Articles Posted in Injunctions and TROs

To obtain a preliminary injunction in Virginia, a plaintiff must show (1) that he is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; (3) that the balance of equities tips in his favor; and (4) that an injunction is in the public interest. Real Truth About Obama v. Federal Election Com’n, 575 F.3d 342 (4th Cir. 2009). To enjoin an ex-employee from violating his non-compete agreement, getting past the first element requires the plaintiff to persuade the court that the noncompete is no broader than necessary to protect a legitimate business interest. Courts will examine the function, scope, duration, and overall reasonableness of the restriction when making this determination. An opinion issued earlier this month in Fairfax County Circuit Court demonstrates what a high burden this can be for a plaintiff seeking to prevent its employees from working for a competitor.

Wings, LLC, provides commercial and residential vinyl, fabric, and leather repair services in Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia, Southern Maryland, and West Virginia. Wings’ customers consist primarily of auto dealerships and collision centers who hire Wings to repair car interiors on site. Wings hired two gentlemen as vinyl, velour and leather repair technicians and required them to sign agreements containing non-solicitation and non-competition provisions that prohibited them from working as technicians anywhere in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and any other state in which Wings transacted business, for a period of two years following the termination of employment. (See pages 2 and 3 of the opinion for the full text of the noncompete provision).
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Upon a litigant’s motion, a court can enter a “preliminary injunction” preventing a party from pursuing a particular course of action until the conclusion of a trial on the merits. A preliminary injunction is considered an extraordinary remedy and requires the moving party to establish that (1) he is likely to succeed on the merits of the case at trial; (2) he is likely to suffer irreparable harm unless the injunction is granted; (3) the balance of the equities tips in his favor; and (4) an injunction is in the public interest. The party must make a clear showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits. Where a defendant has acted in an underhanded manner, but the plaintiff is unable to establish these factors, a court will deny the request for injunctive relief. In BP Products v. Southside Oil, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia considered and denied BP’s request for a preliminary injunction even though it was clear that Southside had acted deviously.

Defendant Southside owns gas stations and also has fuel supply agreements with independent gas stations. BP decided to stop owning stations and simply sell gas to BP stations through middlemen. As part of its strategic plan, BP sold many of its Virginia gas stations to Southside, and Southside agreed to continue to market BP products at BP’s former stations. The parties renewed the contract in 2010 and agreed that BP would have a Right of First Offer (ROFO) as to any proposed sale of any of Southside assets. Before Southside sold any BP stations or changed any BP stations to other brands, it was required to provide a term sheet outlining its goals; BP could then either negotiate with Southside or allow negotiation with other buyers. Southside was not required to accept any offer by BP to purchase its assets.

The 2010 agreement also gave BP a Right of First Refusal (ROFR) requiring Southside to give BP written documentation regarding any proposed sale so that BP could determine whether to buy Southside’s entire business. The 2010 contract expired on October 2, 2013. During renewal negotiations, BP sent a “notice of non-renewal” indicating that if the parties failed to reach a new agreement by October 2, 2013, the contractual relationship would end. Southside declined to renew the agreement and the relationship ended.

The allegations in Autopartsource, LLC v. Bruton presented a fairly egregious case of stolen trade secrets. Due to a defendant’s failure to answer, those allegations were deemed true. As remedies, Autopartsource sought $1,131,801.55 in compensatory damages, $350,000 in punitive damages (the statutory maximum), $59,409.72 in attorneys’ fees and costs, a worldwide production injunction to last seven years, and a permanent injunction prohibiting the use of Autopartsource’s trade secrets. The court held an evidentiary hearing and ruled that while Autopartsource was entitled to an injunction and substantial damages, the scope of the requested injunction would be narrowed and the damages would be reduced.

Autopartsource designated employee Stephen Bruton to spearhead the company’s effort to develop business in China, where it sources its automobile parts. Bruton secretly developed his own competing business, BBH Source Group, and misappropriated Autopartsource’s trade secrets in doing so, using them to redirect prospective Autopartsource customers to BBH. After Autopartsource discovered Bruton’s actions and fired him, Bruton broke into an Autopartsource facility and deleted proprietary information from its database.

Autopartsource sued for violation of the Virginia Uniform Trade Secrets Act, tortious interference with business expectancy, and tortious interference with contract. The court found that Autopartsource had established liability on all three theories but that, under Virginia law, it could not recover damages under both VUTSA and its claim for tortious interference with business expectancy, as a party cannot receive damages for a common law tort if the underlying conduct involves an intentional misappropriation of a trade secret.

