The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a case where an ex-employer sought preliminary injunctive relief based on an alleged breach of non-disclosure and non-compete agreements and alleged misappropriation of confidential business information, ruled that the Texas presumption of irreparable harm for breach of non-compete clauses does not always apply and that a finding of irreparable harm requires particularized findings regarding the alleged harm. Direct Biologics L.L.C. v. McQueen, Case No. 22-50442 (5th Cir. April 3, 2023) (Davis, Dennis, JJ., Higginson, C.J.).
Adam McQueen previously was executive vice president of Direct Biologics (DB). As a member of DB’s management, McQueen had access to DB’s confidential trade secret information regarding the production and production specifications of DB’s novel medical technologies. To protect that information, McQueen signed both non-compete and non-disclosure agreements with DB, preventing him from providing “services . . . similar to that which [he] provided to [DB],” and from disclosing or using DB’s confidential information.
McQueen resigned from his position and joined Vivex, DB’s direct competitor. Almost immediately DB sued McQueen and Vivex, alleging breach of the non-compete, breach of the non-disclosure agreement and trade secret misappropriation. Shortly thereafter, DB moved for a preliminary injunction to compel McQueen to comply with the non-compete covenant and prevent him from using DB’s confidential and trade secret information. Vivex countered by arguing that McQueen’s new role as vice president of product strategy was a “non-competitive role,” and that McQueen was sequestered from all products that would compete with DB. The district court denied the preliminary injunction motion, agreeing with Vivex that DB failed to provide any evidence that DB had been harmed. DB appealed.
DB argued that the district court erred in two ways—first, by failing to apply Texas’s presumption of irreparable harm based on McQueen’s breach of a non-compete agreement, and second, by failing to correctly apply the irreparable harm analysis by looking only at past actions.
The Fifth Circuit began by reviewing Texas’s presumption of irreparable harm. Under Texas law, the breach of a non-compete agreement can result in a presumption of irreparable harm. But, as the Court explained, the presumption does not always apply. Texas courts can decline to apply the presumption when there is no independent proof of harm. Here, not only did DB fail to produce any evidence that McQueen disclosed or used DB’s confidential information, but there also was evidence showing that he had not. Based on this record, the Court held that it was not an abuse of discretion to decline to apply the presumption.
The Fifth Circuit then analyzed the district court’s irreparable harm analysis. The Court explained that the irreparable harm analysis requires that the trial court make particularized findings regarding whether the harm was likely to occur over the pendency of the litigation, and if so, whether the harm would be difficult to quantify monetarily. While the district court here made findings directed to whether McQueen had caused harm, it did not make any findings regarding what might happen during the litigation. The district court also did not make any findings directed to whether any damages from harm caused during the litigation could be quantified.
The Fifth Circuit, therefore, remanded the case back to the district court to make particularized findings regarding whether harm was likely to occur, and, if so, whether any such misuse would result in difficult-to-quantify damages.