‘Salesy’ LinkedIn Posts Can Violate Ex-Employee’s Noncompete – Minn. Federal Court

In July 2017, a Federal court in Minnesota grappled with the in-vogue issue of whether a former employee violates post-employment nonsolicitation provisions by asking her network for business on LinkedIn.

The warring factions in Mobile Mini v. Vevea, (see here) are direct competitors in the portable storage business.  Plaintiff sued when the defendant, a former sales representative for plaintiff, went to work for a competitor in violation of noncompete requirements in her employment agreement.  After the defendant posted on LinkedIn where she was working and requested viewers to call her for quote, the Plaintiff sued.

Partially granting the request for an injunction, the Court examined the pleading and proof elements for injunctive relief and whether a social media post can support a nonsolicitation violation.

Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs preliminary injunctions.  The moving party must establish: (1) the likelihood of the moving party’s success on the merits; (2) the threat of irreparable harm to the moving party; (3) the state of balance between the alleged irreparable harm and the harm that granting the injunction would inflict on the other party; and (4) how the public interest is impacted if an injunction does/doesn’t issue.  The critical question on a request for an injunction is whether a Court should “intervene to preserve the status quo” until it determines the merits of the case.

Likelihood of Success on the Merits

The Court found plaintiff’s prospects for winning on the merits were strong.  To prevail on a non-compete claim in Delaware (Delaware law governed the parties’ agreement), a plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of a valid, enforceable contract; (2) breach of a contractual obligation by the defendant; and (3) damages.

A Delaware non-compete agreement is valid if it its duration and geographic reach are reasonably limited and the non-compete’s purpose and effect is to protect a legitimate employer interest. The Court found the subject agreement met these requirements

Next, the court turned to defendant’s LinkedIn activity and whether that amounted to a breach of the employment agreement.  The Court found the plaintiff breached the contract by making “two blatant sales pitches” for her new employer before the noncompete lapsed.

The court viewed the defendant’s solicitations as going further than simple status updates.  It held that had defendant simply posted her new position and contact information, it likely wouldn’t have run afoul of the defendant’s employment contract. For support, the Court pointed to an Ohio Federal court and a Mass. state court which held that a defendant’s social media postings did not rise to the level of an actionable noncompete claim. See Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. v. Anthony, 2016 WL 4523104, at *15 (N.D. Ohio 2016) (press release posted on LinkedIn and Twitter announcing that an employer had hired a new employee was not a solicitation); Invidia, LLC v. DiFonzo, 2012 WL 5576406, at *5 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2012) (hair stylist’s Facebook post announcing new job not a solicitation).

Since the defendant’s purpose in her LinkedIn postings was to entice business from her network and not simply announce a job change, the Court held that defendant likely violated the the employment contract.

Other Injunctive Relief Factors

The Court then found the plaintiff satisfied the irreparable harm element.  It noted defendant’s past and threatened future noncompete violations and that they could imperil plaintiff’s future customers, goodwill and reputation.

On the noncompete’s start date (the plaintiff wanted the court to reset the time to the date of the court’s order on the plaintiff’s preliminary injunction motion – several months after suit was filed), the court sided with the defendant.  The Court agreed that restarting the clock would give the plaintiff a windfall and impede defendant’s ability to earn a living.

Take-aways:

This case is instructive on how the line between digital self-promotion and blatant sales pitches can blur.  One of the case’s chief lessons is that while noncompetes are not favored,  social media posts can still violate post-employment restrictions.  Those who sign noncompetes should be careful whether their post-employment LinkedIn posts can objectively be viewed as a sales pitch.

 

 

LinkedIn Connection Requests Don’t Violate Insurance Salesman’s Noncompete – IL Court

The First District recently considered whether an insurance salesman’s generic LinkedIn invites to some former co-workers violated non-compete provisions in his employment contract.

The plaintiff in Bankers Life v. American Senior Benefits employed the defendant for over a decade as a sales manager.  During his employment, plaintiff signed an employment agreement that contained a 24-month noncompete term that covered a specific geographic area (Rhode Island).  Plaintiff sued when it learned the defendant sent some LinkedIn connection requests to some former colleagues.

The court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence that the defendant breached the noncompete by trying to induce three of plaintiff’s employees to join defendant’s new agency.  Plaintiff appealed.

