Saturday, November 21, 2009

Another Non-Solicit Bites the Dust

The Court of Appeal took up a complex lawsuit involving claims and cross-claims of unfair competition, including strong agreements not to compete or solicit and choices of law and forum clauses. The Court expanded on the decision this summer in The Retirement Group v. Galante, posted here.

Basically, Dowell, other employees and their new employer, St. Jude, sued Biosense Webster, which was attempting to enforce a non-compete agreement, which included broad non-solicitation clauses. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that the agreements were unenforceable. Here is some language from the opinion:

Biosense contends that the clauses are valid because they were tailored to protect trade secrets or confidential information, and as such satisfy the so-called trade secret exception, citing cases such as Thompson v. Impaxx, Inc. (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 1425, 1429–1430; Whyte v. Schlage Lock Co. (2002) 101 Cal.App.4th 1443, 1462; Metro Traffic, supra, 22 Cal.App.4th at p. 860; and American Paper & Packaging Products, Inc. v. Kirgan (1986) 183 Cal.App.3d 1318, 1322. Plaintiffs counter that in light of our Supreme Court’s recent decision of Edwards, supra, 44 Cal.4th 937, a common law trade secret exception no longer exists.The Court in Edwards concluded that section 16600 “prohibits employee noncompetition agreements unless the agreement falls within a statutory exception.” (Edwards, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 942.) . . . .

* * *
Although we doubt the continued viability of the common law trade secret exception to covenants not to compete, we need not resolve the issue here. Even assuming the exception exists, we agree with the trial court that it has no application here. This is so because the noncompete and nonsolicitation clauses in the agreements are not narrowly tailored or carefully limited to the protection of trade secrets, but are so broadly worded as to restrain competition. ...
Biosense argues that the clauses in the agreements are narrowly tailored to protect trade secrets and confidential information because they are “tethered” to the use of confidential information, and are triggered only when the former employee’s services for a competitor implicate the use of confidential information. As such, to the extent that no confidential information was disclosed or made known to Dowell and Chapman during their employment with Biosense, the noncompete clause would never be triggered. But this argument ignores the broad wording of the agreements. The noncompete clause prohibits an employee from rendering services, directly or indirectly, to a competitor where those services could enhance the use or marketability of a conflicting product through the use of confidential information to which the employee had access at Biosense. “Confidential information” is broadly
defined as information disclosed to or known by the employee, including such
information as the number or location of sales representatives, the names of customers, customer preferences, needs, requirements, purchasing histories or
other customer-specific information. Given such an inclusive and broad list of confidential information, it seems nearly impossible that employees like Dowell and Chapman, who worked directly with customers, would not have possession of such information. The prohibition here is not unlike the noncompete clause found facially invalid by the court in D’Sa, supra, 85 Cal.App.4th at p. 930. . . . .

We also reject the argument of Biosense that the nonsolicitation clause is narrowly tailored to protect trade secrets and confidential information. The same argument was rejected by the Galante court, which noted: “However, Edwards rejected the claim that antisolicitation clauses could be exempt from section 16600 if the conduct covered by such clauses fell within the ‘narrow-restraint’ exception discussed in Campbell (Edwards, supra, 44 Cal.4th at pp. 948–950), and we decline TRG’s implicit invitation to engraft that exception onto this case.” (Galante, supra, 176 Cal.App.4th at p. 1241.) Moreover, the clause at issue here goes well beyond prohibiting active solicitation by prohibiting departing employees from selling or rendering any services to Biosense customers or directly or indirectly assisting others to do so—even if it is the customer who solicits the former employee. (See
Morris v. Harris (1954) 127 Cal.App.2d 476, 478 [invalidating restraint that
prohibited employee from providing services to former customers who sought him
out without any solicitation].)

St. Jude, though, lost on its attempt to enjoin Biosense from enforcing its non-compete agreement against all employees in California. The court said that St. Jude had no standing under the UCL to enforce an injunction in favor of plaintiffs not before the court.

Biosense cross-claimed against St. Jude for "raiding" by hiring Dowell and other employees. The Court of Appeal again affirmed summary judgment against Biosense, holding there was no evidence of unlawful conduct by St. Jude, which by default has the right to hire away St. Jude employees.

Biosense argued St. Jude used similar agreements to prevent competition by its own former employees. Therefore, Biosense reasoned, St. Jude came into court with "unclean hands." No sale. St. Jude's alleged unfair practices with respect to their own employees did not go to the heart of the matter with respect to Dowell's suit against Biosense. Therefore, unclean hands did not apply.

So, lots to read. Bottom line, though, is that a non-solicit probably is not going to be enforced except as a remedy for trade secret violations, not as a prophylactic measure where there is no finding of actual or threatened misappropriation under the UTSA. The agreement here was too broad, but there does not seem to be much room left for clauses that prohibit solicitation merely because an employee is exposed to "confidential" information and might use them some day.

