Should You Always Enforce Covenants Not to Compete?

Covenants not to compete are binding contracts that are designed to protect companies against exiting employees unlawfully sharing different types of proprietary information, “trade secrets” and intellectual property with their new employers and others and engaging in post-employment activities that can be detrimental to the company they left.

Before discussing whether it’s wise to develop an ironclad attitude toward enforcing these covenants, it’s helpful to review the basic reasons why these documents are usually drafted and what standards courts consider when deciding whether they should be upheld.

Companies must protect specific types of information

Whether your business sells cutting-edge security software or sends out consultants to advise clients in mostly rural areas, your employees often learn highly detailed information about how you help your clients. If you were to always let key employees leave and immediately put that proprietary information and knowledge to work for a competitor, your business might quickly lose its competitive edge and market dominance.

Therefore, many companies regularly require employees to sign noncompete agreements to prevent them from using what they learn while employed for a limited time post-employment. Should former employees violate these agreements, they (and their new employers) can often be sued in court.

Common types of proprietary interests you’ll usually want to protect

  • Trade secrets. Perhaps your company has invented a manufacturing process that should not be shared with any competitors. It’s also possible that you’ve designed a highly effective training program for your employees that makes them uniquely effective at handling their work. You clearly don’t want them to share those training methods with others;
  • Client databases. You’ll want to prevent all departing employees from reviewing any past buying practices, requests and needs of your clients;
  • Other highly confidential materials. These could include almost anything – perhaps you’ve implemented a specialized marketing plan that’s helped your business grow several times over during recent years.

These examples should help remind you of the many proprietary types of information you must protect by requiring your exiting employees to sign covenants not to compete.

Within such covenants, you’ll need to address various topics that may include the following ones.

  • A specific time period. Any time period must be reasonable, normally 1-3 years;
  • A description of the types activities the employee cannot engage in post-employment. You can list specific industries, customers or businesses the departing employee should not contact for a new employer;
  • A specific geographical area where the departing employee cannot work. You can state a certain region where the employee who left cannot compete with you for a set time period.

When evaluating the reasonableness of covenants not to compete, courts look to see if they are over-broad or too restrictive. While businesses have a right to protect certain information or “legitimate business interests”, they aren’t allowed to unfairly prevent a departing employee from pursuing most forms of gainful employment.

Should you always enforce your contracts containing noncompete clauses?

Although the most obvious response is to say you’ll always strictly enforce them, it’s important to recognize certain factors before suing someone for not honoring a noncompete covenant.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft any contracts you need containing covenants not to compete. We can that someone is currently asking you to sign – or assist you in enforcing or defending a lawsuit.

Key Drafting Points for a Texas Employment Contract

Although Texas employers hire many workers on an “at-will” basis to make it easier to dismiss them (for reasons that doesn’t violate governing statutes), they also still provide employment contracts to others. After all, a well-drafted employment contract helps employers clearly establish what’s expected of their employees and makes it easier to protect proprietary information when workers leave.

If your company prefers to negotiate employment contracts with highly skilled employees, try to first meet with a Houston employment law attorney so that all of your most important needs and interests can be protected during the hiring process. And always be sure to communicate carefully with prospective employees since it’s easy to accidentally convey contract terms you may not have intended.

Before reviewing some of the important terms that should be included in most Texas employment contracts, it’s wise to note how some employment contract terms can become binding when set forth outside of contracts.

Ways employers may convey certain employment terms to job applicants or new hires 

Always carefully review the following ways that your company may be granting certain rights you didn’t intend to include in your formal employment contacts.

  • Through verbal agreements. Only allow a limited number of interviewers and other hiring staff to discuss key employment terms that may or may not be set forth in writing;
  • Statements made in offer letters. Always reread these before sending them out to make sure they do not contradict what’s in your written employment contract;
  • Provisions set forth in your employee handbook. (You should periodically ask your attorneys to review this material – to be sure it’s still current regarding new laws and recent court decisions);
  • All emails and faxes sent to prospective employees or new hires;
  • Statements made on workplace job notice boards.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it should remind you that all written materials and formal conversations with applicants and new hires must be conducted carefully.

Here’s a look at some the terms you must properly address in your contracts.

