The United States District Court for Maryland recently granted summary judgment in a case upholding a covenant not to compete involving a former Director of Strategic Accounts for TEKsystems, Inc. In doing so, it signaled a willingness on the part of Maryland courts to enforce such covenants even where there was no evidence of lost profits by the employer. TEKsystems, Inc. v. Bolton, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9651 (February 4, 2010). Click here.
TEKsystems is a technical staffing and services company. Jonathan Bolton worked in the New York City region. At the time he was hired he entered into an employment agreement containing a restrictive covenant that barred him from "engaging in the business of recruiting or providing on a temporary or permanent basis technical service personnel ... industrial personnel ... or office support personnel ... within a radius of fifty (50) miles of the office in which EMPLOYEE worked at the time his/her employment ended ..." The covenant effectively barred him from competing in the New York City area.
After resigning from TEKsystems, Bolton became employed by another IT-staffing company and operated from his home in New Jersey that was within the 50 mile radius of his former office. He was given the title "Managing Director of New York City." The evidence established that during his first year in the new position Bolton made nine placements, none of which were to companies that had been TEKsystems' clients. TEKsystems sued to enforce the covenant not to compete and sought both injunctive relief and damages.
The employment agreement provided that any dispute arising under the contract would be governed by the law of Maryland. In its opinion, the district court provides a thorough discussion of Maryland's law relating to the enforcement of covenants not to compete. Bolton challenged the covenant on the basis that it was overbroad, failed to protect a legitimate business interest, imposed an undue hardship on him and violated the public's interest.
Under Maryland law, covenants will be enforced "if the restraint is confined within limits which are no wider as to area and duration than are reasonable for the protection of the business of the employer and do not impose undue hardship on the employee or disregard the interests of the public." Id. at *12, quoting Ruhl v. F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Co., 225 A.2d 288 (Md. 1967). Where the scope is reasonable, courts may also consider other factors, such as: "whether the person sought to be enjoined is an unskilled worker whose services are not unique; whether the covenant is necessary to prevent the solicitation of customers or the use of trade secrets, assigned routes, or private customer lists; whether there is any exploitation of the personal contacts between the employee and customer; and, whether enforcement of the clause would impose an undue hardship on the employee or disregard the interests of the public." Bolton, at *12-13, quoting Budget Rent A Car of Wash., Inc. v. Raab, 302 A.2d 11 (Md. 1973).
The court first upheld the 50 mile radius geographic scope of the covenant, noting that Maryland courts had upheld covenants that had unlimited geographic limitations. It found significant that, while TEKsystems operated nationally and internationally, the covenant only applied to the New York City area. The court also found the 18 month period to be reasonable, as Maryland courts have routinely upheld covenants that spanned two years.
Bolton also charged that the covenant was overbroad in that it barred him from engaging "in any activity which may affect adversely the interests of the Company." The court rejected the argument, noting that Maryland courts have "sanctioned restrictive covenants that prohibit former employees from securing employment with competitors." Bolton at *15.
It also noted that employers have a protective interest in preventing an employee from using customer contacts post employment, especially where the "personal contacts between the employee and the customer are an important element determining the business's success." Id. at 16-17, quoting Intelus Corp. v. Barton, 7 F. Supp.2d 635, 639 (D. Md. 1998). Here, the court found that TEKsystem's business depended overwhelmingly on the personal connections between its employees and its clients, and Bolton was one of TEKsystem's most important employees in the New York City area. In Maryland "[c]ourts are more willing to enforce restrictive covenants when the employee at issue possesses unique or specialized skills." Bolton at *18.
Bolton also claimed that enforcing the covenant would create an undue hardship on him because it barred him from competing in the New York City area. Again the court rejected the argument, holding that, while such a claim might be inconvenient, it did not rise to a level of undue hardship.
Finally, the court considered the public interest at stake and noted that "the public benefits from the enforcement of reasonable restrictive covenants. ... Such measures facilitate and protect business growth, especially in technology-related and information-based fields." Id. at *20. And it quoted approvingly from Intelus, supra, regarding Maryland's policy as to such covenants: "As long as employers do not restrict employees from earning a living and do not limit fair competition, they must be given the opportunity to provide a service to their customers without risking a substantial loss of business and good will every time an employee decides to switch employment." Id. quoting Intelus , 7 F. Supp.2d at 642.
Turning to remedies, the court denied compensatory damages finding that there was no proof that any of TEKsystem's customers had paid any fees to Bolton for work with his new employer. It reserved, however, on the issue of whether the parties had a desire to litigate further on the damages issue.
And as for equitable relief, the court awarded a permanent injunction, barring Bolton from operating in the New York City area. It noted, however, that the original 18 month period had expired in December 2009. Given prior Maryland precedent that "if the non-compete period is not enforced through equitable extension, it could 'reward the breach of contract, encourage protracted litigation, and provide an incentive to dilatory tactics,'" Bolton at *28, quoting PADCO Advisors, Inc. v. Omdahl, 179 F. Supp.2d 600, 613 (D. Md. 2002)(quoting Roanoke Engineering Sales Co. v. Rosenbaum, 290 S.E.2d 882 (Va. 1982)) the court prospectively enjoined Bolton from violating the terms of his restrictive covenant for 18 months from the date of the court's order.
This case should be viewed as a cautionary tale to employees who are dismissive of the legal import of covenants not to compete that are governed by Maryland law.