Delaware Court of Chancery Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster, faced with an unreasonable non-compete/non-solicitation agreement, indicated that he would have preferred to hold it invalid but said that he had no choice other than to modify its terms because its Maryland choice-of-law provision requires judicial “blue penciling.” He did enjoin the ex-employee from using his ex-employer’s customer list, a trade secret, but held that the ex-employee may call on any customer whose name is within his own knowledge.
Delaware Elevator, Inc. (“DEI”), a national elevator installer and servicer, sued ex-employee John Williams who had 20 years of experience in the industry (six of them with DEI) at the time he left that corporation and started his own -- one man -- competing elevator maintenance company. He had signed an agreement with DEI (a) barring him for three years after leaving its employ from working in a competing business within 100 miles of any DEI office, and (b) prohibiting him from soliciting business from anyone who during the last six months of his employ had been either an actual DEI customer or a potential customer DEI was actively soliciting. While he claimed his signature on the agreement was a forgery, the court said that no rational fact finder could accept his claim.
The agreement contained a Maryland choice-of-law provision and a stipulation that a violation would inflict irreparable harm on DEI. Maryland law upholds non-competes if the restraints are reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer, do not impose an undue hardship on the employee, and are in the public interest. Even DEI recognized the unreasonableness of the territorial restriction as written (within 100 miles of any DEI office) and sought to enforce the agreement within 100 miles of just the Newark, Delaware office where Williams worked.
The Vice Chancellor observed that Williams has 34 years in the workforce, has personal and family ties to the area where he has been working, and could not readily re-locate or find an equivalent job in a new field. Rhetorically, the court asked DEI’s attorneys “how they would fare if forced to re-start in a far-off jurisdiction, to re-invent themselves as practitioners in a completely different subject-matter area, or to leave the law entirely and find employment in another industry.”
While he might have preferred to invalidate the agreement altogether, the Vice Chancellor stated that Maryland “does not authorize a policy-based refusal to enforce an unreasonable non-compete agreement. Maryland law instead calls on the court to carve back overly broad restrictive covenants by wielding the judicial ‘blue pencil.’” Accordingly, he modified the restrictive provisions to a two-year-30-miles-from-Newark-radius (since the two year period began January 17, 2010, Williams’ date of termination, it will expire less than one year after the decision was announced in March 2011). The court observed that, as modified, Williams would be able to earn a living by using his contacts and knowledge of the industry outside the non-compete zone immediately, and within the zone shortly, while at the same time DEI’s relationships with existing and prospective customers were adequately protected.
Williams admitted that he took a DEI customer list with him and used it. Because the list was held to constitute a trade secret, he was ordered to destroy all electronic and paper copies. However, the court said he is free to call on customers he knows, even if their names are on the list. A hearing on damages for wrongful use of the list will be scheduled.
Employers should be cognizant of the applicable legal principles when they include a choice-of-law provision in a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement. If DEI’s agreement with Williams had provided for application of Delaware law, the agreement might have been voided altogether. By applying Maryland law, the employer salvaged at least some protection. Designation of another state’s law might have been even more favorable to the employer. Ask your Seyfarth Shaw trade secrets attorney for advice about choice-of-law provisions.