Combating Unfair Competition By Competitors

February 21, 2012, by Steven Scully

In fiercely competitive Silicon Valley, businesses of all sizes must be on guard to prevent unfair competition. Unfair competition consists of business piracy, theft of trade secrets, and other dishonest or fraudulent acts in the course of business. As a business litigation lawyer in San Jose, I have seen companies initiate lawsuits against offending parties when unfair competition occurs. This blog focuses on unfair competition by competitors.

While corporate espionage and spying are known to occur, most businesses encounter unfair competition through less clandestine means, and from more familiar sources, such as prior business owners and trusted partners. For example, unfair competition can occur if the owner of a Thai restaurant sells his or her business with a non-compete clause, but then sets up a new competing restaurant across the street.

The key to successfully winning a lawsuit in each of these examples begins with a well-drafted non-compete agreement (or a "covenant not to compete"). So businesses should consult with a business lawyer to help them draft such an agreement. California generally disfavors agreements not to compete, and views restraints on engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business as harmful to the state's economy and the personal freedoms of its citizens. However, some agreements not to compete are recognized as valid under California law, including those relating to the sale of a business and the withdrawal of a partner.

In these instances, the key factors used to determine the validity of the non-compete agreement are its geography and duration. A business purchase agreement may include a clause stating that the seller agrees to refrain from operating a similar business within the specific geographic area that the purchased business operates. The duration of this agreement is usually limited to a number of years. The non-compete agreement protects the value of the purchased business - and serves to prevent the seller from selling his or her business today and then setting up shop next door tomorrow!

Similar rules apply to agreements not to compete as they relate to partnerships, and the courts have enforced agreements among partners in various professions, including physicians, accountants, and attorneys. In the case of professionals, non-compete agreements are typically enforced by requiring the competing partner to compensate his or her former partners to some extent at least for the business taken from them.

One of the benefits of a well-drafted non-compete agreement is that, if it is abided by the parties, it can prevent potentially costly litigation. If, however, litigation becomes necessary to enforce a non-compete agreement, the results of winning the subsequent unfair competition lawsuit can be twofold. First, the plaintiff may receive restitution for the money lost due to the defendant's unfair competition activities, and may also be awarded any of the defendant's ill-gotten gains. Second, if the plaintiff provides evidence showing a probability that the defendant will commit future violations of the unfair competition laws, an injunction may be issued ordering the defendant to curtail its unfair activities.

The injunction remedy stands in recognition of the fact that sometimes a defendant's unlawful conduct will continually harm the plaintiff unless the defendant is stopped. Rather than require the plaintiff to file lawsuit after lawsuit in an exhausting effort to seek money damages, the injunction empowers the plaintiff to put a stop to the defendant's unlawful activities once and for all.

Structure Law Group, LLP attorneys can help you prepare a non-compete agreement to guard your business against unfair competition.