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Articles Posted in Non-Compete Agreements

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) controversially issued a final rule banning most non-compete agreements. This rule severely impedes the ability of businesses to protect their legitimate business interests such as customer relationships, goodwill, confidential business information, and trade secrets. However, the FTC’s rule is facing legal challenges from different directions. Last week we wrote about a direct legal challenge and the Northern District of Texas’ injunction prohibiting enforcement of the rule. Ryan LLC v. FTC, Case No. 3:24-CV-00986-E, 2024 WL 3297524 (N.D. Tex., July 3, 2024). This week we examine a potential future indirect challenge to the FTC’s rule based on the Supreme Court Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, __ S. Ct. __, 2024 WL 3208360 (2024) decision eliminating Chevron deference. As discussed more fully below, Loper Bright effectively removed a tool the FTC could have used to enforce its non-compete ban. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney.  Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney.  The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

The Supreme Court established the legal doctrine known as Chevron deference in the case Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Chevron deference required court to be highly deferential to agency regulations. It established a two-step process a court must employ when determining whether to rely on an agency regulation. First, the court must determine “whether Congress has spoken to the precise question at issue.” This is done by reviewing the clarity of the relevant statute at issue. Second, if “the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue”, then the court must defer to an agency regulation when it “is based on a permissible construction of the statute.” This holding shifts power away from the executive branch of government and the agencies associated therewith in favor of the judicial branch of government.

In practice, Chevron essentially determined that agency regulations are binding precedent. In fact, courts have used Chevron as the foundation to enforce FTC regulations. See Mattox v. FTC, 752 F.2d 116 (5th Cir. 1985) (finding that FTC regulations regarding Hart-Scott-Rodino Act entitled to Chevron deference); Nat’l Automobile Dealers Ass’n v. FTC, 864 F. Supp. 2d 65 (D.D.C., May 22, 2012) (holding that FTC regulation regarding Fair Credit Reporting Act was entitled to Chevron deference). Therefore, FTC could have attempted to rely on Chevron to enforce its non-compete ban before Loper Bright.

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Non-compete agreements have been a standard business practice for many years. Businesses use non-compete agreements to protect their interests like proprietary business information, trade secrets, customer, goodwill, staff, and others. However, on April 23, 2024, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) upended this long-standing business practice by issuing a rule banning most non-compete agreements. See 16 C.F.R. § 910. The FTC’s new rule was recently challenged in Ryan LLC et. al v. FTC, and the court enjoined the FTC from enforcing its ban. Ryan LLC et. al. v. FTC, Case No. 3:24-CV-00986-E, 2024 WL 3297524 (N.D. Tex. July 3, 2024). Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation attorney, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment litigation, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

The court prohibited the FTC from enforcing its non-compete ban because the FTC exceeded its statutory authority. See Am. Fin. Services Ass’n v. F.T.C., 767 F.2d 957 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (“The judiciary remains the final authority with respect to questions of statutory construction and must reject administrative agency actions which exceed the agency’s statutory mandate or frustrate congressional intent.”). The court based its decision on the plain meaning of the FTC Act, which only grants the FTC procedural rulemaking authority for rules regarding unfair methods of competition as opposed to substantive rulemaking authority. 15 U.S.C. § 46; see also W. Virginia v. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 597 U.S. 697 (2022) (“It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”). The applicable statute allows the FTC to “make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” 15 U.S.C. § 46. The Ryan LLC court interpreted this statute as a “housekeeping” statute because it lacks penalty provisions and was historically for procedural rulemaking. Ryan LLC, 2024 WL 3297524 (citing Chrysler Corp. v. Brown, 441 U.S. 281 (1979) (“It is indeed a “housekeeping statute,” authorizing what the APA terms “rules of agency organization procedure or practice” as opposed to “substantive rules.”)).

The court also issued a preliminary injunction because it was substantially likely the FTC’s non-compete ban was arbitrary and capricious. Ryan LLC, 2024 WL 3297524 (“[B]ecause the FTC is an administrative agency, the Commission’s actions are constrained by the APA’s arbitrary-and-capricious standard.”); see also Fed. Communications Comm’n v. Prometheus Radio Project, 592 U.S. 414 (2021) (“The APA’s arbitrary-and-capricious standard requires that agency action be reasonable and reasonably explained.”). The FTC lacked evidence demonstrating why it chose a sweeping ban against most non-competes instead of targeting specific non-competes, failed to consider the positive benefits of non-compete agreements, and insufficiently addressed rule alternatives. Ryan LLC, 2024 WL 3297524.

