A Florida trial court should not have entered a temporary injunction enforcing a non-compete agreement against a former employee on an ex parte basis, i.e., without notice to the employee, according to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals in a recent decision, Bookall v. Sunbelt Rentals, Case No. 08-26291 (Fla. 4th DCA, December 3, 2008).
The employer, a company that rents construction equipment, employed the former employee until February 7, 2008, under a written agreement containing a non-compete and non-solicitation provision. Shortly after the employee resigned, he began to work at a competing company. Upon discovering this, the employer sent the former employee a letter advising him of the breach of the agreement. The former employee’s counsel responded that the employee understood and would comply with his obligations under the agreement.
Upon learning that the former employee continued to work for the competitor, the employer filed a verified complaint with supporting affidavits and an ex parte emergency motion for temporary injunction. The motion sought a temporary injunction against the former employee and the competitor based on the noncompete and non-solicitation provisions of the employment agreement. The duty judge assigned to the case entered the temporary injunction.
In its opinion, the Fourth DCA noted that under the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, a temporary injunction "may be granted without written or oral notice to the adverse party only if: (A) it appears from the specific facts shown by affidavit or verified pleading that immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage will result to the movant before the adverse party can be heard in opposition; and (B) the movant's attorney certifies in writing any efforts that have been made to give notice and the reasons why notice should not be required." Furthermore, "[e]very temporary injunction granted without notice . . . shall define the injury, state findings by the court why the injury may be irreparable, and give the reasons why the order was granted without notice if notice was not given." See Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.610(a).
According to the Fourth DCA, the injunction suffered from a "fatal defect": it failed to give the reasons why the order was granted without notice. The court noted that "[t]his deficiency could have been cured if the employer articulated in its complaint or motion reasons why notice should be dispensed with....Unfortunately for the employer, neither the complaint nor the motion cured the deficiency in this case."
One lesson from the Bookall decision is clear: follow the civil procedure rules carefully. The rules are just that - rules - not guidelines or suggestions. The employer's and the court's failure to articulate why the order was granted without notice required a reversal of the injunction order under a plain reading of Rule 1.610(a).
One might surmise that there was no good reason why notice was not given to the former employee. After all, the opinion notes that the former employee was represented by counsel. How hard is it to fax, email and/or call opposing counsel before a hearing, even on an emergency motion?
But perhaps the former employee's counsel was on vacation or otherwise unavailable to receive notice of the hearing. In that case, an ex parte injunction may have been appropriate, and the employer's and the court's failure to state why the order was granted without notice a mere oversight.
However, even where an ex parte injunction is appropriate, employers and their counsel should be aware that it may be short-lived. Under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.610(d), "[a] party against whom a temporary injunction has been granted may move to dissolve or modify it at any time. If a party moves to dissolve or modify, the motion shall be heard within 5 days after the movant applies for a hearing on the motion." Thus, if a court enters a temporary injunction on an ex parte basis, the employer's counsel should clear his calendar for the next week. The employee is entitled to a file a motion to dissolve and obtain an expedited hearing, and he may stand a good chance of getting the injunction modified or dissolved entirely once he tells his side of the story.