Tuesday, January 23, 2018
A recent case out of Minnesota, Oberfoell v. Kyte, A17-0575, reminds all of us that noncompete agreements need to have a justification. Kyte worked for Oberfoell's online-auction business and signed a contract that contained a noncompete clause. He later left to start his own online-auction business and Oberfoell sued.
The lower court found the noncompete agreement to be unenforceable and this appellate court agreed. Oberfoell simply couldn't justify its necessity because he failed to assert a legitimate business interest protected by the noncompete clause. Oberfoell made general allegations that Kyte had personal relationships with many of Oberfoell's customers and thus possessed goodwill belonging to Oberfoell. But Oberfoell never identified any customers who he was worried about, nor did he ever introduce any evidence that Kyte had used any of Oberfoell's customer lists improperly. The court concluded that Kyte did not seem to be the "face" of the business nor was he the exclusive contact the customers had with the business. There was no evidence that any of Oberfoell's customers were concerned about Kyte leaving and no evidence that any of them followed Kyte to his new business. Therefore, Oberfoell failed to prove that the noncompete was protecting a legitimate business interest.
Oberfoell also tried to assert that his customer lists and other materials were taken by Kyte and qualified as a violation of the noncompete. The court pointed out that the customer lists weren't secret and weren't treated as secrets by Oberfoell, and so couldn't qualify as trade secrets. The other materials suffered from the same lack of confidential protection.
Finally, the noncompete also failed on the basis of reasonableness. It prohibited Kyte from competing in a radius of 150 miles for five years. The court found the 150-mile restriction to be "arbitrary," and Oberfoell produced no evidence justifying his choice of such a large radius. The five-year restriction was also unreasonable because the evidence showed Oberfoell could have replaced Kyte easily and quickly, so there was no reason to keep Kyte from competing for so long (in fact, Oberfoell apparently never hired anyone to replace Kyte, delegating his responsibilities to already-existing employees). There was no evidence that Kyte had received any extensive training that gave him an advantage in establishing his business, which took him a few months to get started.