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Under Florida law, enforcement of a non-compete agreement requires requires proof of at least one “legitimate business interest.” Fla. Stat. § 542.335 (“The person seeking enforcement of a restrictive covenant shall plead and prove the existence of one or more legitimate business interests justifying the restrictive covenant.”). A failure to plead or prove the existence of a legitimate interest justifying the non-compete covenant can void its enforcement. Id. (“Any restrictive covenant not supported by a legitimate business interest is unlawful and is void and unenforceable.”). Florida’s non-compete statute specifically references a nebulous legitimate business interest called “valuable confidential business…information.”  Florida and federal cases interpreting  the meaning of the term “valuable confidential business information” have reached different conclusions depending on the factual context. See Proudfoot Consulting Co. v. Gordon, 576 F.3d 1223 (11th Cir. 2009) (“It is unclear under Florida law when confidential information will justify a broad restriction that prevents an employee from working for a competitor.”). Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation attorney, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment litigation, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

Some courts have determined that a person possesses valuable confidential business information when the employee is in a position to engage in unfair competition against the former employer. See Autonation v. O’Brien, 347 F. Supp. 2d 1299 (S.D. Fla. 2004). For example, in Open Magnetic Imaging, Inc. v. Nieves–Garcia, 826 So.2d 415 (Fla. 3d DCA 2002) (per curiam), Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal held that the defendant’s knowledge about a confidential database created as part of a confidential strategic marketing plan was a legitimate business interest because a competitor hired the defendant as its marketing representative. By contrast, in Austin v. Mid State Fire Equip. of Cent. Florida, Inc., 727 So.2d 1097 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999), the Florida appellate court refused to enforce the non-compete designed to protect pricing information known to the former employee because the former employee was only a technician that did not “set up service runs or set prices.”

Other courts appear to use a slightly higher standard advocated by the drafters of Florida Statue § 542.335, Senator John Grant and Thomas Steele. Senator Grant and Mr. Steele contend courts should look to the definition of threatened misappropriation used in trade secrets law to determine whether a defendant’s knowledge of confidential information justifies a restrictive covenant. See John A. Grant & Thomas Steele, Restrictive Covenants: Florida Returns to the Original “Unfair Competition” Approach to the 21st Century, 70 Fla. B.J. 53 (Nov. 1996) (hereinafter “Grant & Steele”). Under this approach, Valuable Confidential Information exists when disclosure of the information would be inevitable. Id. At least one Florida decision appears to have enforced a restrictive covenant based on the inevitable disclosure theory. See Proudfoot Consulting Co., 576 F. 3d 1223 (citing Fountain v. Hudson Cush–N–Foam Corp., 122 So.2d 232 (Fla.3d DCA 1960) (finding that employee’s “knowledge of the trade secrets would be so entwined with his employment” that “it would seem logical to assume that his employment by a competitor … would eventually result in a disclosure of this information”)).

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A third-party can enforce a contract even though it is not a party to that contract if the contracting parties expressly intended to primarily and directly benefit the third-party. Bochese v. Town of Ponce Inlet, 405 F.3d 964 (11th Cir. 2005) (“Under Florida law, a third party is an intended beneficiary of a contract between two other parties only if a direct and primary object of the contracting parties was to confer a benefit on the third party.”). One should not assume all contractual benefits befalling a third-party allows that third-party to enforce the contract because the benefit may only be incidental. Id. (“If the contracting parties had no such purpose in mind, any benefit from the contract reaped by the third party is merely ‘incidental,’ and the third party has no legally enforceable right in the subject matter of the contract.”) (collecting cases). Therefore, the court must determine whether the contracting parties entered the agreement for the direct and substantial purpose of conferring a benefit on the third-party. Id. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney.  The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

