Davis v. Johnstone Group, Inc. involved a battle between two appraisal firms for the services of one John Jason Davis. Mr. Davis was hired by Johnstone Group, Inc. (“JCI”) in 1998 as a real estate appraiser trainee. JCI required Mr. Davis to sign an employment agreement that contained a non-competition clause.
Over the next seven years, Mr. Davis completed 180 hours of classroom training and 3,000 hours of practical appraisal experience under the supervision of Mark Johnstone, the owner of JCI. In November of 2005, Mr. Davis became a licensed Certified General Real Estate Appraiser. At that point, JCI had Mr. Davis sign a new employment agreement, which also contained a non-competition agreement.
Mr. Davis continued working for JCI until April 13, 2015, when have gave notice of his intention to go to work for Appraisal Services Group, Inc. (“ASG”). JCI sent a cease and desist letter to Mr. Davis and ASG on April 20, 2015. Shortly thereafter, on May 1, 2015, Mr. Davis filed a complaint in the Chancery Court for Madison County seeking a declaration that the non-compete agreement was unenforceable. Not surprisingly, JCI countersued Mr. Davis and ASG. On June 1, 2015, Mr. Davis filed an answer to JGI’s counter-complaint in which he denied liability. Following a hearing, on July 6, 2015, the trial court granted the declaratory judgment requested by Mr. Davis and denied JCI’s request for injunctive relief and damages.
So how did JCI lose so quickly? First, it failed to show special facts above and beyond ordinary competition that would give Mr. Davis an unfair advantage over it. In other words, Tennessee courts believe that ordinary competition is a good thing, but they will restrict unfair competition:
Of course, any competition by a former employee may well injure the business of the employer. An employer, however, cannot by contract restrain ordinary competition. In order for an employer to be entitled to protection, there must be special facts present over and above ordinary competition. These special facts must be such that without the covenant not to compete the employee would gain an unfair advantage in future competition with the employer.
Davis v. Johnstone Grp., Inc., No. W201501884COAR3CV, 2016 WL 908902, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 9, 2016) (citing Hasty v. Rent–A–Driver, Inc., 671 S.W.2d 471, 473 (Tenn.1984)).
In an effort to show that Mr. Davis was engaging in unfair competition, JCI argued that he received specialized training, had access to its trade secrets, and that its customers associated Mr. Davis with its business. The Court spent little time discussing the second and third factors. There was no evidence that Mr. Davis took any of JCI’s information. Even if he had, bidding and pricing factors change rapidly. The Court also found that Mr. Davis was not the “face of the business” since his work was signed off on by Mr. Johnstone, he was not an owner of the business, and he was not involved in running the business.
That meant that JCI’s hopes rested on the third factor - specialized training. JCI argued that the 180 hours of classroom training and 3,000 hours of supervised appraisal experience constituted specialized training that gave Mr. Davis an unfair advantage. There are many problems with this argument. Most of the training took place before JCI had Mr. Davis sign the new employment agreement in 2005. Even if it took place after 2005, every appraiser is required to receive the same training in order to be licensed. There was nothing unique or proprietary about that training. The same is true of JCI’s method of appraising. No evidence was presented that JCI’s method of appraising was unique or secret such that others did not use the same method. Because JCI failed to establish that it had a protectable business interest in preventing Mr. Davis from working for ASG, the Court did not reach the issue of whether the temporal (two-year) and geographic (150 mile radius from JCI’s office in Jackson, TN) restrictions were reasonable.
The second reason that JCI lost is that it failed to provide the Court of Appeals with a transcript or statement of the evidence. That meant that the Court was forced to presume that there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s judgment. It's tough to win when the Court must presume that you lost for good reason.
What are the lessons for employers? Well, if it’s worth appealing it’s worth doing right. If there is a transcript of the hearing, include it in the record on appeal so there’s no presumption in favor of the trial court’s ruling against your client. Employers also need to keep in mind that training, no matter how extensive or expensive, will not demonstrate a protectable business interest if it is not unique. If every appraiser is required to obtain it, then it isn’t unique to the employer for whom the employee worked when obtaining it. It’s just the general knowledge and skill of the employee, which does not create unfair competition: “[G]eneral knowledge and skill appertain exclusively to the employee, even if acquired with expensive training, and thus does not constitute a protectable interest of the employer.” Davis v. Johnstone Grp., Inc., No. W201501884COAR3CV, 2016 WL 908902, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 9, 2016) (citing Hasty v. Rent–A–Driver, Inc., 671 S.W.2d 471, 473 (Tenn.1984)).
What are the lessons for the employee? Don’t be afraid to call the employer’s bluff if you believe its non-competition agreement is unreasonable. JCI tried to bluff Mr. Davis into compliance by threatening him and his new employer. Mr. Davis didn’t blink. He filed his declaratory judgment action and after just over two months of litigation (excluding the resulting appeal), he had his freedom. This goes to show that some jobs are worth fighting for. It is also worth pointing out that there was no indication of wrongdoing by Mr. Davis. If JCI had been able to show that he stole company data on the way out the door, I suspect the result would have been different.