Covenant Not To Compete Cases (Without More) Aren't Within The Business Court's Mandatory Jurisdiction
If a case involves only a breach of a covenant not to compete or a confidentiality agreement, it is not within the mandatory "unfair competition" jurisdiction of the North Carolina Business Court, based on two recent decisions.
The first case is Workplace Benefits, LLC v. Lifecare, Inc, decided by the Court on July 14, 2008. In that case, which the Defendant designated to the Court, the Plaintiffs were a former employee of the Defendant and her new employer.
The Complaint asserted that the Defendant was improperly using a Confidentiality Agreement signed by the individual Plaintiff to threaten her so she wouldn't call on potential customers. The Plaintiffs further alleged that potential customers had been impeded from doing business with the corporate Plaintiff as a result.
The Complaint sought a declaratory judgment that the Confidentiality Agreement was invalid, and also made claims for tortious interference with contract and a breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing.
The case was designated to the Business Court (by me) based on the Court's mandatory jurisdiction over cases involving "unfair competition law." Judge Tennille disagreed that there was mandatory jurisdiction, and held:
every suit based upon a breach of a restrictive covenant or breach of a Confidentiality Agreement [will not] give rise to a mandatory business case based upon “unfair competition.” In order to raise a material issue of unfair competition, some additional factors must be alleged. For example, allegations of the theft of trade secrets which provide a competitive advantage to one party could give rise to a mandatory case. See e.g., Analog Devices v. Michalski, 157 N.C. App. 462, 579 S.E.2d 449 (2003). Also, actions designed to unfairly damage another’s business would give rise to an unfair competition claim. See, e.g., Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Head & Engquist Equip., LLC, 174 N.C. App. 49, 620 S.E.2d 222 (2005).
The Court determined that those additional factors were lacking in the Workplace Benefits complaint.
In the Order in the second case, decided yesterday, the Court remanded a lawsuit in which the plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment that a covenant not to compete was invalid. Judge Tennille remanded the case on his own motion, before any Answer had been filed, and referenced the Workplace Benefits decision.