Ordinarily, the contract does not need to contain an express third-party beneficiary provision to allow that third-party to enforce the contract because courts look to the nature or terms of a contract to determine whether the contracting parties’ manifested an intent to benefit the third-party. Jenne v. Church & Tower, Inc., 814 So. 2d 522 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) (“Florida law looks to “nature or terms of a contract” to find the parties’ clear or manifest intent that it “be for the benefit of a third party.” (citing Am. Sur. Co. of New York v. Smith, 130 So. 440 (Fla. 1930)). However, restrictive covenants are an exception to the rule. Florida Statute § 542.335 requires that “the restrictive covenant expressly identif[y] the person as a third-party beneficiary of the contract and expressly state[ ] that the restrictive covenant was intended for the benefit of such person.” Therefore, a third-party cannot enforce a restrictive covenant unless the contract contains an express provision allowing that third-party to do so. See Cellco P’ship v. Kimbler, 68 So. 3d 914 (Fla. 2d DCA 2011) (“The undisputed evidence was that Alltel and Cellco did not merge and that Alltel did not assign the restrictive covenant rights to Cellco. As a result, Cellco cannot enforce the Alltel–Kimbler agreement because it is not a party to the agreement nor is it a third-party beneficiary, assignee, or successor in interest.”).

Tusa v. Roffe, 791 So. 2d 512 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001) illustrates this point of law well. Tusa was a pizza restaurant and entered a contract with Roffe to rent commercial space needed to make and sell pizzas. Id. The lease contract prohibited Roffe from leasing other property on the premises to anyone who sold pizza. Id. About two months later, Roffe leased space to KKA, which also sold pizza. Id. The Roffe/KKA lease contained a provision prohibiting KKA from selling pizzas. Id. Tusa quickly discovered KKA was a pizza restaurant and commenced a lawsuit against KKA and Roffe to stop KKA from selling pizza. Id. The court dismissed Tusa’s lawsuit against KKA because the Roffe/KKA lease did not contain a provision expressly identifying Tusa as a third-party beneficiary to the contract. Id. However, the court also determined Roffe breached the Roffe/Tusa lease because Roffe allowed KKA to open a pizza restaurant on premises in violation of Tusa’s restrictive covenants. Id. (“The only reasonable interpretation of the covenant’s language that would support its protective purpose is if Roffe was prohibited from leasing space to another restaurant that sold pizza in the same building as Tusa’s restaurant.”).

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The parol evidence rule is a substantive rule of law that limits the introduction of evidence to interpret the meaning of a contractual provision. King v. Bray, 867 So. 2d 1224 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004) (“The parol-evidence rule is a substantive rule of law and… provides that a written document intended by the parties to be the final embodiment of their agreement may not be contradicted, modified or varied by parol evidence.”). The general rule prohibits the use of parol evidence to interpret contracts. As Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal explained in King v. Bray, 867 So. 2d 1224 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004), courts presume the parties entering the contract intended their writing “to be the sole expositor of their agreement.”  As an example, the parol evidence rule would prohibit the introduction of evidence regarding an oral agreement the parties entered contemporaneously with the written agreement. Madsen, Sapp, Mena, Rodriguez & Co., P.A. v. Palm Beach Polo Holdings, Inc., 899 So. 2d 435 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005) (“The parol evidence rule provides that a contemporaneous oral agreement may not be used to vary the terms of a written agreement unless there is ambiguity as to the meaning of the contract.”). Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation attorney, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment litigation, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

Contractual ambiguity is an exception to the parole evidence rule. When the term of a contract is ambiguous, parol evidence is admissible to “explain, clarify or elucidate” the ambiguous term. Strama v. Union Fid. Life Ins. Co., 793 So.2d 1129 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001) (citation omitted). However, a trial court cannot admit parol evidence until it first determines the term in dispute is ambiguous. See Weisfeld-Ladd v. Estate of Ladd, 920 So. 2d 1148 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006). Ambiguous terms are susceptible to more than one meaning. Friedman v. Va. Metal Prods. Corp., 56 So.2d 515 (Fla.1952). The court must determine whether the provision in question is susceptible to more than one meaning because it is a question of law. Strama v. Union Fid. Life Ins. Co., 793 So. 2d 1129, 1132 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001) (“The initial determination of whether the contract term is ambiguous is a question of law for the court, and, if the facts of the case are not in dispute, the court will also be able to resolve the ambiguity as a matter of law.”). Thereafter, the fact finder determines the correct interpretation of the ambiguous provision assuming the parties disagree on the interpretation. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Steve Hull Chevrolet, Inc., 513 So.2d 218 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987). (“Where the terms of the written instrument are disputed and reasonably susceptible to more than one construction, an issue of fact is presented as to the parties’ intent which cannot properly be resolved by summary judgment.”).

