Protect Legitimate Interest & Not Be Punitive

Non-Compete Enforceability: Must Protect Legitimate & Not Be Punitive
Ranciato v. Nolan, 2002 Conn. Super. LEXIS 489

Historic Restoration and Appraisal, LLC (HRA) was engaged in the business of restoring primarily detached single-family homes that had suffered casualty damage from fire and/or water. The company employed Mr. Timothy Nolan to work as a project manager for jobs located throughout the state of Connecticut. Mr. Nolan’s employment began on November 18, 1996 and the company informed him shortly thereafter that his employment was contingent on the execution of a non-compete agreement. The parties signed the restrictive covenant on November 21, 1996 and it prohibited Mr. Nolan from performing the same services offered by HRA in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island for a period of three years. The agreement did not affect Mr. Nolan’s ability to offer painting or home improvement services that were not in connection to fire and/or water damage. In exchange for this employment restriction, the agreement stipulated that Mr. Nolan’s annual salary would be $48,500. He felt that he would be fired if he failed to sign the agreement and signed it without consulting a legal professional.
HRA fired Mr. Nolan on January 24, 1997 after repeated incidents of discovering that he was receiving lewd and inappropriate materials via the company’s fax machine. He began to work for McGuire Associates shortly after HRA discharged him and performed marketing and business development services in the capacity of his new position. Unlike HRA, McGuire is a preferred builder and the court held that it did not compete with HRA. The company sued Mr. Nolan in Connecticut state court and asked the court to enforce the non-compete agreement that the parties had executed. The Superior Court of Connecticut in New Haven rejected HRA’s request and held that the company “suffered no financial loss as a result of the defendant’s employment by McGuire”.
According to the non-compete agreement, Mr. Nolan can be in breach only if he works at a company that is “in competition with” HRA. While the court acquiesced that HRA and McGuire were both in the construction industry, it held that they performed significantly different services and were not in competition with each other for clients or projects. The industry classified HRA as a “fire chaser” because it received most of its jobs by monitoring police reports and fire scanners to alert them of individuals that needed repairs for fire and/or water damage. McGuire however was a preferred builder and provided services for not only single-family homes, but also commercial and municipal buildings. The courts interpreted the significant differences between the two companies as adequate evidence that Mr. Nolan was not “in competition with” HRA because of his new employment with McGuire.
Furthermore, the court discussed the reasons why a court would enforce a non-compete covenant, specifically referencing the legal system’s desire to balance and protect the parties’ interests. Courts generally grant injunctions to enforce a non-compete agreement when the plaintiff employer can provide adequate evidence that the former employee’s breach will result in adverse financial consequences. The court noted that this policy did not apply to the case since HRA had not suffered any financial loss or hardship and Mr. Nolan did not have any access to confidential information that would be harmful to the company should it be disclosed.
Additionally, the court concluded that the time and geographical restrictions in the agreement were unreasonable given the facts of the case. HRA did not have anything to lose because of McGuire employing Mr. Nolan because of the differences in their business operations and the court held that the restrictions, if enforced, would only serve to prevent Mr. Nolan from employment at another company. The policy to enforce non-compete agreements focuses on protecting the interests of the employer and not to punish the employee and excessively restrict future employment opportunities. Specifically, the court cited that HRA could only “benefit from protection in the New Haven area” and that the “tri-state restriction imposed on the defendant was not necessary to protect any legitimate interests of the plaintiff and, therefore, [the agreement] was not ‘reasonably limited’”.
If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Non-Compete Enforceability: Must Protect Legitimate Interest & Not Be Punitive

Non-Compete Enforceability: Must Protect Legitimate & Not Be Punitive
Ranciato v. Nolan, 2002 Conn. Super. LEXIS 489

