Articles Posted in Noncompetition Agreements

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.”

Non-competition and non-solicitation clauses found in employment agreements often do not provide employers with the protection the employers assume they are getting. Virginia courts will refuse to enforce such “noncompetes” if they are written in vague terms or if they are broader than necessary to meet the employer’s legitimate business interests. As restraints on trade, restrictive covenants are disfavored by the courts. Consequently, any ambiguities in the contract will be construed in the employee’s favor. Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Michael F. Devine recently illustrated these principles in Daston Corp. v. MiCore Solutions, Inc., in which he upheld a nonsolicitation clause but struck down a noncompete agreement as unenforceable.

The case was brought by Daston Corporation, an information technology company that provides, among other things, a range of services based on Google Apps software, against two former employees who went to work for MiCore Solutions, a business offering similar services. Both employees had signed identical employment agreements with Daston containing both a noncompete clause and a nonsolicitation clause. The employees sought to dismiss Daston’s claims, arguing that the employment agreement’s restrictions were unenforceable. Judge Devine agreed in part and disagreed in part.

The court began its analysis by noting that, in Virginia, non-competition agreements will be enforced only “if the contract is narrowly drawn to protect the employer’s legitimate business interest, is not unduly burdensome on the employee’s ability to earn a living, and is not against public policy.”

In the consolidated cases of Bank of America Investment Services, Inc. v. Michael A. Byrd and Gregory F. Harris, Judge Davis of the Eastern District of Virginia (Norfolk division) denied Bank of America’s motion for a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order seeking to enjoin its former brokers from contacting clients with whom they had established personal relationships.

Both defendants were financial advisors in Norfolk who left Bank of America in March to join Wells Fargo Advisors. After switching employers, both defendants placed telephone calls to their former Bank of America clients and informed them of their departure and provided new contact information. Bank of America contended that this conduct violated their respective non-solicitation agreements, which provided that the employee:

“will not directly or indirectly solicit, invite, encourage or request any client or customer of the Company…for the purpose of: obtaining that client or customers’ business for himself or herself or any other person or entity, causing such client or customer to discontinue doing business with the Company or otherwise interfering with the relationship between such clients or customers and the Company.”

Herndon-based Deltek, Inc., surely thought it would have little trouble enjoining its former employees from forming a competing company in direct violation of their employment contracts.  After all, the defendants admitted that they were competing with their former employer in a manner that would fall under the noncompete provisions of their respective employment agreements.  However, in a written opinion issued on April 20, 2009, by Judge Trenga of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria Division), the court denied the requested injunctive relief.

Uncontested evidence demonstrated that three former Deltek employees, a Managing Director, Consulting Manager, and Services Coordinator, all of whom had access to information considered by Deltek to be confidential, proprietary, and trade secret information, left Deltek and joined Iuvo Systems, Inc., in Chantilly, Virginia.  Iuvo’s business involves providing consulting and application management services relating to Deltek’s proprietary accounting and financial software.  All three employees had signed noncompetition and nondisclosure agreements with Deltek.

The relevant noncompete language provided that the employees could not, for a period of two years after the termination of their employment, “directly or indirectly be engaged as an employee or consultant of any firm or corporation engaged in a business which is in competition with [Deltek].”  The agreements also prohibited the use or disclosure of “Confidential Information” or “Confidential or Proprietary Information” both during and after employment.deltek_250_logo.gif

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