Non-compete contracts are no exception. The parol evidence rule prohibits introduction of evidence intended to demonstrate the meaning of a restrictive covenant provision unless a party shows the covenant is susceptible to more than one meaning. Thompson v. Squibb, 183 So.2d 30 (Fla. 2d DCA 1966). (“In construing restrictive covenants[,] the question is primarily one of intention, and the fundamental rule is that the intention of the parties as shown by the agreement governs, being determined by a fair interpretation of the entire text of the covenant.”); Barnett v. Destiny Owners Ass’n, Inc., 856 So. 2d 1090 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003) (holding that when a restrictive covenant is ambiguous, parol evidence regarding the developer’s intent is material). Application of the parol evidence rule in a restrictive covenant lawsuit may enable the party opposing enforcement to create a factual issue and avoid early judgment. See Evergreen Communities, Inc. v. Palafox Pres. Homeowners’ Ass’n, Inc., 213 So. 3d 1127 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017) (finding that the “language in the declaration of covenants and restrictions that expressed the developer’s personal intent to develop the property for commercial use is ambiguous as to whether the developer intended to create a restriction on the property such that it could only be used for commercial purposes” and reversing summary judgement because an ambiguity existed).

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Restrictive covenants like non-compete agreements and non-solicit agreements are valid if supported by one or more legitimate business interests. Fla. Stat. § 542.335. Those legitimate business interests often include the protection of trade secrets, valuable information that does not qualify as trade secret, existing customers, or future prospective customers. Id. However, legitimate business interests can also include extraordinary or specialized training. Id. This type of legitimate business interest is often pleaded by a former employer seeking to enforce its restrictive covenant against a former employee, but commonly rejected by the fact-finder. Below we identify the facts needed to successfully assert an extraordinary or specialized training legitimate business interest claim and provide some examples demonstrating why claims for extraordinary or specialized training frequently fail. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney.  The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

All training does not qualify as extraordinary or specialized training. “To constitute a protectible interest,… the provi[sion] of training or education must be extraordinary.” Hapney v. Cent. Garage, Inc., 579 So. 2d 127 (Fla. 2d DCA 1991), reh’g denied and opinion modified, (Fla. 2d DCA May 15, 1991). Therefore, the training must go “beyond what is usual, regular, common, or customary in the industry in which the employee is employed. Id. Courts reason that extraordinary training allows employees to gain unique skills or an enhanced sophistication that makes it unfair for those employees to use the new skills to compete. Id.

It is difficult to precisely distinguish between training that does and does not qualify as a legitimate business interest because it is a fact-based inquiry that varies industry to industry. Id. Notwithstanding, the case law provides some guidance by demonstrating that routine training does not meet the extraordinary standard. In IDMWORKS, LLC v. Pophaly, 192 F. Supp. 3d 1335 (S.D. Fla. 2016), the court ruled the plaintiff’s training was not a legitimate business interest for three reasons. First, the training provided by the former employer to the former employee was typical of most industries because the plaintiff failed to produce evidence demonstrating the training went beyond industry norms. Id. (“The only testimony about training within the industry came from the Defendant, who testified that the training he received was not different from training he would expect to receive at other companies in the industry.”). Second, the former employer’s provision of a database containing training materials did not create a legitimate business interest because the evidence established that many other companies can access the same database for those same training materials. Id. Third, the evidence revealed that the training materials provided by the employer were optional. Id; see also Autonation, Inc. v. O’Brien, 347 F. Supp. 2d 1299 (S.D. Fla. 2004) (“O’Brien testified that he was not required to attend the various training seminars and only ‘popped in and out’ of the meetings. Accordingly, AutoNation has not demonstrated any specialized training exceeding what would be common or typical in the industry.”).

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A party seeking to enforce a restrictive covenant must plead and prove the existence of one or more legitimate business interests. Fla. Stat. § 542.335. The proponent typically claims to have a legitimate business interest in its trade secrets, valuable confidential information that otherwise does not qualify as a trade secret, substantial relationships with specific prospective or existing customers, or specialized training. Id. However, a lesser-known category of legitimate business interest called customer goodwill is also available. Id. The goodwill legitimate business interest usually has to be associated with an ongoing business, a trade name, a trademark, trade dress, a specific geographic location, or a specific marketing area. Id.  However, this is not always the case. In this article, we explore the courts’ willingness to expanded the goodwill legitimate business interest to franchisor/franchisee relationships even though these relationships are not specifically defined as goodwill. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney.  The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

