In a recent decision, the Fifth Circuit addressed the turbulent area of non-solicitation agreements. Michelle Moffitt-Johnston used to work for GE Betz, Inc. GE Betz applied chemicals to fuel prior to export. Ms. Moffitt-Johnston signed a non-solicitation agreement with GE Betz during her employment, in which she agreed to not solicit Betz’ customers for up to 18 months after any resignation or termination. After some ten years with GE Betz, Ms. Moffitt-Johnston resigned in 2012. Soon after, she started working for AmSpec Services, a competitor of GE Betz.
GE Betz had installed monitoring software on its worker’s computers. Monitoring logs on Ms. Moffitt-Johnston’s computer showed suspicious activity in the weeks leading up to her resignation. Days after she had announced her departure, someone using her computer downloaded some 27,000 files to an external hard drive. The evidence regarding this download was disputed. Plaintiff Moffitt-Johnston said this was the GE Betz IT department doing back-up, while the employer claimed Ms. Moffitt-Johnston had use of the computer at the time.
GE Betz admitted it had no smoking gun evidence that Ms. Moffitt-Johnston had solicited customers. Instead, it relied on a “mosaic” of evidence. The “mosaic” essentially consisted of AmSpec’s success with the customers who were included in an email from Moffitt-Jounston to AmSpec on her last day at work. But, as the court noted, it is just as likely that those customers worked with AmSpec because their cost was lower. “Many” but not all of Moffitt-Johnston’s former clients went with AmSpec. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the mis-appropriation of trade secrets claim. For similar reasons, the court also affirmed summary judgment regarding GE Betz’ claim for tortious interference with prospective business relationships.
To recover her attorney fees, Ms. Moffitt-Johnston relied on the Texas Covenants not to Compete Act (Tex.Bus.&Com.C. Sec. 15.50). The act requires several factors before a court could award attorney’s fees to the employee. One of those factors involved whether the employer knew the non-solicitation agreement included no geographic limitation. The GE Betz non-solicitation agreement was silent regarding any geographic limits. And, Texas jurisprudence provides, said the Fifth Circuit, that a limit regarding one’s customer base is reasonable – even if no geographic limit is specified. So, found the appellate court, it was not clear that the employer knew its non-solicitation agreement had no geographic limit. The Fifth Circuit then agreed the employee was not entitled to recover her attorney fees. See the decision in GE Betz, Inc. v. Moffitt-Johnston; AmSpec Services, LLC, No. 15-20008 (5th Cir. 3/13/2-18) here.