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When Covenants Not to Compete and NDAs Reach Too Far
South Carolina courts are clear in their general dislike of covenants not to compete and any provisions that restrict an individual’s ability to work. They are also clear in their tendency to rule in favor of the employee rather than the employer in related cases. This was the issue at hand in a recent case decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals.
Covenants not to compete and non-disclosure agreements (NDA) were covered on this blog previously, because it’s so important for employers to be extremely careful in their wording on non-compete and non-disclosure agreements. If they try to restrict their employees’ actions too much, an employer may discover their agreement has reached too far and is invalid.
Fay vs. Total Quality Logistics
That’s essentially what happened in the case at hand, Fay vs. Total Quality Logistics. TQL, an Ohio-based transportation and logistics company, hired Joshua Fay in late 2012. As required by the company, Fay signed TQL’s Non-Compete, Confidentiality, and Non-Solicitation Agreement before commencing work. The Agreement was signed in Ohio and was to be enforced under Ohio law.
The following summer, Fay was fired. He then founded JF Progressions, LLC, in Mount Pleasant, SC, providing logistics services to another company. TQL found out and notified Fay that TQL intended to pursue legal action if he didn’t stop what he was doing. Fay then filed suit against TQL to seek a declaratory judgment that the Agreement he had signed was invalid and not enforceable. He argued that the Court must invalidate the Agreement if it is contrary to SC public policy, even if Ohio law applied to the interpretation of the Agreement.
The case made it to the South Carolina Court of Appeals which sided with Fay and found that, though it was to be enforced under Ohio law, the Agreement offended South Carolina public policy and was therefore not enforceable. The Court of Appeals found that the lower court (the Circuit Court) erred when it ruled against Fay, stating that the Agreement was enforceable under Ohio law and did not offend SC public policy.
When non-compete and non-disclosure agreements are too broad
To understand why the South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled as it did, it’s important to understand the basics of non-compete agreements. Two important clauses in a non-compete agreement are about time and geography; agreements place limits on the length of time and the geographical area in which an employee or former employee can work. An enforceable agreement strikes a balance between protecting the employer’s interests and giving the employee or former employee the freedom to earn a living in their profession.
South Carolina has determined that these limits must be “reasonable.” In the Agreement Fay signed, the limits were not reasonable under South Carolina’s standards. The non-disclosure agreement was worded so as to effectively be a non-compete agreement, which was to be in effect “at all times.” Under the Agreement, Fay was restricted from working with “Competing Businesses,” which was defined as “any person, firm, corporation, or entity that is engaged in the Business anywhere in the Continental United States.” If TQL’s Agreement were enforced, Fay would not be able to work in the field of transportation and logistics in the Continental U.S. “for an indefinite time, if not forever,” in the Court of Appeal’s wording. South Carolina determined that these restrictions were too broad and violated the state’s public policy, as they restrict an individual’s right to exercise their trade.
The Court of Appeal’s decision cited the Stonhard case, quoting “The agreement fails to limit the covenant to a particular geographical area. To add and enforce such a term requires this [c]ourt to bind these parties to a term that does not reflect the parties’ original intention. Therefore, we hold that the covenant, despite any reformation, is void and unenforceable as a matter of public policy.”</P
In addition, the Court of Appeal’s decisions reaffirmed the fact that South Carolina does not follow the “blue pencil” rule. In non-compete cases, this rule allows courts the discretion to invalidate certain portions of an agreement while maintaining others and to create terms the court believes the parties should have agreed on in the first place.
(It’s important to note that this discussion is about the March 2017 decision of the South Carolina Court of Appeals. It’s possible that the South Carolina Supreme Court may take up this issue at a future date, at which point this decision could be reversed or affirmed.)
Lesson for employers on covenants not to compete and NDAs
The lesson here for employers is to be extremely careful in the wording on covenants not to compete, NDAs, and other contracts that have any limiting effect on your employees’ current or future ability to work. As we can see from this case, strict wording of an NDA can effectively be interpreted as a non-compete agreement, even if that wasn’t the original intention.
Employers also need to be cognizant of these issues with regards to different states’ laws. Even if your state’s courts find your contracts “reasonable,” another state’s courts may not, depending on the state’s public policy. The internet cannot provide reliable guidance on this topic, which is why it’s important to discuss it with an attorney who’s well versed in this topic.
For guidance on how to craft your company’s covenants not to compete and NDAs, or for advice on one you’ve already signed, contact Mt. Pleasant business attorney Gem McDowell. He and his associate Lauren Turowetz can be reached at the Law Office of Gem McDowell in Mount Pleasant at (843) 284-1021 or by filling out this contact form online. Contact them today.