After a federal court enters a judgment, a litigant has 28 days to file a motion to amend the judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). This rule allows a district court to correct its own errors and spare the parties and appellate courts the burden of unnecessary appeal. A Rule 59(e) motion is an extraordinary remedy to be used sparingly, and a court can grant such a motion only in narrow circumstances: (1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice. A party’s mere disagreement with a ruling does not warrant a Rule 59(e) motion, and parties may not use it to raise arguments or legal theories that could have been pursued before judgment. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria division) recently addressed this rule in Western Industries-North, LLC v. Blaine Lessard.

Lessard was an employee of Western, a pest control company. When Western terminated Lessard’s employment, Lessard had possession of a bedbug scent dog named Dixie, and a dispute arose over which party owned the dog. The court granted Western’s Emergency Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and directed Lessard to return Dixie to Western. After an evidentiary hearing on Western’s Emergency Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, the court found that Western failed to satisfy the heightened showing required for a mandatory preliminary injunction and ordered Western to return Dixie to Lessard. Western then filed a Motion for Reconsideration pursuant to Rule 59(e) and attached the Declaration of William Whitstine, the owner of the canine academy that trained Dixie and Lessard.

Western argued that the court should have treated its request for injunctive relief as a request for a prohibitive injunction rather than a mandatory injunction. A prohibitive injunction maintains the status quo, whereas a mandatory injunction alters the status quo and therefore requires a heightened standard of review. The court noted that the status quo is the last uncontestedtwo_bites.jpg status between the parties which preceded the controversy. Lessard had possession of Dixie when Western terminated him and the controversy arose; therefore, the status quo is Lessard’s possession of Dixie, and an order requiring Lessard to return Dixie to Western would have altered the status quo. Accordingly, the court’s characterization of the injunctive relief as mandatory and subject to heightened scrutiny was proper.

Chanel, Inc., which like many other luxury-goods companies has been constantly plagued by counterfeiters, has taken its legal fight against unauthorized knock-offs to a whole new level. On November 14, 2011, acting at Chanel’s request, U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson of the District of Nevada signed an order that not only prohibits hundreds of alleged trademark infringers from manufacturing or selling fake Chanel handbags, wallets, shoes, and the like – but also orders the defendants’ domain names seized and transferred to the Web hosting company GoDaddy, which would direct them to a page describing the seizure. The temporary restraining order also orders that the counterfeiters’ domain names be “de-indexed” by Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all social media websites, specifically mentioning Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Chanel, Inc. had filed suit against several websites for selling counterfeit versions of its merchandise. Chanel hired an investigative firm to purchase several items from three of the websites named as defendants in the lawsuit. The investigators then sent those items to a Chanel consultant who determined that the merchandise was not genuine Chanel. The consultant also examined other merchandise offered for sale on these websites and determined that none of the items offered were authentic Chanel products. The defendant websites were not authorized dealers of Chanel products and therefore were in direct violation of Chanel’s trademark rights.

Chanel’s trademark lawyers obtained this injunctive relief by, among other things, pointing out that counterfeiters use search engine optimization (SEO) just as legitimate companies do, and that it was necessary for the court to shut down their ability to use the Web to compete unfairly with Chanel. “Chanel does contend that it has the right to fairly compete for such search Index.jpgengine results space unfettered by unfair competition stemming from an illegal use of Chanel’s trademarks,” Chanel’s lawyers wrote in the underlying motion.

Timelines, Inc., a small Chicago-based Internet company, has lost the first round of its legal efforts to obtain a court finding that Facebook infringed on its “Timelines” trademark when it announced its much-ballyhooed new feature, “Timeline.”

On Sept. 22, 2011, Facebook announced the “Timeline” feature, which will allow users to store and share their life events in chronological order on the site. Timelines, Inc., quickly filed a trademark infringement suit against Facebook, noting that it already has a registered trademark for the term “Timelines.” This mark refers, among other things, to a website that allows users to record and share events and contribute descriptions, photos, videos, geographic locations, and links related to events and people.

Arguing that there was a significant likelihood of confusion between its existing online product and the one just announced by Facebook, Timelines filed its lawsuit in order to avoid, in the words of the complaint, “being rolled over and quite possibly eliminated by the unlawful action of the world’s largest and most powerful social media company.”

A Pennsylvania school district violated two female middle school students’ First Amendment rights when it punished them for attending school while wearing breast cancer awareness bracelets that bore the slogan “I (heart) Boobies! KEEP A BREAST.” That was the ruling of U.S. District Judge Mary McLaughlin of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on April 12, 2011, in a high-profile case that pitted free-speech rights and public-health efforts against the need to enforce discipline and promote order in public schools. Judge McLaughlin granted a temporary injunction enjoining the school from enforcing its “no bracelet” policy.

