New Opinion Provides Clear Summary of the Unpredictable Enforceability of Non-Compete Agreements

This is how competitive the market for tourist entertainment dollars in Nashville is right now: our horse-drawn carriage companies are suing each other for poaching each other’s drivers, with those disputes going all the way to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

All kidding (and weird facts) aside, this opinion (Sugar Creek Carriages v. Hat Creek Carriages, et. al.;, Feb. 13, 2018) has a really good analysis of issues on the enforceability of non-compete agreements in Tennessee.

The opinion cites extensively from the Tennessee Supreme Court in Murfreesboro Medical Clinic, P.A. v. Udom, 166 S.W.3d 674, 678 (Tenn. 2005), which states:

In general, covenants not to compete are disfavored in Tennessee. These covenants are viewed as a restraint of trade, and as such, are construed strictly in favor of the employee. However, if there is a legitimate business interest to be protected and the time and territorial limitations are reasonable then non-compete agreements are enforceable.  Factors relevant to whether a covenant is reasonable include: (1) the consideration supporting the covenant; (2) the threatened danger to the employer in the absence of the covenant; (3) the economic hardship imposed on the employee by the covenant; and (4) whether the covenant is inimical to the public interest. Also, the time and territorial limits must be no greater than necessary to protect the business interest of the employer.

Where the employee receives “specialized training,” the Court will look to see if the employer conferred a “protectable business interest.” Two big factors in this analysis are:

1. Whether the employee is given access to trade or business secrets or other confidential information; and

2. Whether the employer’s customers tend to associate the employer’s business with the employee due to the employee’s repeated contacts with the customers on behalf of the employer.

Where “specialized training” is claimed, that training had better be really unique and confer advanced skills that would be unfair for the employee to use elsewhere. In pondering all this, the Court notes that there is “no simple rule” and the analysis is “fact-driven.”

So, in the end, this new opinion presents a clear, concise statement of the law related to non-compete agreements, but, rest assured, there’s no easy way to predict how a trial courts will apply this law to actual disputes.

The best answer you’ll get out of a lawyer will be “It depends.”

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