As the popularity of covenants not to compete increases, the competitive practices which are prohibited by those agreements also seem to grow. However, there are laws in place which ensure that covenants not to compete that are deemed too stringent cannot be upheld in a court of law. One of the most common limitations on covenants not to compete is the one which states that the agreement must be broad enough only to cover the company’s legitimate business interests and no more.
Another very common limitation that courts consider is whether or not the agreement poses undue hardship on an employee. When cases of disputed covenants not to compete reach a court, it is the court’s duty to balance the needs of the business to protect their legitimate business interests with the needs of the employee to find work. If a covenant not to compete is too broad, it may make it inordinately difficult for an employee to find any work at all after her employment with the company comes to an end.
One such case in which a court found that the covenant not to compete was overly broad is the case of Orca Communications Unlimited LLC v. Ann J. Noder et al. In this case, Orca Communications, a public relations firm located in Arizona, hired Noder to be its President. Prior to taking this job, Noder had had no experience with public relations. She learned everything about the business while working for Orca.
Noder signed a Confidentiality, Customer and Employee Non-Solicitation, and Non-Competition Agreement which prevented her from advertising, or soliciting or providing conflicting services for any company which competes with Orca. After Noder left Orca to start her own public relations firm, Orca sued her for breach of contract.
The Agreement further prevented Noder from convincing any former or current or prospective customer of Orca to end its relationship with Orca. This was one of the main areas of Agreement with which the court took issue. To prevent Noder from enticing away from Orca a current Orca customer is to protect Orca’s legitimate business interests. However, to prevent Noder from doing so with companies which have never had any business dealings with Orca, the court found to be overly broad and imposed undue hardship on Noder in her efforts to find gainful employment after her time at Orca.
The Agreement also contained a confidentiality provision which prohibited Noder from using or disclosing any of Orca’s confidential information without Orca’s consent. “Confidential Information” was defined as knowledge or information which is not generally known to the public or to the public relations industry or was “readily accessible to the public in a written publication.” However, the Agreement did cover information which was only available through “substantial searching of published literature” or that had been “pieced together” from a number of different publications and sources.
This provision of the Agreement the court also found to be too broad. To protect company trade secrets is well within the limitations of protecting a company’s legitimate business interests. However, even if one has to conduct substantial research to gain knowledge, that knowledge is still considered to be in the public domain and therefore cannot be covered under a confidentiality agreement.
The trial court found that the Agreement was overly broad and dismissed the case. Orca appealed and the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the ruling of the lower court and dismissed the case.
The employment attorneys at at our firm with offices in Chicago and Oak Brook represent business owners and professionals regarding non-competition agreements and other claims throughout the Chicagoland area, including Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry and Will Counties; and in the Mid-West region, including Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. You can contact us by calling our toll free number 630-333-0333 for a consultation or contact us online by filling out the form at the side of this blog.