Jack is a Partner in Dorsey’s Labor & Employment group, where he focuses his practice on employment advice, litigation, and traditional labor-law issues. In his advice practice, Jack helps clients avoid litigation and position themselves effectively in case an employee does bring a claim. When counseling employers, Jack draws both from his legal experience and from the practical experience gained in his first career as a print reporter and newsroom manager, including service as a regional correspondent for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C., as a reporter and editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, and as the manager and editor of a suburban news team for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Today’s workforce is more mobile than in past generations. Long gone are the days when an employee started and ended a career at the same company. Knowing how to protect your company’s confidential information when a trusted employee leaves can have a lasting impact on your ability to compete. So, what can you do when a former employee goes to work for a competitor? Is having an irreparable injury provision in your non-compete agreement enough to obtain a court order prohibiting that individual from working at his/her new job?
In Minnesota, courts want to see more than just words in a contract before they will grant injunctive relief against a former employee.
This week, the Supreme Court of Minnesota issued a decision in St. Jude Medical, Inc. v. Carter. The case arose after Heath Carter left his employer to work for a competitor. The employer filed suit against Mr. Carter and the competitor, alleging violations of Mr. Carter’s non-compete agreement. The employer did not seek money damages but asked the court for injunctive relief; specifically, an order enforcing the terms of the non-compete agreement and prohibiting Mr. Carter from working for a competitor in his then-current position. The case went to a jury, which ultimately found that Mr. Carter had breached his non-compete agreement. But the court refused to enter an injunction, finding that the employer failed to establish that it had been harmed.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the question became what to do about specific language in the non-compete agreement that addressed the issue of whether and how the former employer was harmed. The language at issue is commonly included in many non-compete agreements:
In the event Employee breaches the covenants contained in this Agreement, Employee recognizes that irreparable injury will result . . . that [the Employer’s] remedy at law for damages will be inadequate, and that [the Employer] shall be entitled to an injunction to restrain the continuing breach by Employee.
At first glance, the provision appeared to resolve the issue of whether the employer suffered irreparable harm—Mr. Carter agreed that it had. But the Supreme Court disagreed. The court noted that “[a] private agreement is just that: private,” and concluded that such contractual language does not, by itself, entitle an employer to an injunction after proving the breach of a non-compete. The court emphasized that regardless of what the parties agree to, the burden will always fall on the employer to show that: (1) legal remedies (i.e., money damages) are inadequate; and (2) “great and irreparable injury” will result without an injunction. Because the employer did not offer proof of an irreparable injury, the court held that the employer was not entitled to an injunction.
So what now? Are provisions like those quoted above meaningless? Should employers scramble to re-write their non-compete agreements? The short answer is “probably not.”
Minnesota aligns with a number of states in which mere contractual language about irreparable harm is not enough to win injunctive relief. Nevertheless, these provisions are still worth including in non-compete agreements because courts can consider them as one of many factors that bear on whether an employer has suffered irreparable harm. Other factors will usually be more persuasive, often including evidence of some or all of the following:
The departing employee took confidential information when he or she left (e.g., client lists, marketing plans, and pricing information).
The departing employee disclosed confidential information to the competitor or put confidential information to use in the new job.
The departing employee solicited business from former clients or customers and used confidential information to solicit such business.
The former employer lost client or customer goodwill because of the departing employee’s breach of the non-compete agreement.
Ultimately, Carter serves as a useful reminder to employers on both sides of an employee’s job change. Former employers should carefully consider how they have been harmed by an employee’s departure (and what evidence they anticipate being able to present as proof of that harm). Hiring employers should understand and reinforce to their new employees the importance of complying with prior non-compete agreements. And for employers on both sides, consulting with experienced employment attorneys even before these types of cases go to litigation can be the key to a successful outcome.
Some of the trickiest employment decisions can involve employees who have made accusatory complaints against the company they work for. Many state and federal laws protect “whistleblowers” who try to bring to light illegal behavior by their employers. But in many instances employers legitimately wonder whether the complaint was made in “good faith,” or just to stir up trouble, or even to give a soon-to-be-fired employee who was about to be fired for some other reason, an excuse to bring a lawsuit.
