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COA divided on noncompete agreement, injunction

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Even though Indiana courts strongly disfavor noncompete clauses in employment contracts as restraints of trade, the majority of Indiana Court of Appeals judges affirmed the grant of a preliminary injunction against a Porter County man. They found the company had a legitimately protectable interest in the man’s knowledge of its customers and market.

In Steven E. Coates v. Heat Wagons, Inc., et al., No. 64A03-1004-PL-232, Steven Coates, a former employee of Heat Wagons Inc. and Manufacturers Products, appealed the preliminary injunction granted against him to prevent him from operating a side business, Second Source, which was also involved in the sale of portable heater parts. Manufacturers Products (MPI) had a portable heater parts division, Portable Heater Parts (PHP), that Coates was also involved in.

When Coates’ father died and the company was sold, the new owners retained Coates as an employee and he signed an employment agreement, which contained a noncompete clause. Just before he was retained by the new owners, Coates changed the name of Second Source to S&S and concealed his involvement with the company. S&S often sold parts to MPI.

After Coates was fired in 2009, the company discovered his involvement with S&S and filed the complaint to enjoin him from continued operation of S&S. It later filed a petition for preliminary and permanent injunction. The trial court granted the preliminary injunction against Coates.

Judges L. Mark Bailey and Patricia Riley upheld the injunction and affirmed the trial court in all respects except with regard to the part of the injunction that prevented any use by Coates of heatersandparts.com and a red “H&P” mark on its website and printed materials. PHP used a red “PHP” mark and its website is portableheaterparts.com. There was no evidence that Coates’ use of the website or mark created any confusion among its current or potential customers, wrote Judge Bailey. The judges also found the relief to be overly broad, because by restricting the use of the web address and mark, the trial court effectively restricted Coats from using these means of advertising in the U.S. and globally.

The majority found the trial court didn’t err in determining MPI faced a risk of irreparable harm and lacked adequate remedy at law as a result of any breach by Coates of the agreement not to compete. They also held the trial court didn’t err by determining that MPI has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of its case.

Judge James Kirsch dissented because he believed the covenant to not compete failed to be reasonable in terms of both activity and geographic area. He found the purpose of the covenant at issue is solely to prevent competition by restricting Coates from engaging in competition with the employer “in any capacity whatsoever” and prevent Coates from competing in any way.

He also found the geographic scope of the restriction, which applied to all the states in which MPI had done business, was without regard to whether Coates actually had any involvement in such states. Judge Kirsch also questioned the trial court’s re-writing of the contract as a matter of policy. The trial court “blue penciled” the contract, including the scope of the provisions of the covenant to strike out the 13 states which Coates had no contact, and made other changes.

“Here, as a result of re-writing the employer’s contract by the trial court, a contract that is unreasonable in its scope and unenforceable as over-broad becomes enforceable against the employee,” he wrote. “I believe that the restrictive covenant is unenforceable in its entirety.”

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  1. Just an aside, but regardless of the outcome, I 'm proud of Judge William Hughes. He was the original magistrate on the Home place issue. He ruled for Home Place, and was primaried by Brainard for it. Their tool Poindexter failed to unseat Hughes, who won support for his honesty and courage throughout the county, and he was reelected Judge of Hamilton County's Superior Court. You can still stand for something and survive. Thanks, Judge Hughes!

  2. CCHP's real accomplishment is the 2015 law signed by Gov Pence that basically outlaws any annexation that is forced where a 65% majority of landowners in the affected area disagree. Regardless of whether HP wins or loses, the citizens of Indiana will not have another fiasco like this. The law Gov Pence signed is a direct result of this malgovernance.

  3. I gave tempparry guardship to a friend of my granddaughter in 2012. I went to prison. I had custody. My daughter went to prison to. We are out. My daughter gave me custody but can get her back. She was not order to give me custody . but now we want granddaughter back from friend. She's 14 now. What rights do we have

  4. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  5. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

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