Articles Tagged with plea in bar

Once upon a time, courts would routinely dismiss non-compete lawsuits brought by businesses against their former employees if the agreements at issue appeared to impose an unreasonable burden on the employee’s ability to earn a living. The rules of the game changed a bit back in 2013 when the Virginia Supreme Court decided Assurance Data v. Malyevac, where it held that in most cases, even if the agreement appears overly broad on its face, the employer should be given an opportunity to prove that for its particular business model, it has a legitimate business interest in restricting a particular employee’s ability to compete with it for the length of time and in the geographic area specified in the agreement. Proving reasonableness is often easier said than done.

For a noncompete to be enforceable in Virginia, it has to be worded so that its restrictions (a) are no greater than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests, (b) are not unduly harsh or oppressive in limiting the employee’s ability to earn a living, and (c) are reasonable considering sound public policy. It’s up to the employer to produce evidence sufficient to demonstrate each of these elements. As reasoned by the Assurance Data court, “restraints on competition are neither enforceable nor unenforceable in a factual vacuum.” A recent decision out of Fairfax County Circuit Court demonstrates how this can play out in the real world.

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If you get sued in Virginia on a claim your lawyer tells you is likely barred by the statute of limitations, you can raise the defense by way of a so-called “plea in bar.” A plea in bar is a pleading that presents a single set of facts that, if proven true, would bar the plaintiff’s claim from going forward. For example, if you can prove that the plaintiff’s claim arose earlier than the maximum amount of time permitted under the applicable statute of limitations, you may choose to file a plea in bar at the outset of the case to ask the court to dismiss it for that reason. Are you required to make this request at the outset of the case? No. If for some strategic reason you’d rather keep the defense in your back pocket to tell the jury about at trial, you can do that.

The issue came up recently in Ferguson Enterprises, Inc. v. F.H. Furr Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., or as I like to refer to it, “Furr v. Ferguson.” Furr sued Ferguson in Prince William County on claims arising out of an alleged fraudulent-pricing scheme. Ferguson, a distributor of Trane-branded HVAC systems, had negotiated a pricing structure with Trane that allowed it to charge customers like Furr a discounted price and then receive a rebate or “claim back” from Trane. Furr entered into a contract with Ferguson back in 1995, but eventually came to believe that Ferguson was charging Furr a price above the discounted rate authorized by Trane. Furr sued in 2013 for fraud, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and other claims.

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