The United States Supreme Court had previously held that students don’t shed their First Amendment protections at the schoolhouse door, but it had also ruled that educators have the right to ban lewdness and to preserve a learning environment. The school district’s lawyers argued that the “boobies” bracelets were lewd and vulgar, and that even if they weren’t, they should be banned because they substantially disrupted the work and discipline of the school. At the injunction hearing, school principals testified that they viewed the term “boobies” as “an impermissible double entendre about sexual attraction to breasts.” The court disagreed, reasoning that the statements needed to be examined in context.

The bracelets are distributed nationwide by the Keep A Breast Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes awareness of breast cancer by women under 30. The girls, Brianna Hawk and Kayla Martinez, testified that they did not intend to express a sexual message by wearing the bracelets bracelets.jpgto school. Both of their mothers gave them permission to wear the bracelets, and they did so on the school’s designated breast cancer awareness day.

In Virginia, employers who wish to restrict their employees from competing with them in a new job need to write restrictive covenants tightly and narrowly and should define all the key terms in their noncompete and nonsolicitation agreements carefully – or the courts will not enforce the covenants and former employees will be free to disregard the restrictions. That’s one of the messages of a ruling handed down recently by Judge Frederick B. Lowe of the Virginia Beach Circuit Court in a case involving a nurse practitioner who left a medical group to set up her own competing practice.

Ameanthea Blanco was a family nurse practitioner employed by Patient First Richmond Medical Group, LLC, which provided primary and urgent care to patients. She signed an employment agreement in January 2010 that contained non-competition and non-solicitation provisions. In August 2010, she resigned from Patient First, and a little over a month later, she opened her own practice nearby. Patient First sued Blanco for an injunction to enforce the non-competition and non-solicitation provisions, but the circuit judge declined to issue an injunction, finding the relevant portions of the agreement to be unenforceable.

The noncompete agreement barred Blanco, for two years after she left the company, from performing medical services of the type that she performed at Patient First in the previous 12 months, anywhere within a seven-mile radius of any Patient First center at which she “regularly provided medical services.” She was restricted from doing so as an “agent, officer, director, member, partner, shareholder, independent contractor, owner or employee,” and the prohibition applied if she did so “directly or indirectly.”

Lawyers around the country have come to learn of the Eastern District of Virginia’s legendary “rocket docket.” With divisions located in Alexandria, Norfolk, Richmond, and Newport News, Virginia’s federal court is known as the most efficient in the country for handling intellectual property cases and complex business litigation. Also known for being friendly to business, trademark owners around the country often look for ways to establish venue in Virginia instead of a location closer to home where cases move at a slower pace. In the context of protecting trademark rights, one such opportunity can be found in the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act.

The ACPA provides for a cause of action against those who register or use a domain name confusingly similar to, or dilutive of, the trademark of another. Enacted in 1999, the ACPA was designed to address the practice of “cybersquatting,” which generally involves the practice of registering a domain name containing somebody else’s name or trademark with the intention of either profiting from the resulting confusion or of selling the domain name to the less-Internet-savvy trademark owner. You could sue the individual in the jurisdiction of his residence, but what if that person lives in the District of Minnesota, one of the slowest federal courts in the country? Or what if the registrant took steps to shield his identity when registering the domain name and you can’t determine whom to sue?

One option available to you is to sue the domain name itself. And because VeriSign–the world’s largest registry and operator of the .com and .net top-level domains–is located in Dulles, Virginia, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of Virginia, there is a good chance you can bring that action in the Rocket Docket, regardless of where the actual registrant resides. 49702_holding_a_dot_com_iii.jpg

Those considering retaining a Virginia law firm to help stave off a wrongful foreclosure should keep this useful fact in mind: your lawyer’s job will be a lot easier if you take legal action before the bank forecloses on your property. Seek legal advice when you begin to fall behind on your mortgage or when workout negotiations seem to be faltering. Don’t wait until the trustee enforces the deed of trust and kicks you out of the house before going to an attorney, on the assumption that your smart lawyer will be able to “undo” an unfair foreclosure. In the vast majority of cases, Virginia courts will not set the foreclosure aside.

This reality is aptly illustrated by a recent case out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Horvath v. Bank of New York, (E.D. Va. Jan. 29, 2010). The plaintiff, John Horvath, found himself unable to keep up with his mortgage payments–an unfortunate predicament all too common these days–and the defendants foreclosed on his house. Mr. Horvath admitted he had fallen behind on his mortgage, but asserted a number of different legal theories revolving around the argument that Bank of New York and other companies with an interest in his mortgage acted improperly and did not adhere to the law when servicing his mortgage, foreclosing on his house, and eventually evicting him. The court shot each argument down, one by one, and dismissed the case for failure to state a legally cognizable claim.

The first count was for a declaratory judgment declaring the foreclosure “void.” The court ruled that declaratory relief would serve “no useful purpose” since the foreclosure sale had already taken place. The court noted that declaratory judgments are reserved for “forward looking actions.”

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