Published on August 16th, 2016 by Alan L. Sklover
An Effective Way to Analyze Your Restrictions
“Limits, like fear, are often an illusion.”
– Michael Jordan
ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: For two weeks we were in a pitched battle in Federal court, trying to convince a Federal Judge to negate a non-competition agreement. Both sides had submitted legal briefs, and the Federal Judge ordered “oral argument,” which is each side giving its position, and the Judge hammering away at each side’s arguments with his questions.
Our client was a salesman in the field of medical devices, specializing in the sale of manufactured, artificial heart valves to hospitals for surgical replacement of damaged valves. After leaving his prior employer, he took a new job, and was doing quite well – until he was sued, and his new employer placed him on “Suspension – Leave of Absence” until the case was over.
In preparation for the upcoming “oral arguments” in perhaps my tenth reading of the non-competition agreement, I discovered something that no one else had discovered before, not even the Judge: the non-competition agreement was not, in fact, a non-competition agreement.
My careful reading revealed that working for a competitor was not, in fact, prohibited. What the supposed non-compete agreement prohibited was “working for a competing medical device manufacturer, anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, that sells to hospitals replacement heart valves based on the same technology.”
That last phrase, those final five words, and their importance, had somehow escaped notice by several people. There was no prohibition against working for a competitor, but only on working for a competitor while selling heart valves based on the same technology. The restriction was on using a certain technology more than it was on working for a competitor.
In fact, the new employer did not sell manufactured, artificial heart valves, but instead heart valves derived from the hearts of pigs. Neither the lawyers nor the Judge were familiar with the technology, and just assumed the same technology was used. Fortunately, I recalled hearing of the distinction during my initial, in-depth consultation with my client.
We asked permission to submit a supplemental brief to the Court on this very point, and the Judge permitted it. After conferring with their client, the former employer’s attorneys withdrew the case. Noticing just five words – based on the same technology – that’s all it took.
LESSON TO LEARN: When it comes to non-competition and non-solicitation agreements, “The answer to your question is almost always right there, in the words.” Reading dense legal agreements can sure put a lot of people to sleep – including lawyers. That’s always the case in law, but there is no substitute for careful reading and analysis, especially when it comes to non-competition agreements and non-solicitation agreements.
I have seen it time and time again: the applicability, effect, validity, and duration of non-competition and non-solicitation agreements being misread and misunderstood, and for this reason unnecessarily limiting the client’s career by false fears. I’ve seen it time and again: highly qualified and experienced lawyers telling their clients “Sorry, there is nothing we can do” when, in fact, all that is necessary to win a person’s employment freedom is to read and analyze carefully.
To assist you in doing that for yourself, in my 30+ years of handling non-competition and non-solicitation disputes, I’ve devised a rather simple way to analyze non-competition and non-solicitation agreements. It’s what I have come to call “C.A.T.C.H.,” which stands for (1) Competition, (2) Activity, (3) Time, (4) Conditions, and (5) Horizon.
This is not the usual, hackneyed “Geography, Duration, Scope” legal analysis that so many lawyers will refer to when discussing non-competition agreements. What they would be talking about is that a Judge will often look at the reasonableness of the restrictions’ “Geography, Duration, Scope” and cut one or more of them down if the Judge thinks they are unreasonable.
Our “C.A.T.C.H.” analysis is more immediate, more valuable and more important: “Does this non-competition or non-solicitation agreement even apply to you?” Might careful reading and analysis reveal you have no reason to hire an attorney, due to potentially unfounded fear based on an incorrect analysis? Why hire an attorney, and consider going to Court, if you really don’t need to? More importantly, why turn down a job offer, or not seek one, if you are not really restricted?
This endeavor is not “legal nit-picking.” Instead, it is the essential task of every employed person: to protect your employment freedom, and to utilize your business skills, experience and relations to your very best advantage.
I hope you find my “C.A.T.C.H.” analysis helpful, and its title a little “catchy.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Here’s eight steps you can use to help yourself understand whether or not, how badly or not, you may be restricted by a non-competition agreement or non-solicitation clause you have signed, or you may be asked to sign. And, too, they may help you understand how to get around any such restrictions. As Michael Jordan says, “Limits, like fear, are often an illusion.”
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