Historic Restoration and Appraisal, LLC (HRA) was engaged in the business of restoring primarily detached single-family homes that had suffered casualty damage from fire and/or water. The company employed Mr. Timothy Nolan to work as a project manager for jobs located throughout the state of Connecticut. Mr. Nolan’s employment began on November 18, 1996 and the company informed him shortly thereafter that his employment was contingent on the execution of a non-compete agreement. The parties signed the restrictive covenant on November 21, 1996 and it prohibited Mr. Nolan from performing the same services offered by HRA in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island for a period of three years. The agreement did not affect Mr. Nolan’s ability to offer painting or home improvement services that were not in connection to fire and/or water damage. In exchange for this employment restriction, the agreement stipulated that Mr. Nolan’s annual salary would be $48,500. He felt that he would be fired if he failed to sign the agreement and signed it without consulting a legal professional.
HRA fired Mr. Nolan on January 24, 1997 after repeated incidents of discovering that he was receiving lewd and inappropriate materials via the company’s fax machine. He began to work for McGuire Associates shortly after HRA discharged him and performed marketing and business development services in the capacity of his new position. Unlike HRA, McGuire is a preferred builder and the court held that it did not compete with HRA. The company sued Mr. Nolan in Connecticut state court and asked the court to enforce the non-compete agreement that the parties had executed. The Superior Court of Connecticut in New Haven rejected HRA’s request and held that the company “suffered no financial loss as a result of the defendant’s employment by McGuire”.
According to the non-compete agreement, Mr. Nolan can be in breach only if he works at a company that is “in competition with” HRA. While the court acquiesced that HRA and McGuire were both in the construction industry, it held that they performed significantly different services and were not in competition with each other for clients or projects. The industry classified HRA as a “fire chaser” because it received most of its jobs by monitoring police reports and fire scanners to alert them of individuals that needed repairs for fire and/or water damage. McGuire however was a preferred builder and provided services for not only single-family homes, but also commercial and municipal buildings. The courts interpreted the significant differences between the two companies as adequate evidence that Mr. Nolan was not “in competition with” HRA because of his new employment with McGuire.
Furthermore, the court discussed the reasons why a court would enforce a non-compete covenant, specifically referencing the legal system’s desire to balance and protect the parties’ interests. Courts generally grant injunctions to enforce a non-compete agreement when the plaintiff employer can provide adequate evidence that the former employee’s breach will result in adverse financial consequences. The court noted that this policy did not apply to the case since HRA had not suffered any financial loss or hardship and Mr. Nolan did not have any access to confidential information that would be harmful to the company should it be disclosed.
Additionally, the court concluded that the time and geographical restrictions in the agreement were unreasonable given the facts of the case. HRA did not have anything to lose because of McGuire employing Mr. Nolan because of the differences in their business operations and the court held that the restrictions, if enforced, would only serve to prevent Mr. Nolan from employment at another company. The policy to enforce non-compete agreements focuses on protecting the interests of the employer and not to punish the employee and excessively restrict future employment opportunities. Specifically, the court cited that HRA could only “benefit from protection in the New Haven area” and that the “tri-state restriction imposed on the defendant was not necessary to protect any legitimate interests of the plaintiff and, therefore, [the agreement] was not ‘reasonably limited’”.
If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Enforcing a Non-Compete Agreement in a Medical Partnership

Enforcing a Non-Compete Agreement in a Medical Partnership

Fairfield County Bariatrics and Surgical Associates, P.C. v. Ehrlich, 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 568

Doctors Neil and Craig Floch created Floch Surgical Associates in 1999 in Norwalk, Connecticut to provide medical and surgical services to patients. They decided to gear their practice towards bariatric surgery and hired Dr. Timothy Ehrlich, a board certified general surgeon and graduate of Louisiana State University School of Medicine, in 2002. He was granted surgical privileges at Norwalk Hospital and St. Vincent’s Hospital (in Bridgeport, CT) and operated as the only member of the medical group to perform bariatric surgeries exclusively. On January 1, 2006, the two Floch doctors and Dr. Ehrlich formed Fairfield Bariatrics and Surgical Associates, P.C. (FCB). Each doctor became a third shareholder in the professional corporation and signed identical employment agreements that outlined the compensation schedule, termination protocols, and included a non-compete agreement. The non-compete prohibited each doctor, for two years after termination, from practicing general medicine/surgery within fifteen miles of FCB’s main office in Norwalk and barred performing bariatric procedures at hospitals located in Stamford, Norwalk, Greenwich, Danbury, and Bridgeport.
Doctors Neil and Craig Floch voted to terminate Dr. Ehrlich in July 2009 and notified him of the decision in a letter dated July 30, 1999. They justified his termination by claiming that he repeatedly “misrepresented the group” and had lost his surgical privileges at Norwalk Hospital due to non-compliance with the hospital’s Trauma Service requirements. Dr. Ehrlich proceeded to form his own limited liability company, Ehrlich Bariatrics LLC, on October 22, 2009 and opened offices in Waterford and Trumbull. Both of these municipalities are located outside of the prohibited area created by the non-compete agreement but he also continued to perform operations at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport, an activity expressly prohibited by the restrictive covenant.
FCB sued Dr. Ehrlich in Connecticut court and requested that the court enforce the provisions outlined in the non-compete agreement dated January 1, 2006. The court found in favor of FCB, determined that Dr. Ehrlich had violated a valid non-compete agreement, and enforced the provisions of the covenant not to compete. The court stated that the challenging party (Dr. Ehrlich for this case) bore the burden of proof to demonstrate that the agreement was unenforceable. He asserted that he had not been properly terminated and that the agreement itself was unreasonable, and therefore unenforceable. The court rejected both of these arguments and concluded that the agreement was valid and enforceable.
Dr. Ehrlich advanced the unconvincing argument that he was the victim of improper termination because the shareholders meeting at which the vote was taken to terminate his employment was not properly noticed pursuant to the corporation’s by-laws. He essentially contended that the “lack of notice renders his termination a nullity”. The court however disagreed with Dr. Ehrlich because a physician whose termination is being voted on is not entitled to cast a vote. The lack of voting power for this matter meant that his presence was not required and he was not entitled to notice of the special shareholders meeting where the vote was taken. The court ultimately concluded that Doctors Neil and Craig Floch had taken the proper and necessary steps in accordance with the corporation’s by-laws to terminate Dr. Ehrlich’s employment with FCB.
Next, Dr. Ehrlich unsuccessfully contended that the agreement contained unreasonable provisions and therefore the court was not obligated or permitted to order its enforcement. Discerning the reasonableness of a non-compete agreement required the court to balance the competing needs of the parties as well as the needs of the public. Furthermore, the challenging party must show that the provisions are unreasonable in scope. First, the court established that FCB did in fact have a legitimate business interest that necessitated protection. The company was entitled to protect potential new patients within a reasonably limited market area. FCB was only concerned with future patients and did not seek to prevent Dr. Ehrlich from providing follow-up services to current or past patients.
Next, the court addressed and cited a variety of case law that showed Connecticut courts’ history of enforcing non-compete agreements when they protect against “something other than mere competition”, including the use of customer lists, impaired of purchased good will, confidential data/trade secrets, use of information concerning potential clients in a limited area, or some other advantage the former employee acquired while working for the plaintiff company. The court found that Dr. Ehrlich had greatly benefitted from his association with FCB and that his continued actions would negatively affect the reputation and business operations of his former employer.
Lastly, the court took time to address the differences between non-compete agreements for an employer-employee relationship and those for partnerships. It held that since there was not unequal bargaining power or impaired ability to earn a living, the provisions were not unreasonable in scope. The court noted that Dr. Ehrlich’s offices in Trumbull and Waterford did not violate the agreement and there were numerous hospitals located outside the prohibited area where he could find employment as a board certified surgeon specializing in bariatrics. He had actually received encouragement from several doctors to apply for privileges at permissible hospitals, including the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven.
In light of Dr. Ehrlich violating a legally binding non-compete agreement that protected a legitimate business interest, the court ordered the enforcement of the restrictive covenant.
If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Industry Specific Factors Can Render Unenforceable a Covenant Not to Compete

