An employment agreement non-competition provision stated that, for 18 months after termination, the employee shall not become employed by or act “directly or indirectly, as an advisor, consultant, or salesperson for, or become financially interested, directly or indirectly, [in an entity] engaged in the business of selling flavor materials.” Earlier this month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the provision was impermissibly broad. Horner Int’l Co. v. McKoy, Case No. COA 13-964 (N.C. App., Mar. 4, 2014).
Summary of the case
McKoy, a plant manager in North Carolina, was a party to an employment agreement with Horner, a manufacturer of flavor materials for use in food and tobacco products. The agreement contained non-competition and trade secret confidentiality clauses. McKoy had been in the food processing and flavor industry for decades. He resigned after six years with Horner and went to work in New Jersey for a company that manufactured food and beverage flavoring items. Horner sued him and sought preliminary injunctions with respect to both clauses. Earlier this month, the trial court’s ruling — denying the motion for an injunction with respect to the non-compete but granting the injunction motion relating to the confidentiality provision — was affirmed on appeal.
The appellate court’s rulings
The appeals panel stated that it was guided by the familiar rules that employee covenants not to compete are disfavored but are enforceable if they are no broader than necessary to protect the employer’s reasonable business interests. The non-competition covenant here had no geographic limitations and was not restricted to performance of tasks similar to those McKoy performed for Horner. Further, the covenant purported to prohibit him from associating with any company selling flavoring materials even if that company’s products did not compete with Horner’s. Finally, because he was precluded from investing “directly or indirectly” in such a company, the appellate court concluded that the non-compete was intended to prevent him even from owning shares in a mutual fund that was a Horner stockholder. For all of these reasons, the court held that the covenant exceeded permissible boundaries.
The injunction relating to the confidentiality clause, however, was upheld. North Carolina law permits injunctions for actual or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets the employee knows and has the opportunity to use or disclose. McKoy had access to Horner’s trade secrets. By averring “with great detail and specificity the information Defendant has allegedly provided to his new employer,” Horner met the “sufficient particularity” pleading standard.
Non-compete covenants must be limited in scope not only with respect to time and geography, but also concerning the activities which are prohibited. Horner teaches that an employer’s use of virtually limitless phrases such as “directly or indirectly” and “financially interested” can be risky. Also, purporting to extend the covenant to services beyond those actually performed for the employer, and locales where the employee did not work, may doom the enforceability of the non-compete. Violation of a confidentiality clause may be enjoined, however, if the employee’s access to the employer’s trade secrets is demonstrated, they are described in sufficient detail, and the likelihood the employee may exploit or divulge the confidential information is shown.