A recent case offers guidance to New York employers concerning their ability to restrict former employees from attempting to take away the employer’s customers.

In that case, a former employee of USI Insurance Services, LLC (“USI”) signed an employment agreement that included a provision restricting the employee’s ability to solicit the business of former clients for 24 months following the termination of the agreement.  USI Insurance Services LLC v. Miner, No. 10 Civ. 8162, 2011 WL 2848139 (S.D.N.Y. July 7, 2011). Yet just days after the the employee, Jeffrey Miner, left the company and triggered the termination of the employment agreement, he mass e-mailed USI’s current customers in an attempt to solicit business.  In this case, the U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York Court concluded that Miner’s actions constituted solicitation as a matter of law and granted partial summary judgment to USI on this issue. Id. at 13. Miner’s mass e-mail to USI’s current customers was a clear attempt to solicit business in violation of the employer’s contractual rights. Therefore, it was prohibited conduct.

In New York, non-solicitation covenants – also known as restrictive covenants – are provisions in an agreement that restrict others from actively engaging in certain business development activities (i.e. soliciting an employer’s customers). A non-solicitation covenant may restrict a former employee from contacting his employer’s customers by way of mailings, e-mails, personal calls or through other means that would constitute solicitation.  Id. at 11. According to the Court, non-solicitation covenants are enforceable if they are:

a) necessary to prevent disclosure of trade secrets or confidential information, or
b) where an employee’s services are unique or extraordinary.

Id.

Additionally, the covenants cannot impose undue hardship on the employee or be injurious to the public. Id. at 14 [quoting IBM Corp. v. Visentin, No. 11 Civ. 399, 2011 WL 672025, 8 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 16, 2011)].

However, a non-solicitation covenant alone may not be enough to restrict a former employee from taking customers. In an unrelated case, the New York Court of Appeals noted that “‘absent an express or restrictive covenant not to compete,’ advertising to the general public . . . [would] not be considered solicitation, so long as such advertisements are not specifically aimed at the seller’s former clients.” Id. at 12 [quoting Bessemer Trust Co. v. Branin, 2011 WL 1583932, 5 (N.Y. Ct. of Appeals Apr. 28, 2011]. Accordingly, a former employee can continue to compete in the same industry.  Id.  Also, a customer can contact his former employee for the purposes of obtaining factual information and such interaction would also be permissible “so long as the response .  .  . [does] not go beyond the specific information sought.”  Id.

This is a significant decision for companies that are including non-solicitation covenants in their employment agreements. The Court’s decision gives an indication of what type of covenant would be reasonable to be enforced.

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