Articles Posted in Injunctions and TROs

When I wrote about how to enforce a noncompete agreement against a departed employee a couple of years ago, I made it sound pretty easy: write an enforceable noncompete agreement, then move for a preliminary injunction to prevent the employee from doing further damage to your business. It should be noted, however, that injunctive relief is considered an “extraordinary” remedy in Virginia and is by no means automatic, even if an employee is in clear violation of an enforceable noncompete agreement. A recent decision from Fairfax County showcases what can happen if the employer is unable to prove irreparable harm.

To obtain a preliminary injunction against a former employee, the employer needs to convince the court that all of the following are true: (1) the employer will suffer irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction is not granted; (2) the employee will not be harmed if the preliminary injunction is granted (or would suffer less than the employer would suffer if the injunction is denied; in other words, the “balance of equities” tips in the employer’s favor); (3) the employer will likely succeed on the merits (i.e., win the case) when it ultimately goes to trial; and (4) the public interest would be served (or at least not harmed) by granting the preliminary injunction. (See Real Truth About Obama, Inc. v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 575 F.3d 342 (4th Cir. 2009); Wings v. Capitol Leather, LLC, 88 Va. Cir. 83 (Fairfax 2014)).

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Under Federal Rule of Evidence 802, hearsay evidence is generally not admissible in court. In preliminary injunction proceedings, however, the rules of evidence don’t necessarily apply. Here in the Fourth Circuit, courts relax evidentiary rules when faced with motions for preliminary injunctive relief, mostly due to practical considerations such as the exigent nature of the proceeding and the unavailability of a detailed factual record at the very outset of the case. There is some disagreement among federal circuit courts on this issue, but here in Virginia, “district courts may look to, and indeed in appropriate circumstances rely on, hearsay or other inadmissible evidence when deciding whether a preliminary injunction is warranted.” (See G.G. ex rel. Grimm v. Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd., 822 F.3d 709, 725 (4th Cir. 2016), vacated on other grounds, 137 S. Ct. 1239 (2017)). Failure to consider hearsay evidence at preliminary injunction proceedings may even be deemed an abuse of discretion.

Relying on hearsay evidence is exactly what the district court did when it granted the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction in the case of Edward D. Jones & Co. v. Samuel (Ed) Clyburn, Jr., a non-solicitation case filed in the Roanoke Division of the Western District of Virginia. Here’s what happened, according to the facts recited in the opinion:

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It happens to every business eventually. A rogue employee defects to a competitor and immediately starts soliciting the former employer’s customers and clients, using the former employer’s trade secrets or other confidential commercial information against it. Although non-compete and non-solicitation agreements are generally disfavored in Virginia, most Virginia judges nevertheless recognize that employers have a legitimate business interest in protecting themselves from competition by former employees who possess sensitive information and will, in appropriate circumstances, compel former employees to honor their contractual commitments. This blog post provides a brief overview of the process involved in obtaining such relief from the legal system, divided into two basic steps.

Step One: Write an enforceable noncompete agreement.

The most common mistake employers make in their efforts to prevent unfair competition is to present their employees with overbroad, overreaching employment agreements. Many businesses, knowing that 99% of new employees will sign whatever piece of paper you put in front of them, cannot resist the temptation to draft their noncompete agreements in a way that is completely one-sided in favor of the employer. They might draft agreements that prohibit the employee from contacting any of its customers for 10 years after leaving the company, or that prohibit former employees from taking any kind of job within a 500-mile radius of the employer’s office. When an employer goes too far in its efforts to secure loyalty by forcing its employees to sign unreasonable contracts, those efforts can backfire by causing the contracts to become unenforceable as a matter of law.

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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.

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