So, is the employee’s complaint of employer wrongdoing really whistleblowing if the company already knows about the alleged wrongdoing? How can the employee really “blow the whistle” if someone else has blown it already?
An opinion issued by the Minnesota Supreme Court on August 9, 2017, answers this question favorably to the employee, expands the type of complaints that will be regarded as good faith whistleblowing, and may become the basis for more lawsuits by employees accusing employers of retaliating against them for reporting alleged wrongdoing.
Previously, under Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 181.931-.935 (2016), an employee terminated for making a complaint of illegal conduct had to demonstrate that his complaint had been made in good faith, which meant not only that the employee believed in the report he was making, but also that his purpose was to “expose an illegality.” Since the you can’t “expose” something which is already known, Minnesota law did not protect employees who complained of illegal (or allegedly illegal) conduct that the employer already knew about.
But in 2013, the Minnesota Legislature amended the statute to provide a specific definition of “good faith,” which focused on the employee’s belief that his report was true, but said nothing about intending to expose an illegality. In Friedlander v. Edwards Lifesciences, LLC, et al., A16-1916 (Minn. Aug. 9, 2017) (“Friedlander”), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the Legislature intended to get rid of the requirement of exposing an illegality, and that whistleblowing activity is protected even if it is just the same old tune that the employer had heard before.
Although the statute was amended in 2013, until Friedlander it was not clear whether the “expose an illegality” requirement remained part of the law, as that mandate did not appear in the text of the 2013 Whistleblower Act. In Friedlander, an employee sued his former employer in the federal court under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, claiming that his superiors had been engaged in legal violations, which the employee had reported directly to the superiors prior to his termination. The employer moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that because the employer reported the allegedly wrongful conduct to people who already knew about the conduct, he had not “exposed” the allegedly illegal conduct to anyone. The success of the employer’s motion therefore turned on whether the 2013 amendments eliminated the Whistleblower Act’s “expose an illegality” requirement. Because no court had yet addressed that issue, the Minnesota District Court referred the question to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of the employee. In Friedlander, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that the 2013 amendments eliminated the “expose an illegality” requirement. Following Friedlander, a whistleblower’s report is made in “good faith” if the report is “not knowingly false or made with reckless disregard of the truth.”
Friedlander therefore simplifies what an employee has to prove in order to sue under the Whistleblower Act. It serves as a reminder to employers that firing an employee who has complained about possibly illegal activities at the company must be addressed with care. It remains perfectly legal to fire such employees for other, legitimate reasons, but not because their whistleblowing. Employers should therefore take care to ensure that any termination, demotion, pay cut, or other personnel action being considered for an employee who has reported actual or suspected illegal conduct is taken for legitimate business reasons, not because of the employee’s report.
Question: My company recently terminated an employee, and we are very worried she accessed her email inappropriately in the days before she was fired. The timing of it all is … well, quirky.
Here’s what happened: The employee’s manager met with her on a Friday and informed her that her performance was not acceptable, even after several earlier warnings to improve. The manager told the employee to go home early and return to work first thing Monday to meet with the manager and the manager’s supervisor. The supervisor, manager, and employee met as planned on Monday and the employee was terminated. Later that day, however, our IT folks reviewed her account and determined she had accessed her email dozens of times on Saturday and Sunday – there are no “sent messages” in her account, so we figure that she was printing off e-mail and maybe contacts because she saw the writing on the wall about the Monday meeting.
Our policies allow employees to access email from home – but we can’t think of any reason why she would have done so over this weekend and IT said she hadn’t logged in from home for at least six months. Needless to say, the timing is very suspicious, and we’re thinking about suing to find out what she did when she logged in. Can we?
Question: Where can I find more information about the DOL’s doubling of the FLSA salary basis threshold? Did they make other changes? As an employer, what does this mean for me? And how long do I have to prepare?
Dorsey is a business law firm with more than 550 attorneys across the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Our lawyers regularly handle every sort of employment matter, litigated and non-litigated. We have extensive, successful trial experience (including class and collective actions), as well as an outstanding record for obtaining summary judgments. Dorsey also has broad experience in advising, counseling, compliance and development, policy handbook review, training and other measures that can greatly reduce the likelihood of litigation or governmental enforcement actions.