Indianapolis, Indiana – Indiana Court of Appeals Judges Elaine Brown, Edward Najam and Paul Mathias reversed a trial court’s entry of preliminary injunction, holding that the non-compete agreement at issue was overly broad and, thus, unreasonable as a matter of law.
Glacier Group (“Glacier”) provides employee recruiting and placement services in the field of information technology. It primarily places salespeople, pre-sales engineers, systems engineers and people in leadership positions such as directors, vice presidents, chief financial officers and chief executive officers. Daniel Buffkin began working as a sales recruiter for Glacier in August 2008. Buffkin’s work with Glacier was subject to an “Independent Contractor Agreement” (the “Agreement”).
In June 2011, Glacier terminated the Agreement with Buffkin. In November 2012, it sued Buffkin alleging that he was in breach of the non-competition portion of the Agreement and requesting damages and injunctive relief.
In March 2013, the trial court determined that “during the almost three (3) year business relationship between [Glacier] and [Buffkin], [Buffkin] came into contact with a vast number of prospects and candidates, as well as clients of [Glacier], including their names and at the very least, their e-mail addresses, together with the requirements of [Glacier’s] customers for prospects and candidates to fill employment positions” and that “[t]his therefore created a legitimate protectable business interest by [Glacier].”
The trial court also stated that “[Buffkin] has admitted to directly competing against [Glacier] after being terminated from working for [Glacier]” and that Buffkin had been either unable or unwilling to supply a list of “where and when [Buffkin] has obtained the contacts he has made that he has used to make placements in the field in which [Glacier] works and operates.”
The trial court concluded that Glacier had a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of its case and granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting Buffkin from competing with Glacier in employee placement in the areas of “data storage, cloud, virtualization, big data, managed hosting, managed services, data communication, and telecommunication.”
From this ruling, Buffkin brought an interlocutory appeal to the Indiana Court of Appeals. He argued that the non-compete clause of the Agreement was unreasonable and therefore unenforceable. He first asserted that the non-compete clause was overly broad because it did not have any restrictions regarding which industry it covered. He contended that, as written, the Agreement purported to prohibit him from doing executive recruiting in any industry. He also argued that the Agreement did not protect a legitimate interest of Glacier and that the restrictions on geographic scope were overly broad. Buffkin asked the Court of Appeals to hold that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting the preliminary injunction.
Glacier countered that it had provided Buffkin with insider knowledge and that Buffkin could not have had the success that he had after leaving Glacier without having used the proprietary information which he had acquired during his time with Glacier. It maintained that it had a protectable interest as a result of Buffkin’s purported use of insider knowledge acquired at Glacier and that Buffkin’s use of that information to Glacier’s detriment should be enjoined.
The appellate court first considered whether Glacier had an interest to be protected. It held that, while Buffkin may have acquired training, knowledge and skills while working at Glacier, such general skills would not be sufficient to rise to the level of a protectable interest unless their use would result in irreparable injury to Glacier. No such irreparable injury was proven. Glacier also failed to prove that, during his time with the company, Buffkin had access to proprietary information which gave him an improper advantage at Glacier’s expense. The court concluded that the interest to be protected by the non-competition provision of the Agreement, if any, was minimal.
The reasonableness of the restrictions was then addressed. Two provisions in particular were at issue: the geographic restriction and the activities restricted. The Agreement had attempted to restrict Buffkin from performing recruiting or placement services for employers “with offices in the continental United States.” The court held that Glacier had not met its burden of proof to demonstrate that it had a legitimate interest to be protected by such a broad restriction and held the geographic restriction to be unreasonable.
The court next held that the broadly worded text restricting Buffkin from being “connected in any way with any business that competes” with Glacier, and which made no distinction between past, current, or potential future customers of Glacier was excessive and, thus, unenforceable. It held that the trial court’s ruling had been clearly erroneous and that it had abused its discretion by granting the preliminary injunction.
Practice Tip #1: The Indiana Supreme Court has held that, to be enforceable, a non-compete agreement must be reasonable and that “[u]nlike reasonableness in many other contexts, the reasonableness of a noncompetition agreement is a question of law.” Such agreements in employment contracts are strongly disfavored under Indiana law as restraints of trade. They are scrutinized more closely than most other types of contracts and are strictly construed against the employer. Identifying a party to the contract as an independent contractor rather than as an employee does not change the analysis.
Practice Tip #2: A preliminary injunction should not be granted except in rare instances in which the law and facts are clearly within the moving party’s favor. To obtain a preliminary injunction, the moving party has the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence the following: (1) a reasonable likelihood of success at trial; (2) the remedies at law are inadequate; (3) the threatened injury to the movant outweighs the potential harm to the nonmoving party from the granting of an injunction; and (4) the public interest would not be disserved by granting the requested injunction. If the party seeking the preliminary injunction fails to prove any of these requirements, the trial court’s grant of an injunction will be considered an abuse of discretion.
This case was argued by Sara R. Blevins and James E. Zoccola of Lewis & Kappes, P.C. of Indianapolis, Indiana, Attorneys for Appellant; and Gregg S. Theobald of Lafayette, Indiana, Attorney for Appellee. It was heard by Judges Elaine Brown, Edward Najam and Paul Mathias in the Indiana Court of Appeals.