In a recent opinion of the Dallas Court of Appeals, the Court held that an insurance brokerage and consulting service firm’s noncompetition and nonsolicitation agreement obtained in return for an award of stock options to an employee was unenforceable under Texas law. (See opinion here).
Rex Cook was a long-term employee of Marsh USA, Inc. Prior to leaving his employment, Cook was a managing director. Cook was granted stock options in 1996 under Marsh’s Employee Incentive and Stock Option Award Plan. Before he exercised his options, Cook was required to sign a non-solicitation agreement that included a two-year covenant not to compete. In 2005 Cook exercised his options and in 2007 he left the company. Thereafter, he began employment with a competitor. Marsh sued the competitor and Cook. Cook asked the court to render judgment in his favor on the enforceability of the noncompete and the trial court held the agreement was unenforceable under Texas law. Marsh appealed that finding.
On appeal, the Court explained that:
a covenant not to compete is enforceable if it is ancillary to or part of an otherwise enforceable agreement at the time the agreement is made and it contains reasonable limitations that do not impose a greater restraint than necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee. [citations omitted]. To be ancillary to or part of an otherwise enforceable agreement, a covenant not to compete must meet the following two conditions: (1) the consideration given by the employer in the otherwise enforceable agreement must give rise to the employer’s interest in restraining the employee from competing; and (2) the covenant must be designed to enforce the employee’s consideration or return promise in the otherwise enforceable agreement.
The Court then turned to whether the award of stock options to an employee “gives rise” to any interest worthy of protection for the employer. The employer argued that it uses stock option awards with its employees as a way to retain valuable employees; thereby protecting its goodwill (i.e., the relationship between the customer, employee and brokerage firm). The Court accepted the proposition that retaining valuable employees benefits a company’s good will but rejected the conclusion that such benefit gave rise to any interest in preventing the employee from competing. Furthermore, the Court reiterated that “financial benefits . . . do not give rise to an interest worthy of protection.”
As a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the employee that held that the noncompetition and nonsolicitation agreements obtained in return for an award of stock options was unenforceable. Marsh filed a petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court.
The take away from this case is that while covenants not to compete have become easier to enforce in Texas, the consideration that is given to the employee in return for the promise not to compete must give rise to some interest worthy of protection. Money or other financial remuneration alone is unlikely to be sufficient. Most frequently, valuable consideration to support a covenant not to compete will be in the form of a company’s promise to provide its confidential information and trade secrets to the employee and the employee’s return promise not to use or disclose that information. In that scenario, the promise to disclose the confidential or trade secret information (and the actual disclosure of that information) to the employee necessarily gives rise to an employer’s interest in the noncompetition provisions.
UPDATE: On June 24, 2011, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the Dallas Court of Appeals and held that a covenant not to compete based on stock options given to a key employee to increase the company’s goodwill were not per se unenforcable. You can read more about the reversal and Supreme Court’s new opinion here and here.