Geographic Scope of Pathologist’s Covenant Not to Compete Is Reasonable

A pathologist and his former employer sued each other over a covenant not to compete provision in the pathologist’s employment contract.  Among numerous issues before the Court of Appeals was whether the geographic scope of the non-compete provision was unreasonable.  The agreement provided that the pathologist was restricted from being employed by a practice that operates within 50 miles of Dallas County.

The pathologist argued that the scope of his non-compete was overly broad because he only worked in Dallas and Collin counties and because it was actually unlimited in scope since he was restricted from working for any practice that operates in Dallas, even if he worked far from the Dallas area.

The Court rejected those arguments and held that the geographic scope of his non-compete was not unreasonable, noting that the pathologist was also part of his former employer’s management team, causing him to be responsible for pathology practices across the Dallas area.  Consequently, the Court reasoned that “even if [the pathologist] were working in New York, for example, his management knowledge of and experience with appellants’ Dallas-area operations would be valuable to his new employer.”

Ameripath v. Hebert

Choice-of-Law Provision in Non-Compete Upheld

Although the non-competition agreement at issue in this case contained a choice-of-law provision designating that Texas law would apply, the trial court applied California law to determine the plaintiff’s claims.  The Court of Appeal, however, reversed the trial court’s decision on this point, because Texas did, in fact, have a “substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction” at issue.  Specifically, although the defendant, a former executive of plaintiff (a Texas company) moved to California after being hired, the evidence established that he (1) had an office in Texas at which he often worked; (2) negotiated the contract, at least in part, in Texas; and (3) performed the contract (in part) in Texas.

Ennis, Inc. v. Dunbrooke Apparel Corp.

Court Reinstates Arbitrator’s Award of Equitable Extension for Violation of Covenant Not to Compete

Nationsbuilders Insurances Services sued two of its former employees and their new employer, Houston International Insurance Group, for violating the employees’ covenants not to compete. The case was resolved with a settlement agreement in which the defendants agreed they would not compete with Nationsbuilders for one year by “soliciting, selling, quoting, binding, rating, or producing” certain specialized types of insurance. They also agreed they would not own or be employed by any entity that “conducts or plans to conduct” a competing business. The defendants did not quote or sell any such insurance during the restricted period, but they actively planned to do so by sending out marketing materials, preparing regulator filings, drafting forms, negotiating with re-insurers, and developing agent and customer lists. Nationsbuilders filed a demand for arbitration under the settlement agreement, and the arbitrator ruled that the defendants’ conduct entitled Nationsbuilders to a one-year equitable extension of the noncompete period. The defendants filed suit to vacate the arbitration ruling, and the trial court ruled that the arbitrator had “exceeded his powers” or “so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.”

The court of appeals reversed. Indulging all reasonable presumptions in favor or the arbitration award, and granting great deference to the arbitrator’s decision, the court determined that the equitable extension of the noncompete period was within the arbitrator’s “broad discretion in fashioning an appropriate remedy.” The settlement agreement had required the defendants to refrain from either conducting or planning a competing business for one year, and their actions had deprived Nationsbuilders of that bargained-for entitlement. Extending the noncompete for another year was rationally based on that contractual provision. The court of appeals also rejected the defendants’ claim that the arbitrator’s decision was moot. The court distinguished cases holding that requests for specific performance become moot after the expiration of the restricted period, noting that the remedy in this case was for an extension of the restricted period, not just its enforcement. Finally, the court of appeals rejected the defendants’ argument that the arbitration award was too badly drafted to enable them to understand how they were to comply with it. The line drawn by the arbitrator between “passive contemplation” of competition (which would not be material) and “head start” planning (which would violate the agreement) was clear enough that the defendants could reasonably understand what they were and were not permitted to do during the extended restricted period.

Surprisingly, the court of appeals relegated one obvious issue to a footnote at the end of the opinion. The extended restricted period had expired during the course of the appeal. Although the expiration of the noncompete may have rendered the appeal moot or the opinion advisory, the parties did not address how the expiration affected the case, and the court of appeals chose not to address the matter itself. That may be an issue for the trial court, as the court of appeals remanded the case for consideration of additional grounds for vacating the arbitration award that had not been ruled upon previously.

Nationsbuilders Ins. Servs., Inc. v. Houston Int’l Ins. Group, Ltd., No 05-12-01103-CV

Breach of Non-Competition Agreement Requires Actual Competition

Gregory Strange worked at HRsmart for over 5 years designing and developing software designed to help companies manage human resources.  As part of his employment with HRsmart, Strange signed a non-competition agreement in which he consented not to work for a competing business for one year following his termination of employment.  The agreement defined “competing business” as one “which provides the same or substantially similar products and services” as HRsmart.  Shortly after he left HRsmart, Strange and another former co-worker developed a new program called ClearVision, which was a human resources program aimed at small businesses with less than 200 employees.  In developing this new program, Strange felt that he had not run afoul of his non-competition agreement because, in his view, HRsmart did not aim to serve small businesses.  HRsmart, of course, disagreed and sued Strange.  The trial court granted HRsmart’s request for a temporary injunction, and, later, HRsmart’s motion for summary judgment.  Strange appealed.

