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Business Law Update: Recent Court Case On Sour Business Relationships and Arbitration Clauses

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Good afternoon, all! The sun was beautiful this morning rising over downtown Grand Rapids.

 

IMG_2144Today I read a recent unpublished Court of Appeals decision that originated out of Kalamazoo County, Michigan –

The case: Elluru v Great Lakes Plastic, Reconstructive, and Hand Surgery PC

 

A summary of the Facts:

  • Plaintiff Elluru and defendant Holley practiced medicine together in  the Company.
  • Holley served as president and Elluru as secretary.
  • They entered into employment agreements with the Company.
  • The agreements provided for termination by the Company for cause upon written notice or without cause upon 90 days’ written notice.
  • They also executed a Stock Redemption Agreement that provided that a shareholder must sell his shares to the Company if he voluntarily terminated his employment  or if the Company discharged his employment with or without cause.  See Elluru , page 1.

Then the business relationship took a turn for the worse…

  • In 2015, Elluru began to express his desire to dissolve the Company.
  • Elluru called for special meetings of the shareholders to discuss his proposals for dissolution.
  • Holley disagreed with the plan to dissolve the corporation.
  • Instead, on December 7, 2015, Holley sent a letter to Elluru that he had terminated Elluru’s employment with the Company.
  • Elluru also was notified that, pursuant to the Stock Redemption Agreement, his shares were being acquired by the Company.
  • Elluru was further notified that, because he was no longer employed by the Company, he was also terminated as an officer and director of the Company.
  • The letter also reminded Elluru that he was subject to a non-compete agreement. Id, Page 1-2.

Not completely unexpected, Elluru sued Holley and Company and asked the Court to:  A. Dissolve the Corporation and B. Set Aside his Termination.

Holley and the Company filed a motion to compel Elluru to Arbitration pursuant to an arbitration clause in the parties’ employment contract. Id. Page 2.

Holley argued that “the employment agreement required that the claims be submitted to arbitration. Holley argued that “arbitration was required because all of the claims arose out of the employment agreement.” Id.

The Circuit Court denied Holley’s motion. Holley appealed.

The Court of Appeals was presented with this issue:

“whether the issue of arbitrability should have been decided by the trial court or by the arbitrator.” Id.

 

About Arbitration Clauses…

 

Michigan law favors upholding arbitration clauses in contracts.

Under Michigan law, arbitration clauses are to be liberally construed with any doubts to be resolved in favor of arbitration. Amtower v William C. Roney & Co., 232 Mich App 226,233 (1998).

 

 

In this case, the Court noted that:

The Uniform Arbitration Act, MCL 691.1681 et seq…provides that, where there is an agreement to arbitrate, a trial court must order the parties to arbitrate unless the court determines that there is no enforceable arbitration agreement. The Act further provides that it is for the court in the first instance to determine arbitrability…” Id. (my emphasis).

There is an exception to the rule that the Court determines arbitrability… 

The parties contractually agreed to delegate to the arbitrator the question of arbitrability. Id. Citing Rent-A-Center, West, Inc v Jackson, 561 US 63, 69 n 1; 130 S Ct 2772; 177 L Ed 2d 403 (2010).

In the instant case – the Court looked at the Employment Agreement:

“In paragraph 10 of the employment agreement, the parties agreed that ‘[a]ny controversy or claim arising out of or related to . . . this Employment Agreement . . . shall
be settled by arbitration . . . in accordance with the Employment Dispute Resolution Rules of the American Arbitration Association . . . .’ Those rules provide that the “arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope or validity of the arbitration agreement.'” Id. Page 3.

 

The Court of Appeals agreed with Holley:  “that this matter should have been submitted to arbitration and that the trial court should have held the claims in abeyance pending the outcome of arbitration.” Id. page 2.

 

 

Lessons and General Arbitration Considerations:

1. Arbitration Clauses are favored. A Court generally decides whether the clause is enforceable, and whether or not the matters are arbitrable.” However, the parties’ can contract to allow the issue of arbitrability to be decided by the arbitrator.

2. This brings up a general point – the parties could have negotiated differently in their employment and shareholder agreements before signing. “Freedom of Contract.

3. Arbitration clauses have the benefit that they are usually most cost-effective, quick, and they are private (as opposed to court cases which are public filings).