The goodwill legitimate business interest can be used to protect a franchise from unlawful competition. The franchisor assets a claim against its franchisee for violating a non-compete provision and, in turn, the franchisee attempts to defend the claim by asserting the franchisor has no legitimate business interest in protecting the goodwill of a franchise. E.g., Pirtek USA, LLC v. Layer, 2005 WL 8159764 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 23, 2005) (acknowledging that “goodwill associated with a company’s franchise system is not specifically listed in the Florida statute’s non-exclusive list of legitimate business interests.”). However, the franchisee’s argument is usually rejected because courts liken franchise goodwill to trademark goodwill. Id. (While “goodwill associated with a company’s franchise system is not specifically listed in the Florida statute’s non-exclusive list of legitimate business interests, it is akin to (and somewhat overlapping with) trademark-related goodwill.”). The rationale for expanding goodwill to franchises is that the franchisor “developed a system for operating [the business]… thereby develop[ing] good will in its trademarks” and the franchisor “recognized the value of this good will when he purchased the [ ] franchise.” Quizno’s Corp. v. Kampendahl, 2002 WL 1012997 (N.D. Ill. May 20, 2002); see also Economou v. Physicians Weight Loss Ctrs. of Am., 756 F. Supp. 1024 (N.D. Ohio 1991) (“The franchisee has gained knowledge and experience from the franchisor, and to allow the franchisee to use this knowledge and experience to serve former or potential customers of the franchisor would work a hardship and prejudice to the latter.”). As a result, the franchisee should not be permitted to benefit from the franchise it is prohibited from competing against. Servicemaster Residential/Commercial Servs., L.P. v. Westchester Cleaning Servs., Inc., 2001 WL 396520 (S.D. N.Y. Apr. 19, 2001) (“There is a recognized danger that former franchisees will use the knowledge that they have gained from the franchisor to serve its former customers, and that continued operation under a different name may confuse customers and thereby damage the good will of the franchisor.”).

Courts look to several unenumerated factors to determine whether the franchisor has a protectable legitimate business interest in the franchise’s goodwill. One factor is the amount of time and money the franchisor invested in creating the franchise. See Winmark Corp. v. Brenoby Sports, Inc., 32 F. Supp. 3d 1206 (S.D. Fla. 2014). Another factor is the extent to which the franchisor developed operational methods and practices employed by the franchisees that are designed to attract clients. U.S. Lawns, Inc. v. Landscape Concepts of CT, LLC, 2016 WL 9526340 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 31, 2016). And a third factor is the degree to which the franchisor created tools and resources for its franchisees to access and utilize in the operation of the franchisee’s business. Id.

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One cornerstone needed to enforce a valid restraint on trade is the requirement to be in writing and “signed by the person against whom enforcement is sought.” Fla. Stat. § 542.335. Courts use this requirement to reject enforcement of restrictive covenants that are not in writing or signed by the enforcee. See Iron Bridge Tools, Inc. v. Meridian Int’l Co., Ltd., USA, 2016 WL 8716673 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 2, 2016) (refusing to enforce the plaintiff’s claim because it hinged on a contract that was “in form and substance, an agreement in the nature of an agreement not to compete” that “was never reduced to a writing in any form”). Based on a plain reading of the statutory text, it seems obvious that one cannot be liable for violating a restrictive covenant he or she did not sign. However, this is not always true. The caselaw surrounding restrictive covenants provide courts with power to enjoin third-parties from helping another violate his or her restrictive covenant even though the third-party never signed the covenant. Infra. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney.  The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

