Difference in Job Responsibilities and Knowledge Prevents Breach of Non-Compete Agreement

by Joseph C. Maya on Mar. 01, 2024

Employment 

Summary: Tyco Healthcare Group v. Ross, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49867

Tyco Healthcare, through its subsidiary Covidien (a medical device manufacturer and distributor), employed Mr. Adam Ross as a design engineer in the company’s research and development division from November 14, 2006, to March 18, 2011.  As part of his employment contract, Mr. Ross signed an “Employee Agreement regarding Confidential Information, Inventions, and Conflicting Employment” that specified that Mr. Ross could not divulge, in any capacity, any of Covidien’s confidential information that he was privy to during the time of his employment.  He additionally agreed to not seek for or engage in employment with an industry competitor for two years after the termination of his employment.

Mr. Ross began searching for a new job in 2010 and applied to Intuitive Surgical upon seeing a public advertisement.  Mr. Ross was up front with Intuitive about the non-compete agreement and went so far as to engage an outside attorney for questions he had in relation to the non-compete agreement.  Intuitive hired Mr. Ross as a design engineer in its Milford, CT office  and he began his new job on March 21, 2011, a mere three days after leaving the employ of Covidien.

Possession of Confidential Information

At this point, Covidien filed suit against Mr. Ross but stated that it was open to other solutions besides litigation.  Its main concern was the confidential industry information that Mr. Ross possessed because of his years at Covidien but it also wanted to enforce the two-year prohibition on employment with a competitor.  The company submitted several proposals to avoid litigation: 1) asked Intuitive to refrain from hiring Mr. Ross, 2) was willing to retain Mr. Ross as an employee, 3) compensate Mr. Ross in the event he was not able to find employment as an engineer at a non-competitor.

Mr. Ross and Intuitive ultimately turned down all of these offers, resulting in Covidien commencing further litigation activity.  Covidien asked the court to restrain Mr. Ross from being employed at Intuitive or divulging any trade secrets acquired at Covidien.

The Court’s Findings

The District Court of Connecticut found that the non-compete between Mr. Ross and Covidien was in fact enforceable on the grounds that it contained reasonable provisions and did not overly disadvantage one party.  In addition to a valid and enforceable non-compete agreement, Covidien must be able to show breach in order for its request to be granted, and as such, the court turned to the issue of whether or not there was a breach of this agreement.  In this matter, the court found that Mr. Ross did not breach the non-compete agreement despite gaining employment at a competitor of Covidien.

This legal discussion focused on the fine details and responsibilities of the jobs at Covidien and Intuitive, concluding with the court emphasizing the differences.  The projects, responsibilities, technology, and knowledge required/used/gained by the two jobs were so different that, according the court, there was not convincing evidence that Mr. Ross would be “performing ‘similar services’ at Intuitive, or that he will inevitably use and disclose confidential and proprietary information, in violation of his non-compete agreement”.

This decision demonstrates that upon close examination of very fine employment details, a court will not always find breach of a non-compete in light of gaining employment with a direct competitor of the previous employer and signatory to the non-compete agreement.

Timenterial, Inc. v. Dagata, 29 Conn. Supp. 180

Timenterial was a company that engaged in the sale and rental of mobile units and had previously employed Mr. James Dagata.  The employment contract contained a clause wherein Mr. Dagata agreed not to “engage in any business venture having to do with the sale or rental of mobile homes or mobile offices in a fifty miles radius from any existing Timenterial, Inc. sales lot” for one year following the termination of his employment.

Mr. Dagata terminated his employment on June 1, 1970 and Timenterial claimed that he had been active in business ventures involving mobile homes beginning June 12, 1970 at an office located a mere one-quarter mile from Timenterial’s Plainville, CT office.  Timenterial commenced a suit for violation of the non-compete agreement and sought to restrain Mr. Dagata from further mobile home business ventures in accordance with the agreement.

The Court’s Decision

The court found in favor of Mr. Dagata and held that the non-compete agreement was unenforceable because the geographical restriction in the agreement was unreasonable and excessive.  At the time of legal proceedings, Timenterial had seven facilities in Connecticut, four in Massachusetts, two in Vermont, and one in New Hampshire.  The court applied the fifty-mile radius as stipulated in the agreement and held that this territorial prohibition was unreasonable.

The application of the agreement would mean that Mr. Dagata could not be involved in the mobile homes business in all or substantial parts of Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.  This placed excessive restrictions on Mr. Dagata and severely limited the opportunity for him to practice his occupation.  This excessive and burdensome characteristic of the non-compete rendered the agreement unenforceable and the court concluded that Mr. Dagata’s actions did not constitute a breach of the restrictive covenant.


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