4. Where is the Other Party located? For a client who engages in business over state lines, an arbitration clause might not be effective if you are trying to quickly collect a debt owed.  Instead, you  might want a “Jurisdiction and Venue Selection Clause

This clause would include language indicating that no matter where the dispute occurred, the contract will be interpreted under Michigan law, and the parties agree that any dispute shall only be resolved in _______ County (Typically,  Kent County, Michigan, for my clients.) Therefore, if your contract contains a jurisdiction and forum selection clause, and you are owed money by a company in Florida, you would not need to retain a Florida attorney to try and collect.

5. Arbitration may be a gamble.

Businesses should realize that if you elect to arbitrate a matter and you do not like what the arbitrator finds – your rights to appeal may be severely limited.

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

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Business Law Update: Business Owners: Bill Would Restrict Non-Competition Agreements with Employees.

2017-05-09 08.08.30On June 14, 2017, House Bill 4755 was introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives.

If passed it would limit the enforceability of a non-competition agreement signed between an employer and an employee.

In my opinion – in some pretty significant ways.

I have spent several articles discussing the legal consequences/enforceability issues of non-competes.

It appears the Legislature is wrestling with the question posed by Nick Manes of MIBiz in an article a few years back: “Are noncompetes a barrier to growth?

You can check out the text of the bill here

The Bill was referred to the committee on commerce and trade.

The Bill has a few key components to it:

1. Require Employers to follow a Specific Procedure prior to enforcing a non-compete.

The Bill would only permit Employers to enforce a non-competition agreement if the Employer followed a procedure intended to notify the Employee of the requirement of signing a non-compete as a condition of employment.

(A) INFORMED THE PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYEE IN WRITING OF THE REQUIREMENT AT OR BEFORE THE TIME OF THE INITIAL OFFER OF EMPLOYMENT.

(B) Disclose the Terms of the Non-Compete in writing; and

(C) Post the Text of the Law at the Worksite in a CONSPICUOUS LOCATION

2. Non-Compete unenforceable if the Employee is a “low wage” worker.

Defined generally as $15.00/hr or $31,000 annually.

 

3. Voids Certain Provisions in a Non-Compete – shifts the burden to Employer.

The Bill also has some teeth in it for Employees, including:

  1. Prohibits an Employer from including a clause that states a different state’s laws control the Agreement – this would be an obvious attempt to circumvent the prohibition of non-compete against “low wage” workers;
  2. Gives the Attorney General power to prosecute a violation of the Act;
  3. Automatically places the Burden on the Employer to prove that the Non-Compete was reasonable, as to “scope, duration, time limit.”
    1. Moreover, if a Court limits the non-compete in any respect, the employee is entitled to recover attorney fees.

 

Wow. This bill has a lot of bite to it. My first thoughts – if this Bill does come out of the Trade and Commerce Committee, I can’t imagine it will look the same as its current version.

I understand the legislature’s interest in protecting “low wage workers” from unreasonable restrictions. Check out my prior post on the subject of Jimmy John’s non-competes.

However, in my opinion the restrictions as written places an enormous burden on the employer to narrowly tailor the non-compete, to a judge’s definition of “reasonableness”.

 

 

 

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Business Law Update: When are Non-Competes Enforceable?

March 20, 2017 4 comments

I took this photo from my office, the first day of Spring 2017. It is fitting that the ice rink in Rosa Parks’ circle is melting.

With spring comes new opportunities – including employees leaving their jobs.

What happens if the employee signed a non-competition agreement during the course of employment? Are non-competes enforceable?

 

IMG_1456

 – it depends.

Check out a November 2017 article from MIBiz-  PR firm sues former exec for breach of contract https://mibiz.com/item/25275-pr-firm-sues-former-exec-for-breach-of-contract.

A few years back I posted on an article written by Above the Law titled – Jimmy John’s Serves Up Sandwiches And Oppressive Non-Compete Agreements.

See the link from the “Above the Law Blog”

In Michigan, Non-Competes are enforceable to protect legitimate busines
s interests.

MCL 445.774a provides:

“1) An employer may obtain from an employee an agreement or covenant which protects an employer’s reasonable competitive business interests…”
Further the Agreement must be reasonable:
  • “as to its duration,
  • geographical area, and
  • the type of employment or line of business.”