On appeal, Strange pointed out all of the differences between the products designed and marketed by HRsmart and what Strange sought to do with ClearVision.  First, ClearVision sought to serve a niche market of “micro businesses” with less than 200 employees, whereas HRsmart targeted businesses with more than 500 employees.  Second, ClearVision was “less function” and could not be “configured,”but HRsmart’s products were “fully customizable.”  Finally, ClearVision is a single product, while HRsmart includes seven interconnected HR modules.  On this record, the Court of Appeals concluded that fact questions exist regarding whether HRsmart actually competes with ClearVision, and reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision.

Strange v. HRsmart

Hard to Compete With a Holding Company

In 2003, insurance broker Brett Woods signed an “Employment, Confidentiality, and Non-Compete Agreement” with U.S. Risk Insurance Group, Inc. USRIG is a holding company that owns companies engaged in the insurance business, including U.S. Risk, Inc. But USRIG does not conduct any insurance business on its own behalf, and the non-compete agreement was solely between Woods and USRIG. Woods resigned in 2009 and went to work for a competitor, which prompted USRIG to file suit for breach of the non-compete. Woods prevailed on cross-motions for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed.

The court first held that the only summary judgment evidence in the record supported Woods’ claim that he had resigned for “good reason,” which only triggered a non-solicitation requirement rather than the full non-compete. The court went on to hold that the non-compete was overbroad in any event, as it prevented Woods from competing with USRIG in any aspect of its business, regardless of whether Woods had worked in that business while employed with the company. Finally, the court of appeals held that Woods could not be liable for soliciting any of USRIG’s customers, since it didn’t actually have any. The court declined to construe the contract to include the subsidiary that was actually engaged in the insurance business, nor would it recognize the subsidiary as a third-party beneficiary (despite a clause providing that the contract inured to the benefit of USRIG’s “subsidiaries, affiliates, successors, and assigns”). On the latter point, the court expressly noted that even if the sub were a third-party beneficiary, it still could not receive greater rights than were bargained for between the original parties to the contract, and the contract only prevented Woods from competing  with the holding company, not its subsidiaries.

U.S. Risk Insurance Group, Inc. v. Woods, No. 05-11-00558-CV

Non-Competes, Temporary Injunctions, and Irreparable Harm

Dr. Wallace Sarver was hired by Primary Health Physicians, P.A. to serve as a doctor at its clinic in Frisco.  The parties’ written employment agreement included a covenant not to compete, which prohibited Dr. Sarver from practicing medicine within ten miles of the clinic for a period of two years after his termination of employment.  Sarver resigned from the clinic, and shortly thereafter assumed the practice of another physician in Allen — less than 10 miles away from PHP’s clinic.  Dr. Allen sued filed suit for a declaratory judgment on the non-compete.  PHP’s counterclaims included a request for a temporary injunction, which the district court denied.

On interlocutory appeal, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.  The court rejected PHP’s argument that the Covenants Not to Compete Act preempted any requirement to show irreparable harm in order to enjoin Dr. Sarver from violating his non-compete agreement.  In making that ruling, the court dismissed contrary statements in three previous opinions as dicta: McNeilus Cos. Inc. v. Sams, 971 S.W.2d 507 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1997, no pet.); Hilb, Rogal & Hamilton Co. of Tex. v. Wurzman, 861 S.W.2d 30 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1993, no writ); Recon Exploration, Inc. v. Hodges, 798 S.W.2d 848 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1990, no writ).

The court of appeals also rejected PHP’s claim that the trial court had abused its discretion by failing to find irreparable harm.  Although PHP had established that Dr. Sarver had been popular with patients and that patients had continued to ask for him, there was little evidence that any of those patients had left PHP’s clinic and gone to Dr. Sarver’s new practice.  The court of appeals also relied on evidence that the two clinics practiced different types of medicine, with PHP’s facility focused on “episodic” illnesses and injuries, while Dr. Sarver’s new practice was devoted to a more traditional family practice.  Two of PHP’s witnesses also confirmed that the patient volume and profitability of its clinic were about the same as they had been before Dr. Sarver left.  That evidence supported the trial court’s finding of no irreparable harm, and the temporary injunction was therefore affirmed.

Primary Health Physicians, P.A. v. Sarver, No. 05-12-00351-CV