Plaintiff argued that the LinkedIn requests were veiled, if not blatant, attempts to circumvent the noncompete by inviting former co-workers to join a competitor.

The First District affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.  For support, it looked to cases in other jurisdictions that considered if social media overtures can violate employee restrictive covenants.  The Court noted that a majority of these cases hold that passive social media postings (LinkedIn and Facebook, mainly) don’t go far enough to violate a noncompete.

The cases that have found that social media breached noncompete obligations involve clear statements of solicitation by the departed employee where he directly tries to sign up a former client or colleague. Since all the defendant did in this case was send generic LinkedIn messages, they didn’t rise to the level of an actionable solicitation.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that summary judgment was premature and that the plaintiff should have the opportunity to take more discovery on this issue.  Illinois Rule 191 allows a summary judgment opponent to stave off judgment while it takes written and oral discovery to assemble evidence to oppose the motion.  But the plaintiff must show a “minimum level of information” showing a defendant is possibly liable before initiating a lawsuit or making a defendant submit to discovery requests.

Since the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence the defendant solicited any of plaintiff’s employees in the prohibited Rhode Island area, summary judgment for the defendant was proper.

Afterwords:

LinkedIn generic invites that don’t specifically ask someone to sever his/her relationship with current employer don’t go far enough to constitute improper solicitation;

Summary judgment is “put up or shut up moment;” the party opposing summary judgment must offer evidence that raises a question of material fact that can only be decided after a trial on the merits.

 

Florida Series III: Parent Company’s Merger Doesn’t Impact Subsidiary’s Noncompete with M.D.

Collier HMA v. Menichello a medical noncompete dispute, considers whether a third party can enforce a noncompete after a merger.  Jettisoning the “changed corporate culture and mode of operation” test, the Florida appeals court applied basic principles of corporate law to determine whether a parent company’s merger necessarily meant its subsidiary merged too and couldn’t enforce a noncompete involving one of its staff doctors.

Halfway through a three-year employment contract between the plaintiff and doctor defendant, the plaintiff’s corporate parent was acquired by another entity.  The plaintiff-doctor employment contract contained a 12-month noncompete and specifically said it was not enforceable by third parties, successors or assignees of the parties.

After the acquisition, the doctor defendant quit and went to work for one of plaintiff’s competitors.  The plaintiff sued the doctor for violating the 12-month noncompete. The doctor defended by stating that the parent company’s merger with another entity made the plaintiff a successor under the law that could not enforce the restrictive covenant.  The trial court agreed and entered summary judgment for the doctor.  The employer appealed.

Held: Reversed.  Plaintiff employer can enforce the doctor’s noncompete.

Reasons:

Under Florida law, S. 542.335(1)(f), Florida Statutes (2012),  an employment contractual provision that authorizes a third-party beneficiary, assignee or successor to enforce a restrictive covenant is valid.

The statute is silent on the meaning of “successor” but case law defines it to mean “a corporation that, through amalgamation, consolidation or other assumption of interests, is vested with the rights and duties of an earlier corporation.”

Here, the plaintiff employer’s status did not change after its parent company’s merger.  Under the law, a parent corporation is a separate and distinct legal entity from its wholly-owned subsidiary.  As a corollary, a parent company cannot exercise rights of its subsidiary.

The subsidiary plaintiff here continued its existence after the merger as the same single member LLC and didn’t sell or transfer its assets to another entity.  Any change in company ownership several tiers up the corporate chain simply didn’t impact the doctor’s employment contract since plaintiff continued to operate and to employ the doctor.  As the lone signer of the employment contract that contained the noncompete, plaintiff could enforce it.

Afterwords:

The Court refused to apply the nebulous “culture and mode of operation” test which looks to the parties’ post-merger conduct (i.e., did the parties act as though the acquiring company was dictating the acquired company subsidiary’s actions?) to decide whether a third-party can enforce a noncompete.  Instead, the Court considered whether the plaintiff continued its operations (it did) in the wake of the parent company’s merger.

Under black-letter corporate law principles, the Court found that the plaintiff’s parent company’s merger had no impact on the plaintiff as “no other entity emerged from the transaction as a successor to [plaintiff].”  Summary judgment for the plaintiff reversed.