In November I posted an article about a possible change to Michigan covenants not-to compete statute, you can see that article here – no new movement on th
at HB. It appears that it got stuck in committee and left to die…

Of note, a bill was proposed earlier this month that would require employers to offer Paid Sick Leave

At any rate, going back to the topic at hand…

The question posed by the Above the Law article is a good one – ok, Jim
my Johns, you have a non-compete agreement, that may be valid…so,

to what end?

What is the point? What type of legitimate business interest is Jimmy Johns trying to protect here?

Going back to the initial topic of this post – when can a business enforce a non-compete?

One Answer:

When a business has a legitimate interest to protect.

 

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals on the topic of Non-Competition Agreements provides some illustration on this point.

BHB Investment Holdings v Ogg

I won’t delve into the details, but the first paragraph of the Opinion is telling:

“Steven Ogg took a job with Aqua Tots Canton after being terminated by its competitor, Goldfish Swim School of Farmington Hills. Ogg’s actions breached a noncompetition agreement he signed with the Goldfish franchisee, BHB Investment Holdings. BHB sought to preliminarily enjoin Ogg from working with Aqua Tots, but presented no evidence of irreparable harm. BHB later failed to establish that the agreement protected a legitimate business interest to support the issuance of a permanent injuncti
on. Nor did BHB substantiate that it suffered any damages as a result of the breach.”

 

Is restricting a former employee from swim instruction a legitimate business interest?

The Court on page 3 recognized a number of factors in the analysis in denying enforcing the non-compete, including:

  1. the position was a low-level position;
  2. employee had no access to confidential information;
  3. employee didn’t take any information;
  4. employee didn’t solicit customers;
  5. interestingly, the employer didn’t previously enforce the non-compete when other employees left.

One other interesting piece of information – the Court rejected the employer’s allegation that its swimming lessons were proprietary information. The Court’s rationale?

the employer “placed its methods in the public domain because this was a public building and the students parents, as well as any member of the public, could watch the lessons and glean the methods.” pg 8.

Having no proprietary information, the employer “could not establish a legitimate business interest it needed to protect.” Id.

 

Lessons:

  1. Non-competes will not be enforced unless they protect a legitimate business interest.
  2. Non-competes are less likely to be enforceable against low-level positions with no access to proprietary information.
  3. If you are going to seek an injunction in court, it helps to have some evidence that your former employee is unfairly competing.

 

questions? comments?

email: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Business Legislation Update: Business Owners: Bill Would Restrict Non-Competition Agreements with Employees.

November 15, 2016 1 comment

On November 9, 2016 House Bill 6017 was introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives. If passed it would limit the enforceability of a non-competition agreement signed between an employer and an employee.

I have spent several articles discussing the legal consequences/enforceability issues of non-competes.

It appears the Legislature is wrestling with the question posed by Nick Manes of MIBiz in an article a few years back: “Are noncompetes a barrier to growth?

Check out the text of the bill here

The Bill was referred to the committee on commerce and trade.

The Bill is rather short – and has only two key components to it:

1. Require Employers to follow a Specific Procedure prior to enforcing a non-compete.

The Bill would only permit Employers to enforce a non-competition agreement if the Employer followed a procedure, including:

(A) INFORMED THE PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYEE IN WRITING OF THE REQUIREMENT AT OR BEFORE THE TIME OF THE INITIAL OFFER OF EMPLOYMENT.

(B) IN ANY POSTING OR ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE EMPLOYMENT, GIVEN NOTICE THAT ACCEPTANCE OF THE AGREEMENT OR COVENANT IS A CONDITION 1 OF EMPLOYMENT.

2. Non-Compete only Enforceable if the Employee voluntarily resigns.

Further, under the Bill an employer can only enforce the non-compete if, among other things, the employee has voluntarily resigned. Stated another, way, a non-compete would be unenforceable if the Employer terminated the employee.

A Bill was introduced back in February that somewhat mirrors this Bill, but has other restrictions. That Bill never came back from the committee on Trade and Commerce.

We will see if HB 6017 is able to gain any more traction – since it is now also sitting in the committee on Trade and Commerce.

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

http://www.dwlawpc.com