Florida juris prudence contains many examples demonstrating that a third-party can be enjoined if he or she helps another violate his or her restrictive covenant. USI Ins. Services of Florida Inc. v. Pettineo, 987 So. 2d 763 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008) (“There is no doubt that a court can enjoin others who were not parties to the non-compete agreement” as long as they “receive notice and have an opportunity to be heard.”). The power to enjoin comes from common law rather than the restrictive covenant statute. Bauer v. DILIB, Inc., 16 So. 3d 318 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) (At “no time has this court or any other court held that the power to enjoin third parties derives from section 542.335… Florida Statutes.”). Third-party enjoinment was created to prevent a person from violating a restrictive covenant through a strawman. Dad’s Properties, Inc. v. Lucas, 545 So. 2d 926 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989) (“Mr. Lucas cannot be allowed to do indirectly, through his wife and her controlled corporation, that which he covenanted not to do himself.”). Therefore, a third-party who knows about the restrictive covenant and provides substantial assistance to help violate the restriction will be enjoined. LLW Enter., LLC v. Ryan, 2020 WL 2630859 (M.D. Fla. May 4, 2020) (“A cause of action for aiding and abetting requires ‘(1) an underlying violation on the part of the primary wrongdoer; (2) knowledge of the underlying violation by alleged aider and abettor; and (3) the rendering of substantial assistance in committing the wrongdoing by the alleged aider and abettor.”). But the third-party will not be liable for damages. See Bauer, 16 So. 3d 318 (holding that the court could not require the third-party to pay the attorney’s fees of the covenant’s enforcer even though the court could enjoin the third-party from further assistance).

The first Florida case that allowed a third-party to be enjoined for helping violate a restrictive covenant was called W. Shore Rest. Corp. v. Turk, 101 So. 2d 123 (Fla. 1958). In Turk, the court looked to two decisions from the state of Washington. The first decision enjoined a son from helping his father operate a business that competed with the plaintiff in violation of a non-compete and the second decision found there was “overwhelming weight of authority” to enjoin a stranger of a restrictive covenant when he or she aids and abets. Id. (citing Madison v. La Sene, 44 Wash. 2d 546 (Wash. 1954) and Le Maine v. Seals, 47 Wash. 2d 259 (Wash. 1955)). Subsequent legal authorities in Florida rely on Turk to prohibit third-parties from rendering aid or assistance that would violate another’s restrictive covenant (assuming the elements escribed above are met). See, Yours-Temp. Help Services, Inc. v. Manpower, Inc., 377 So. 2d 825 (Fla. 1st DCA 1979) (finding that Turk recognized “a decree of injunction not only binds the parties[’] defendant but also those identified with them in interest, in privity with them, represented by them or subject to their control.”). Therefore, third-parties could become entangled in litigation concerning a restrictive covenant it did not sign if the third-party knows about the covenant and helps another to violate it.

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“Florida law … contains a comprehensive framework for analyzing, evaluating and enforcing restrictive covenants contained in employment contracts.”  Vital Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Alfieri, 23 F. 4th 1282, 1291 (11th Cir. 2022) (quotation and citation omitted).  This framework includes a burden shifting approach between the restrictive covenant’s enforcer and enforcee that provides each party with an opportunity the negate the other’s position. Below we explore the framework’s burden shifting approach and each parties’ ability to use those burdens to their advantage.  Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney.  The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

The restrictive covenant’s enforcer has the initial burden of pleading and proving that the restrictive covenant is supported by one or more legitimate business interests justifying the restrictive covenant. Fla. Stat. § 542.335. These legitimate business interests are identified by statute in a non-exhaustive list and include the protection of trade secrets, valuable confidential business information that does not qualify as a trade secret, substantial relationships with specific prospective or existing customers, and customer good will. Id; Alonso-Llamazares v. Int’l Dermatology Research, Inc., 339 So. 3d 385 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022) (“Section 542.335(1)(b) sets forth a non-exhaustive list of legitimate business interests that may justify the restrictive covenant sought to be enforced.”). The initial requirement that the enforcer plead and prove the existence of a legitimate business interest may present the enforcee with his or her first opportunity to thwart enforcement. If the enforcee can demonstrate the enforcer failed to prove the existence of a legitimate business interest, the court cannot enforce the restrictive covenant. See Blue-Grace Logistics LLC v. Fahey, 653 F. Supp. 3d 1172 (M.D. Fla. 2023), appeal dismissed, 2023 WL 3691014 (11th Cir. Apr. 12, 2023) (granting summary judgment against the enforcer because it “repeatedly speaks of ‘confidential’ and ‘proprietary’ information, but it never explains exactly what that information is or what makes it proprietary or confidential. Even where it describes the information with slightly more detail, it fails to explain the information’s value”).