Written employment contracts should always address these key terms and conditions

  • All core duties and responsibilities of the employee. It’s often wise to also note when the employee’s performance will be evaluated. For example, after the first 30 to 60 days – and then at other stated intervals;
  • Pay rate. This should be carefully discussed while making the initial offer and then documented in the employment contract;
  • All employee benefits, such as healthcare and stock options, should be listed and at least briefly explained;
  • Work locations and hours. If rotating shifts are required or if you strictly forbid working from home – you should set forth all these relevant restrictions;
  • Clear information indicating how employee disciplinary actions will normally be handled;
  • Reimbursement of approved expenses. If you do not cover any major expenses, you must state this very clearly;
  • How employee terminations are handled under different circumstances. This is a good place to possibly offer some type of severance pay if provided with two weeks’ notice (or some other time period you may prefer). You can then state that no general severance packages will be offered to those who fail to provide advance notice of their departure;
  • Dispute resolution terms. If you and the employee later have a dispute regarding the employment terms set forth in the contract, state whether you require the use of a specific form of dispute resolution — before any litigation can be pursued;
  • A reasonable covenant not to compete when employees are leaving. You should also include some type of clear statement that the departing employee must not disclose any trade secrets to others upon leaving.
  • A confidentially agreement. All employees who have any access to any company trade secrets, proprietary information or information the company deems to be of a sensitive or confidential nature must sign a confidentiality agreement.

If any of these terms are especially important to your company, give serious thought to asking all employees to not only sign their employment contracts – but to also initial certain paragraphs – clearly indicating that they were asked if they had special concerns or questions about those topics.

Please get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys once you’re ready to draft any employment contracts for new employees. We are also available to help you modify any of these contracts when various employment conditions change.

IRS Clarifies “Employee” Versus “Independent Contractor” Test

The IRS recently issued clarifying guidelines to help employers determine which workers should be treated as independent contractors or employees. The government naturally wants accurate decisions to be made since they determine when it’s paid certain taxes on each worker’s wages.

The main deductions that should be subtracted from all employees’ paychecks include those for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and income taxes. When a business has work done by an independent contractor, that person must pay all those taxes in the form of self-employment tax.

What remains the general standard for deciding if a worker is an independent contractor?

If an employer reserves the right to only direct control over the result of the work – and cannot tell a worker exactly what to do and how to handle the assignment – then that worker will usually be legally viewed as an independent contractor.

However, deciding what constitutes specific directions for completing a given task can still fall into a gray area.

Fortunately, there are three basic analytic categories that can help employers accurately determine when workers are properly classified as “employees” or “independent contractors.”

What are the three main categories of analysis for deciding a worker’s correct status?

The IRS indicates that employers should carefully examine the following three aspects of how they relate to workers to determine their proper work status.

  1. Behavior control. An employer may have behavior control over a worker even when it does not exercise it. For example, when such control is involved, it may include telling a worker which specific tools to use and where those supplies should be purchased. Under those circumstances, the worker should be considered an employee. Conversely, the less control over a worker’s behavior, the greater the chance that the person is working as an independent contractor.

If there are strict guidelines for determining the quality of the work provided, there’s a strong chance that the worker is an employee. When the worker is provided a bit more leeway in terms of quality control – there’s a stronger chance that the person is an independent contractor.

Of course, the two parties will usually need to agree to some basic quality standards, regardless of whether the worker is an employee or independent contractor. Finally, if periodic training or ongoing training is required of a worker – that increases the chances that the worker should be treated as an employee.

  1. Financial control. Does the worker have to personally cover the majority (or all) of the expenses tied to completing the work? These might include the purchase and maintenance of proper computers, printers, fax machines, scanners and other required equipment. If the worker is covering all those expenses, he or she should probably be classified as an independent contractor.

Stated differently, when a worker has many unreimbursed expenses, that person is usually an independent contractor — not an employee. Independent contractors are also those who retain the right to continue obtaining additional work from other parties. As for the payment for services, independent contractors are usually paid a flat fee – although that arrangement can vary in some cases.

  1. How the employer and worker each perceive the nature of their relationship. When the parties have not negotiated any employee benefits like vacation pay, sick pay, a pension plan and stock options – the worker is usually an independent contractor. While a written contract signed by the two parties can indicate how they view their interactions, it’s not always the only evidence the IRS and the courts will review when classifying the work relationship. All relevant documents and communications may need to be examined.

The main consequence for an employer who misclassifies a worker is that the employer may be required to pay all employment taxes currently owing for that worker – as opposed to requiring the worker to cover them.