The case is Dowell v. Biosense Webster, Inc. and the opinion is here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Court of Appeal Once Again Explains 132a Liability

The Court of Appeal clarified what Labor Code Section 132a means - again. It appears the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board has not adapted to the California Supreme Court's decision in Department of Rehabilitation v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1281 (Lauher).

So, Fowler had significant spine surgery. Initially he could not be cleared to return to work as an order puller / machine operator. The doctor's restrictions permitted him to use equipment for just an hour a day. Then, the doctor changed his mind and returned Fowler to work with no restrictions. Because of the seeming conflict, Fowler and his employer submitted his case to an "AME" doctor, who decided Fowler could return to work.

Fowler filed a workers' compensation discrimination claim under Labor Code Section 132a because of the delay in returning him to work. The Workers' Compensation Appeals Board held that Gelson's, the employer, discriminated against Fowler by refusing to accept his doctor's note returning him to work. The Board appeared to apply old law, basically saying that any negative action against an industrially injured worker is a violation of section 132a regardless of whether the employer would take the same action against a non-injured worker.

The Court of Appeal annulled the WCAB decision because Fowler did not prove discrimination - differential treatment:

Here Fowler made no showing that Gelson’s treated him differently from nonindustrially injured employees. That is, Fowler made no showing that Gelson’s would have returned to work a nonindustrially injured employee whose physician provided the same releases, but discriminated against Fowler by not returning him to work. Fowler made no showing that Gelson’s treated him disadvantageously because of the industrial nature of his injury, as compared to how Gelson’s treated a nonindustrially injured employee. Thus he did not make a prima facie case of discrimination in violation of section 132a and did not shift the burden to Gelson’s to establish an affirmative defense.

The case is Gelson's Markets, Inc. v. WCAB and the opinion is here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Monday, November 02, 2009

California Supreme Court Upholds Bonus Plan's Forfeiture

Can a bonus plan provide for forfeiture of unpaid bonus if an employee voluntarily leaves employment or is fired for cause? Yes, said the California Supreme Court. Money quote:

“nothing in the public policy of this state concerning wages . . . transforms [a] contingent expectation of receiving bonuses into an entitlement.” (Neisendorf, supra, 143 Cal.App.4th at p. 522.) Only when an employee satisfies the condition(s) precedent to receiving incentive compensation, which often includes remaining employed for a particular period of time, can that employee be said to have earned the incentive compensation (thereby necessitating payment upon resignation or termination). (Ibid.; Lucian v. All States Trucking Co., supra, 116 Cal.App.3d at p. 975 [“An employee who voluntarily leaves his employment before the bonus calculation date is not entitled to receive it”].)

Here, of course, Schachter voluntarily terminated his employment before his restricted stock fully vested. By the terms of the Plan, and Schachter’s own concession, he is not entitled to those unvested shares of restricted stock. Having elected to receive some of his compensation in the form of restricted stock, a transaction he was aware carried risk as well as the potential for reward, Schachter cannot now assert that he should have been paid in cash that portion of his compensation he elected to receive as restricted stock.[1] As the company persuasively argues, Schachter’s “bargained-for ‘wages’ have been paid in full. He received all of his promised cash compensation, received immediately exercisable voting and dividend rights in the restricted stock, and was awarded contingent rights of full ownership in that stock. The only thing that has not been ‘paid’ is something Schachter never ‘earned’ — fully vested [company] stock. Schachter therefore has no claim under [section] 201 or [section] 202.” [1]

So, the Supreme Court has blessed bonus plans that require the employee to remain employed. However, the Court did note that Citigroup's plan would have paid certain compensation to Schachter if he has been fired without "cause," e.g., laid off. The Court approved this formulation, noting that employees terminated "without cause" may not be be deprived of the benefits of their contract. This was all "dicta" so it should not have much force. But the DLSE will rely on it to bolster its own enforcement position.

The case is Schachter v. Citigroup and the opinion is here.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Mixed Motives in FEHA Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court in Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs. (blogged here) limited "mixed motive" cases under federal law. The Court said there is no need for that defense in age discrimination cases under the federal ADEA. Employees must prove "but-for" causation, so the employer need not prove it would have made the same decision with or without additional discriminatory motivation. The defense remains viable in discrimination cases brought under Title VII.

Anyway, in California, the mixed motive is alive and well. The Court of Appeal in Harris v. Santa Monica, opinion here, held that the trial court prejudiced the city of Santa Monica by refusing to instruct the jury that even if discrimination played a role in Harris' termination, the City was entitled to win if it would have made the same decision regardless.

The opinion is noteworthy for a few reasons:
- it reinforces the relevance of employment at will in discrimination cases.
- it explains clearly that the employer's decision cannot be attached for being "unwise" or "factually incorrect" if it is not motivated by discrimination.
- it revives the old "BAJI" jury instruction on mixed motive cases, given the new CACI instructions do not contain model for mixed motive cases.
- "mixed motives" need not be pleaded as an affirmative defense because it is not "new matter."