The enforcer must also plead and prove that the restrictive covenant is reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate business interest asserted. Fla. Stat. § 542.335. This presents the enforcee with his or her second opportunity to thwart enforcement of the restrictive covenant if the enforcee can prove the covenant does not reasonably protect the legitimate business interest. For example, maybe the confidential information the enforcer is trying to protect has no utility in the hands of a competitor. See Blue-Grace Logistics LLC, 653 F. Supp. 3d 1172 (granting summary judgment because the plaintiff failed to show that the purported confidential information “was still relevant ‘given fluctuations in the industry,’ which Blue-Grace’s corporate representative agreed led to rate changes and customers having to rebid their freight”). Or maybe, the enforcer no longer conducts business with the customer it is trying to protect. IDMWORKS, L.L.C. v. Pophaly, 192 F. Supp. 3d 1335 (S.D. Fla 2016) (rejecting the plaintiff’s request to enforce a non-compete agreement because a “company cannot successfully claim a protectable business interest in a relationship with a former customer”). These are just two ways the enforcee can demonstrate that the enforcer failed to meet its second burden.

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In the absence of a non-compete agreement, Florida law prohibits tortious interference with certain business relationships.  The Supreme Court of Florida, in Tamiami Trail Tours, Inc. v. Cotton, 463 So.2d 1126 (Fla. 1985), explained that the elements of a claim for tortious interference with a business relationship are “(1) the existence of a business relationship…(2) knowledge of the relationship on the part of the defendant; (3) an intentional and unjustified interference with the relationship by the defendant; and (4) damage to the plaintiff as a result of the breach of the relationship.”  A protected business relationship need not be evidenced by an enforceable contract.  In Landry v. Hornstein, 462 So.2d 844 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985), Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal explained in pertinent part: “An action for intentional interference is appropriate even though it is predicated on an unenforceable agreement, if the jury finds that an understanding between the parties would have been completed had the defendant not interfered…A mere offer to sell, however, does not, by itself, give rise to sufficient legal rights to support a claim of intentional interference with a business relationship.”  In other words, “an action for intentional interference with a business relationship will lie if the parties’ understanding would have been completed if the defendant had not interfered.”  Charles Wallace Co. v. Alternative Copier Concepts, Inc., 583 So.2d 396 (Fla. 2d DCA 1991).  Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation attorney, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm  Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment litigation, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

Important precedent from the Supreme Court of Florida, in Ethan Allen, Inc. v. Georgetown Manor, Inc., 647 So.2d 812 (Fla. 1995), held that “a plaintiff may properly bring a cause of action alleging tortious interference  with present or prospective customers but no cause of action exists for tortious interference with a business’s relationship to the community at large…As a general rule, an action for tortious interference with a business relationship requires a business relationship evidenced by an actual and identifiable understanding or agreement which in all probability would have been completed if the defendant had not interfered.”  In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court found the Landry decision persuasive.  In Landry, a pharmacist who rented premises for his drugstore entered into negotiations, with his landlord’s permission, with a prospective purchaser to sell the pharmacist’s business and to assign the pharmacy lease.  However, when the landlord told the prospective buyer that the landlord was “going to get rid of” the pharmacist and that the landlord would rent the premises directly to the buyer, the negotiations stopped between the pharmacist and the prospective buyer.  Thereafter, the prospective buyer leased the drugstore from the landlord. The pharmacist then sued the landlord for tortious interference with a business relationship.  The appellate court in Landry found a business relationship existed between the pharmacist and the prospective buyer, explaining: “[T]he negotiations had progressed beyond the stage of a mere offer, to an understanding between [the pharmacist and the prospective buyer] for the sale of the business and assignment of the lease, transactions which would have been consummated had [the landlord] not interfered.  Evidence disclose that [the landlord]…had undertaken their own negotiations with [they buyer] regarding the rental of the drugstore premises while [the buyer and the pharmacist] were still involved in negotiations.”  In Ethan Allen, the Supreme Court explained that the plaintiff, Georgetown, was entitled to damages reasonably flowing from Ethan Allen’s interference with existing relationships.  Ethan Allen also qualified its decision, stating that Georgetown’s “relationship with its past customers was not one upon which a claim for tortious interference could be based.  Georgetown had no identifiable agreement with its past customers that they would return to Georgetown to purchase furniture in the future.   The mere hope that some of its pas customers may choose to buy again cannot be the basis for a tortious interference claim.”  The Supreme Court recognized, however, that there are situations where a plaintiff may have valid tortious interference claim based on the plaintiff’s reasonable expectation of future business from a recurring practice of performing work for certain clients.  Such a scenario would be distinguishable from a situation of a retail furniture dealer, like Georgetown, with tens of thousands of past customers who may or not return for future furniture purchases.

Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation lawyer, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation.

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