Like many things in life, there is a perceived formula for success in non-compete cases: If you are the former employee or his or her new or would-be new employer, conventional wisdom dictates that you identify the restrictions early and consider filing a preemptive declaratory judgment action in a state that is hostile to such agreements (provided the facts permit). California is the most well-known example, but there are others. The plan works best if the former employee lives in California (or similarly hostile state) or has other significant connections by virtue of his past or intended future employment. But now, a New York appellate court has thrown conventional wisdom a curve.
Michael Cusack and Peter Arkley were former Aon executives. They left Aon on June 13, 2011 to pursue lucrative opportunities with a competitor, Alliant Insurance Services. The same day, 38 other Aon employees also left, and 22 more followed shortly thereafter. Aon’s clients came too, with over $20 million in client revenue allegedly flowing from Aon to Alliant.
Arkley and Cusak, along with Alliant, following the familiar formula, filed for a declaratory judgment to invalidate their restrictive covenant agreements in California federal court on the same day they resigned. Arkley’s chances of success in California seemed particularly good because, although his employment agreement was governed by Illinois law, he both lived and worked in California, and he planned to continue to do so with Alliant.
Aon responded by filing suits in Illinois and New York state courts, and found success in New York in particular. The New York trial judge, undeterred by the action in California and Arkley’s California connections, enjoined him soliciting business from, and entering into any business relationship with, any of Aon’s clients whom he either procured or whose accounts he worked on in the 24 months prior to his departure. She also enjoined him from soliciting any Aon employees to work for Alliant.
In January, a New York appellate court affirmed. The court rejected Arkley’s calls to defer to the first-filed California action, calling it “a preemptive measure undertaken to gain a tactical advantage so as to negate the force and effect of the restrictive covenants, which the parties had freely agreed upon.” The New York court seized upon the fact that the parties’ agreement had selected Illinois law to govern and held that Illinois law provided for enforcement.
Although the outcome was arguably an unusual one insofar as a New York court entered an injunction against someone who lived and worked in California and intended to do so in his new employment, so too were the facts involved, on many levels. First, the conduct at issue was particularly egregious in that it involved, among other things, former employees allegedly taking the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of printed pages of documents, including highly-sensitive documents; a coordinated departure strategy that included filing a declaratory judgment action in California within an hour of the key executives’ resignations; a mass exodus of both employees and clients; and alleged violations of an earlier-issued temporary restraining order. Second, the executives involved were high-level employees, who received seven-figure compensation from Aon, at least in part in consideration of the very restrictions they sought to avoid. Third, the restrictive covenants at issue were not blanket non-competes, but rather restricted the executives from disclosing confidential information, from calling on the customers that they serviced for Aon, and from soliciting other Aon employees for employment. In different circumstances, involving lower-level employees, who are alleged to have engaged in less egregious conduct and/or who are subject to broader restrictive covenants, the former employer may not fare as well.
Still, the takeaways are unmistakable. First, choice of law is critical, and an employer loses a tactical advantage when it fails to select a state law that, if not favorable to it, at least gives it a fair shot. Second, living and working in California is not the end all be all, and racing into a California court does not guarantee the former employee and his new employer freedom from the employee’s post-separation obligations. Solid facts and a solid agreement, presented in a jurisdiction that follows a more traditional approach to restrictive covenants, can still result in success for the former employer.