You probably think that you can avoid having a confidentiality agreement struck down by an NC court because it doesn’t have to meet the stricter standard applied to non-compete agreements.
The NC Business Court’s Opinion this month in Duo-Fast Carolinas,, Inc. v. Scott’s Hill Hardware & Supply Co., 2018 NCBC 2 may get you thinking differently.
The validity of a non-compete often turns in part on whether the restriction is "reasonable as to time and territory, and designed to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer." See, e.g., A.E.P. Indus., Inc. v. McClure, 308 N.C. 393, 402–03, 302 S.E.2d 754, 760 (1983).
But a confidentiality agreement is enforceable "even though the agreement is unlimited as to time and area, upon a showing that it protects a legitimate business interest of the promisee.” Chemimetals Processing, Inc. v. McEneny, 124 N.C. App. 194, 197, 476 S.E.2d 374, 376 (1996).
In Duo-Fast, Judge McGuire found a confidentiality agreement to be invalid because it was not reasonable as to time and territory, in Duo-Fast Carolinas,, Inc. v. Scott’s Hill Hardware & Supply Co., 2018 NCBC 2. Wait, what about Chemimetals, which says that confidentiality agreements don’t need to be limited as to time and territory.?
The individual Defendant in Duo-Fast, Modero,had been an outside sales representative for the Plaintiff. He had signed an Employment Agreement saying that he would "not make known to any person. . . the contents of any customer lists." There was no time limit on this restriction.
Modero kept Plaintiff’s customer information in his personal Yahoo email account. Op. ¶¶5, 9. After he left Plaintiff and began working as a sales representative for the Defendant, a direct competitor, Modero contacted some of his former customers using his Yahoo information.
Plaintiff made a number of claims against Modero and his new employer, including a claim for breach of the confidentiality provision of the Employment Agreement. Judge McGuire ruled that provision to be unenforceable. He found that "the non-disclosure provisions do not serve Plaintiff’s legitimate business interests, but rather seek to prevent Medero from soliciting Plaintiff’s customers in restraint of trade." Op. ¶46.
Analyzing the "confidentiality provision" as a restrictive covenant, the Business Court concluded that:
prohibiting Medero’s use or disclosure of Plaintiff’s customer identities is overbroad. The non-disclosure provisions are not limited as to time, but rather are perpetual. Such a restraint would prevent Medero from ever using the names and contact information of Plaintiff’s customers. Insofar as the non-disclosure provisions seek to prevent Medero from soliciting Plaintiff’s customers, they constitute an unenforceable restrictive covenant.
What probably harmed Plaintiff’s case was that the identities of its customers weren’t confidential at all. They were "readily ascertainable" by visiting construction sites and speaking to contractors. Op. ¶45.
Plaintiff did not come out well in its lawsuit. Judge McGuire found a separate non-compete provision to be unenforceable and dismissed all of Plaintiff”s claims.