Employer Denied Injunction to Enforce Non-Solicitation Agreement

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.”

The Defendants insisted they did not “solicit” clients but merely provided them with updated contact information. Bank of America attempted to prove solicitation by nofolk_courthouse.jpgintroducing affidavits of two individuals which relied primarily on the hearsay statements of others. The court discounted the weight of the plaintiff’s evidence because neither witness bothered to testify in person at the injunction hearing, and both affidavits consisted of “double hearsay.”

Judge Davis noted that the issuance of a preliminary injunction is “an extraordinary remedy” which should only be granted where the moving party “clearly establishes entitlement to the relief sought.” Applying the familiar Blackwelder test from the 4th Circuit, the court found that Bank of America failed to make a sufficiently strong showing of irreparable harm. While several judicial decisions have established that injunctive relief may be available where the loss of future customers or harm to goodwill makes it difficult to calculate money damages, the court wrote, injunctive relief is neither automatic nor required in such cases. The court proceeded to deny Bank of America’s motion.

The lesson to Virginia businesses? If former employees are improperly soliciting customers, first consider whether an award of money damages would address the situation sufficiently. It will always be easier to sue the former employees for money than to obtain an injunction or TRO. Next, if you have actual evidence that customers are taking their business elsewhere as a result of improper solicitation, demonstrate to the court that the issue is important to your business. Don’t rely on affidavits or declarations. Send a senior executive to the hearing to testify in person. If the matter is not important enough to miss a day of work for this purpose, the judge will be difficult to convince that irreparable harm is at stake. Finally, if you must rely on affidavits, at least get them from the people with personal, first-hand knowledge of the relevant events. Affidavits that rely on hearsay do not carry the same weight as affiant statements.

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