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Pennsylvania Superior Court Rules in Favor of Employee in a Covenant Not to Compete Case Because Company had no Protectable Business Interest in Information Available in the Public Domain

In Wolfington Body Company, Inc. v. O’Neill, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found in favor of the employee, Defendant O’Neill, holding that the covenant not to compete, which Wolfington Body Company made O’Neill sign as a condition of his employment agreement, was unduly restrictive and overly broad. Wolfington Body Company, Inc. v. O’Neill, 2018 WL 2011398 (Pa. Super. 2018).

O’Neill began working for Wolfington Body Company in the fall of 2013 as a commercial vehicle sales person. Once hired, Wolfington required O’Neill to sign an Employment Agreement which contained several restrictive covenants including Non-Compete and Non-Solicitation Covenants. These covenants included language which restricted where O’Neill could work once he left Wolfington, and how long he must wait before working in the bus sales industry again. The covenant restricted O’Neill from working in any state which Wolfington is conducting or has conducted business. This restriction functionally prohibited O’Neill from working in the 35 states in which Wolfington has or had done business. In addition, the covenant not to compete prohibited O’Neill from working for two years in the bus sales industry after he left Wolfington. In the fall of 2016, O’Neill left Woflington and began working for another company in the bus sales industry. Wofington brought a suit alleging that O’Neill violated the restrictive covenants of his Employment Agreement, specifically that the O’Neill had access to Wolfington’s confidential, proprietary, or trade secretes which are legitimate business interests worthy of protection. O’Neill t testified that based on his long employment history in the bus sales industry, he had compiled information including a customer base, and price estimates for building busses.  However, O’Neill asserted that he returned all confidential information to Wolfington before ending his employment.

In analyzing whether to enforce a restrictive covenant, the Court looks to see if, “… it must be reasonably related to the protection of a legitimate business interest… including trade secretes or confidential information, unique or extraordinary skills, customer good will, and investments in an employee specialized training program. In contrast, a post-employment covenant that merely seeks to eliminate competition per se to give the employer an economic advantage is generally not enforceable.”  For a restrictive covenant to be enforceable, there must be the presence of a legitimate protectable business interest.  Once it is established that a legitimate protectable business interest is present, the court applies a balancing test weighing the employer’s protectable business interest against the employee’s interest in earning a living. Then the court balances the employer and employee interests against the interest of the public.

Here, the Court found that the information necessary to enable an experienced sales person to perform their job are readily available in the public domain, therefore the information retained by O’Neill was of no secret value or of any peculiar importance to Wolfington. Additionally, the definition of confidential information set forth in the employment agreement was overly broad and included any information that O’Neill may have learned while working for Wolfington thus, the restrictive covenant was not reasonably tailored to protect Wolfington’s business interests. For a restrictive covenant to be enforced there must be the existence of legitimate business interest, and the restrictive covenant must be reasonably tailored to protect the employer’s interests.  Wolfington failed to establish that the restrictive covenant was reasonably tailored, even if there were legitimate business interests at stake worth protecting. Since neither of these two necessary factors are present, the Court found in favor of O’Neill.

Philadelphia non-compete lawyers at Sidkoff, Pincus & Green P.C. protect employees’ right to work. For assistance in any type of employment law matter, call 215-574-0600 to schedule a consultation in our Philadelphia office, where we represent clients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, or contact us online.