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COA turns to dictionary in contract dispute

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Citing Black’s Law Dictionary’s definitions of “solicit” and “induce,” the Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court’s finding that a software company did not violate terms of its contract with another business.

In 2009, Hypersonic Technologies and Enhanced Network Solutions entered into a subcontractor agreement in which ENS would acquire certain items from Hypersonic to service its own clients. A clause in the agreement prepared by ENS stated that – unless mutually agreed to by both parties – the companies would “refrain from soliciting or inducing, or attempting to solicit or induce, any employee of the other Party in any manner that may reasonably be expected to bring about the termination.” After an employee left ENS to join Hypersonic, ENS alleged Hypersonic had violated that agreement.

The two companies never successfully bid on a contract, and Hypersonic terminated its agreement with ENS on June 21, 2010. While the contract was still in effect, Hypersonic had posted a job opening online. ENS employee Robert Dobson saw the posting and contacted Hypersonic to ask about the position. Dobson met with Hypersonic’s owner and president sometime in April 2010 to further discuss the job. But Hypersonic did not extend an offer to Dobson at that time.

The three met again about a week afterward, and Dobson explained his terms of compensation and what he was looking for in a new position. Hypersonic then extended a job offer, and Dobson began working for Hypersonic in May 2010.

Dobson, the appeals court held, initiated contact with Hypersonic. “In other words, Dobson solicited Hypersonic,” the court’s opinion stated.

ENS claimed that despite the fact that Dobson initiated the contacts with Hypersonic, Hypersonic solicited Dobson when it continued talking with him. In support, ENS referred to an out-of-state case – Scarbrough v. Liberty National Life Insurance Co., 872 So.2d 283 (Fla. Ct. App. 2004) – which stands for the premise that in appropriate circumstances, a person may solicit another’s business regardless of who initiates the meeting.

In Scarbrough, after a former client initially contacted Scarbrough, an insurance agent, Scarbrough proactively provided the client with a comparison between the benefits and premiums offered by the client’s former insurance company and the insurance company for which Scarbrough currently worked. Id. at 284-85. The Florida Court of Appeals recognized that being “proactive” was included within the term “solicit.” See id. at 285. But the Indiana COA held that because Dobson initiated all major steps that led to his employment, the Florida case doesn’t apply to Enhanced Network Solutions v. Hypersonic Technologies, No. 02A03-1011-PL-609.

The COA also held that the agreement lacked a definition of the terms “solicit” and “induce.” In finding that Hypersonic did not violate the agreement, the court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary for a literal interpretation of the terms in question, which states that solicit means: “[t]he act or an instance of requesting or seeking to obtain something; a request or petition”; and induce means: “[t]he act or process of enticing or persuading another person to take a certain course of action.”

 

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