Potential Antitrust Implications in Resolving Disputes Over An Employee’s Non-Compete Agreement

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Resolving non-compete disputes often involves more than just bringing an employee and her former employer together to reach some agreement; successful resolution may also require the involvement of the employee’s new employer as well. An employer who hires an employee subject to a valid non-compete agreement with a former employer is inviting legal claims by the former employer, including claims for “tortious interference” with contract. The new employer is often named as a co-defendant when a former employer sues the employee for breaching her non-compete. Almost by definition, therefore, when there is litigation between a former employer and a new employer over an employee’s non-compete agreement, this means that there are two competitors involved in the litigation. To resolve such a dispute out of court, an agreement must be reached among competitors. But when two or more competitors sit down and reach an agreement, there exists some risk of anti-competitive effects that could create potential liability under antitrust laws.

One potential antitrust predicament arising out of a dispute over a non-compete agreement can be illustrated by the following hypothetical: Suppose that Acme Widget Company, based in Arizona, has been selling widgets in the Southwest and beyond for 50 years.  As a result of its long track-record and reliable products, Acme Widget has a 90% market share in the Southwestern widget-market, although its market share is lower in the rest of the country (where the demand for widgets is not as great).  Acme Widget’s long-time sales manager, Mr. Wolf, is not sure about Acme Widget’s new business model (which would change the way he sells widgets) and is interested in finding new employment elsewhere.  He learns about a relatively new start-up venture based in Georgia, Coyote Widget Company.  Coyote Widget’s niche is finding customers who have never purchased widgets before, and Coyote Widget has been successfully exploiting the previously-untapped widget-market on the East Coast and in the Southeast.  Coyote Widget does sell widgets to a few customers located in Arizona and does sell to some former customers of Acme Widget.  However, because Coyote Widget’s business model focuses on exploiting previously-untapped markets, Coyote Widget is not particularly interested in selling widgets to Acme Widget’s existing customer-base.

Coyote Widget and Mr. Wolf think that they would be a good fit for one another, but Coyote Widget is concerned about the non-compete agreement that Mr. Wolf entered into with Acme Widget when he became Acme’s sales manager.  Acme Widget, for its part, would just as soon part ways with Mr. Wolf and wants to wish him well in his future endeavors.  Then again, Acme Widget is well aware that Mr. Wolf carries a lot of clout with its established customers and is wary about allowing any other widget-maker ready access to these customers.

The three parties (Acme Widget, Coyote Widget, and Mr. Wolf) remain interested in working out a solution.  At the start of negotiations, Coyote Widget and Mr. Wolf jointly propose that, if Mr. Wolf comes to work for Coyote Widget, he will not contact any customer with whom he worked while at Acme Widget for a two-year period (the term of his non-compete).  Acme Widget likes this proposal but is worried that it could be hard to police and might be subject to cheating.  For example, if one of Mr. Wolf’s former Acme customers contacts him at Coyote Widget, Mr. Wolf could refer him to another salesperson at Coyote Widget.  Mr. Wolf’s referral would likely carry significant weight with the customer, even if Mr. Wolf did not initiate the contact or manage the account himself.  Acme Widget also does not trust Coyote Widget’s representations that its business model is focused on previously-untapped markets and that it is not interested in Acme Widget’s customer-base.  Given Mr. Wolf’s long-time contacts in the industry, Acme Widget is concerned that the temptation could be too great for Coyote Widget; once Mr. Wolf is on staff, it would be too easy for Coyote Widget to start raiding Acme Widget’s customer-base.

However, following several rounds of negotiations, the parties reach what appears to be a solution:  Acme Widget will provide Coyote Widget with a list of customers serviced by Mr. Wolf, and Coyote Widget will agree not to accept business from any customer on this list for the next two years. For good measure, Coyote Widget has also offered to agree not to solicit any new customers in Arizona and has agreed to provide Acme Widget with a list of Coyote Widget’s existing customers in Arizona (a small number in any event). Such an agreement would be easy to enforce — if an Acme Widget customer later moves its account to Coyote Widget, Acme Widget will not have to worry about proving that Mr. Wolf initiated contact with the customer. All that Acme Widget would have to prove is either (i) that the customer moved its account from Acme Widget to Coyote Widget and is listed on Acme Widget’s list or (ii) that the customer is in Arizona and is not on Coyote Widget’s list. From Coyote Widget’s perspective, this agreement has few drawbacks, given Coyote Widget’s focus on the untapped widget-market on the East Coast and in the Southeast.

There is, however, a problem with this solution:  the federal Sherman Act and similar state statutes that may be on the books in states where Acme Widget and Coyote Widget do business. Indeed, whereas many potential antitrust violations are judged under a “rule of reason” analysis (wherein the court will conduct an analysis of potential anti-competitive effects), so-called “horizontal” agreements among competitors to allocate markets may be viewed as per se illegal. The potential antitrust violation in the above hypothetical could subject Acme Widget and Coyote Widget to both criminal and civil liability, and once a per se violation is shown, there are few arguments that either company could make in its defense.  For that matter, given that Acme Widget holds a 90% market share in the Southwestern widget-market and that Coyote Widget is a start-up that has made some inroads (however limited) into this market, this is exactly the sort of scenario that could invite antitrust scrutiny from regulators or from customers unhappy about Acme Widget’s high prices.

In conclusion, employers seeking to resolve disputes about non-compete agreements should be aware of other legal risks and exposures, including antitrust laws.  Too much focus on the non-compete agreement in dispute can sometimes lead to even greater exposures in other areas.

If you would like additional information on trade secrets law, please contact one of the Burr & Forman Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members.