A covenant not to compete may be unenforceable even if it is reasonable in terms of geographic designation and time limitation.  In Creative Dimensions, Inc. v. Laberge, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1464 (Conn. Super. May 31, 2012), two individuals sold their business and became “at will” employees of the purchaser.  At issue was a nation-wide agreement not to compete for a period of 18 months following termination of their employment.  The court found the covenant reasonable in time and space but unenforceable nevertheless because of certain other factors, including attributes of the underlying industry.

The employer offered goods and services in the area of trade show signs, services, and exhibits.  The former employees joined a sign company that, as a result, expanded into the portable and custom exhibits market.  In deciding the case, the Court focused on two of the five factors relevant to determining the enforceability of a restrictive covenant: the extent to which it (a) protects legitimate business interests, and (b) unreasonably restricts an individual’s ability to engage in an occupation or profession.

Significantly, the defendants were the only employees of the plaintiff subject to a covenant not to compete.  The employer argued that it had invested time, energy, and money in the defendants as at will employees.  To this contention, the Court responded: “. . . an employer’s desire to stop competition from an employee in whom the employer has invested time, energy, and money is not sufficient, alone, to support the validity of a Covenant not to Compete or not to Solicit.  Equitably, the Covenant must protect against something more, and must be bargained for in exchange for more.”  Stated differently, a covenant not to compete must seek to protect against something more than mere competition, i.e., some advantage the employee acquired that would render unfair his immediate competition.

In this case, there was no evidence that the employer had trade secrets or confidential data that defendants accessed prior to their departure. By the same token, the employer’s customers were either already public knowledge or readily accessible through its own website.  The relationship between the employer and its customers was not markedly different than those of other portable display businesses.  In fact, the employer’s customers often used the services of the employer’s competitors, and the employer on occasion even outsourced business to its competitors. Significantly, the employer did not require other employees to sign a covenant not to compete even though employees had been lost to competitors in the past.  As a result, the Court concluded that the employer did not truly believe that such covenants were necessary to protect itself within the portable display market.

The Court also found that the covenant seriously impeded defendants’ ability to pursue their chosen careers.  “The test for reasonableness is not whether the defendants would be able to make a living in other ways, or in other occupations, but whether or not the [covenant] as drafted and applied would unfairly restrain their “opportunity” to pursue their occupation.”

Finally, the Court emphasized that the portable display market “does not involve a fixed and unchanging clientele.”  The market is highly competitive, customer loyalty is fleeting, and sales staff are fairly transient.  In sum, while the defendants may have learned aspects of the trade show business while in the plaintiff’s employ, they were not provided with specialized or protected knowledge not readily available to others in the field.  Consequently, by virtue of their employ, defendants were not possessed of an unfair advantage in the market.

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment and corporate law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County.  If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

 

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