Now that the Massachusetts legislature has abandoned (at least until next session) a bill to make employer/employee noncompete agreements unenforceable (or more difficult to enforce) in Massachusetts, we’re back to business as usual in Massachusetts, and how the courts handle these cases remains of interest. And, since the preliminary injunction stage of these cases is so critical, how the courts handle preliminary injunction motions in noncompete cases is of particular interest.
Of course, noncompete law (sometimes statutory, sometimes “judge-made” case law) varies from state-to-state. A recent case highlights the extent to which even the procedure for handling these cases can differ from state-to-state.
In Massachusetts, the trial courts — federal or state — have no obligation to hold an evidentiary hearing when resolving a preliminary injunction motion. Affidavits are usually enough, and its rare to see a hearing with witnesses and cross-examination.
However, this is not the case in the 11th Circuit, which covers federal cases in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The 11th Circuit recently held, in a noncompete case involving a preliminary injunction motion, that while an evidentiary hearing is not always required before issuance of a preliminary injunction, ““[w]here the injunction turns on the resolution of bitterly disputed facts … an evidentiary hearing is normally required to decide credibility issues. … where much depends upon the accurate presentation of numerous facts, the trial court erred in not holding an evidentiary hearing to resolve these hotly contested issues.”
The case was remanded to the trial court for a hearing.
Moral of the story: if you think an evidentiary hearing will improve your chances on a noncompete preliminary injunction motion, ask for one. Just maybe, you’ll get it. If the appealing party in this case had not asked for an evidentiary hearing, it would have had no basis for complaining, on appeal, about the failure of the court to grant one, and would not have obtained the reversal. While an Eleventh Circuit decision is only persuasive (not binding) on courts outside the Eleventh Circuit, a particular judge in another state could find it very persuasive, and an evidentiary hearing may make a difference in the outcome in the trial court. It also creates the basis for a good faith argument on appeal.