What unique emphasis is placed on these three categories in the updated guidelines?

As for behavior control, employers really shouldn’t be telling the independent contractor the exact sequence of events for all tasks to be performed or exactly how they should be handled.

Regarding financial control, only independent contractors can experience a profit or loss while handling assigned tasks. Employees whose expenses are generally covered will usually not experience any profit or loss while completing assigned tasks on a given schedule.

As for how the parties view their work relationship, a fully executed contract can be controlling when other conclusive details aren’t available. However, as briefly noted above, the parties’ communications can usually provide clear indications of whether they’re interacting as employer-employee or employer and independent contractor.

The key bottom line for employers who don’t want to only work with employees – is to allow their independent contractors considerable flexibility while completing tasks – while respecting professional standards acceptable to both parties.

Please give our law firm a call if you need any help determining which workers are employees or independent contractors. We can also help you better understand the many different types of classifications that govern a wide range of employees you may want to hire – and the tax consequences for hiring those who fit in each group.

Our firm always remains available to help you draft many different types of contracts that can serve all your business needs.

Tortious Interference with Inheritance:  Not a Valid Claim in Texas

The Supreme Court of Texas states in its Archer v. Anderson opinion (published in June 2018) that “there is no cause of action in Texas for tortious interference with inheritance.” This ruling was based on the court’s holding that there are other adequate, valid remedies for pursuing inheritance-related claims without doing so under this specific tort that conflicts with Texas probate law.

The basic facts set forth in the Archer case.

Stated succinctly, Archer v. Anderson involved a man named John R. “Jack” Archer who had married and divorced four times and never had any children of his own. In a 1991 Will, Archer left the bulk of his estate to his brother and his six children (a generous sum was also left to charities). Seven years later, Jack Archer suffered a stroke that left him very confused, disoriented and delusional.

Multiple parties soon stepped in at different times, trying to coerce Mr. Archer into changing his estate plans. Guardianship proceedings were also pursued. Eventually, the Archer family sued Jack Archer’s attorney, Ted Anderson, for breach of fiduciary duty, legal malpractice, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. (They also sued others on Mr. Archer’s behalf).

Anderson passed away in March 2006 and Jack Archer died one month later. After Jack’s 1991 Will was probated, the Archers received their bequests under it. (Many other complex events also transpired, eventually leading both sides to file appeals that were addressed in this Supreme Court of Texas opinion).

Tortious interference with an inheritance has never been formally recognized in Texas.

The Supreme Court of Texas clearly notes that neither its predecessors on the bench – nor the State’s legislature – have ever formally recognized the claim of tortious interference with inheritance. However, over the years, various parties have repeatedly argued that such a claim was basically implied in other cases.

How should Texans respond and protect themselves based on this ruling?

Parties who believe that their contractual right to inherit from someone has been thwarted by a third party due to fraud, undue influence, issues involving testamentary capacity, or drafting irregularities — can still petition a court for help. A probate court could set aside certain gifts based on the offering of proper evidence – and might also correct a wrongful act by imposing a constructive trust so that no one will be unjustly enriched.

Of course, however parties proceed, they must be ready to cover court costs and attorney fees on their own.

To further combat fraud, it’s crucial for all family members to stay very actively involved with their elderly or disabled loved ones.

When few people keep in touch, numerous parties claiming to be friends or caregivers can find both cruel and hidden ways to steal from elderly or disabled people’s estates. (If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read The New Yorker article entitled, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rightsand AARP’sFraud in the Family.”

Please feel free to contact Murray Lobb so we can help you with all your estate planning needs. We can also provide you with legal advice on how you should proceed if you believe anyone is currently trying to defraud you (or a loved one) of any estate funds.

How Should You Respond to Potentially False I-9 Documentation?

At present, the federal government expects companies to carefully examine all I-9 documents presented by job applicants and to ask questions about required paperwork that looks like it may have been altered. Once you receive proper documents that look valid, you must keep your copy of the completed I-9 form on file, ready to share it with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) upon request. In some cases, you may be given only three days’ notice to produce these documents for all your employees.

To help employers fulfill their duties, ICE provides general guidelines that describe how all I-9 document reviews should be handled. These guidelines are further referenced below, along with topics you should address with your human resource staff to help them avoid accidentally discriminating against applicants and employees while simply trying to obtain fully updated, accurate documents.

What federal law established the need to obtain I-9 documents from job applicants?

Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) back in 1986. It requires employers to obtain job applicant documents that validate each person’s right to work in this country. This task is handled by fully completing a Form I-9 document for each job applicant. To help establish their legal status, applicants can produce such items as:  a driver’s license, a Permanent Resident Card, a US passport, a birth certificate and a Social Security card.

Can some I-9 documents be acceptable even when they initially look questionable?

The simple answer to that question is “Yes.” However, you should always keep notes in your file concerning any odd documents that you first believed might be false – and keep a copy of them. As ICE notes on its website, there are times when a worker may show you documents indicating different last names – and that may be acceptable if the job applicant can provide you with a reasonable explanation for the varied listings.

While employers must be respectful and open-minded while handling required I-9 tasks, they should be acting in agreement with previously established, written employee guidelines clearly noting that all new hires and established employees can be fired for providing any false job applicant documents. When you haven’t already created such written guidelines and acceptable standards of employee conduct, you may later find yourself accused of discriminating against an applicant or employee based upon his or her immigrant (or special ethnic) status.

This type of scenario often unfolds when an employee informs you after being hired that one or more documents given to you before being hired was fraudulent or invalid. This tends to occur when the employee is trying to provide you with newly updated, valid documents.

This specific type of issue was presented to the Department of Justice (DOJ) back in 2015. Unfortunately, instead of issuing an advisory opinion, the DOJ simply noted that employers should already be prepared to handle these types of issues — based on established employee conduct guidelines. Otherwise, they risk being sued for one of at least four employment-related forms of discrimination.

Is it true that some employers have been heavily fined for I-9 violations?

Yes. One of the largest fines recently imposed by the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO) involving I-9 irregularities was against Hartmann Studios. That company was required (in July of 2015) to pay $600,000 in civil penalties. (That amount had been reduced from the original penalty sought of $812,665.) When Hartmann was undergoing a new inspection back in 2011, the company employed over 700 workers.

While that large sum of money is quite high, it’s important to recognize that Hartmann Studios was unable to provide any I-9s for some of its employees who had been terminated and needed an extension of time to produce documents for others.

What steps can our office (or company) take now, to make sure were fully complying with all current I-9 document guidelines?

If you haven’t already done so, give serious thought to signing up for the US government’s
E-Verify program that can help you properly process all your I-9 documents. By visiting this government website, you can learn more about how this program works. Your usage of this service may help establish your good-faith attempt to properly handle all I-9 duties.

You may also want to ask your lawyer if you should require all newly hired (and established) employees to sign a form that clearly indicates their awareness that they may be immediately fired for their dishonesty if you ever learn that they’ve provided you with any fraudulent I-9 documents. If you do this, you’ll need to strictly apply this standard.

Please contact our Murray Lobb law office so we can answer any other questions you may have about properly handling all I-9 documents. We can also provide you with advice on drawing up a general employee handbook — that also fully alerts all employees to the possible consequences of supplying your company with fraudulent I-9 documents.

Is Notice to the Address of Record in the Loan Agreement always Sufficient? We'll See…

Many years of past precedent had established that a lenders notice to the debtor’s address of record in the Loan Agreement was almost always sufficient. However, one case from the Texas Supreme Court, and another in which Petition for Review has been filed may change established law.

In July 2015, in a landlord verses tenant case, (“Katy Venture v. Cremona Bistro”) the Texas Supreme Court ruled that because the landlord had used an outdated “registered” address even though it knew of a new “unofficial” mailing address, a fact issue was presented to defeat Landlord’s Motion for Summary Judgment in a bill of review proceeding after default judgment was entered against the Tenant.

Following the “Katy Venture” decision, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals, in a Lender verses Guarantor case, the Court held that the Guarantor raised a genuine issue of material fact to defeat a summary judgment. The Court held that because some summary judgment evidence exists that the Bank knew the Guarantor’s current address but nonetheless utilized an outdated “official” address in its certificate of last known address, a fact issue exists precluding summary judgment. This is true even assuming the Bank conclusively established the Guarantor’s negligence in failing to update his contractually-agreed-to address for notice.

Petition for review has been filed to the Texas Supreme Court. We’ll see in the coming year how the law of adequate notice evolves.

Practice point: Send notices to the borrowers and guarantors “official” address of record, but also send notice to ay other addresses which the bank knows, or with reasonable diligence and investigation should have known, where the borrowers and guarantors receive their mail or reside.