Are Non-Compete Agreements Binding on Distributors?

Guest post by +Cole Dowsley, Thompson Burton litigator. This is controversial subject in the network marketing profession. When independent distributors join a network marketing program, should they be “stuck” by way of a noncompete? Short Answer: legally, noncompetes are enforceable (in most cases, not all). When two adults sign a contract, it’s hard to get provisions thrown out. But, in my opinion,….the market might soon demand that companies remove these restrictions. Cue, Cedrick Harris. Harris, one of ViSalus’s top leaders, publicly (and respectfully) resigned from the company. His main gripe: the lack of flexibility to work other programs. As distributors get more educated in this area of the law, they’re going to start demanding that companies remove the restrictions. And when that happens, the restrictions will disappear. — Kevin Thompson

Guest Post

independent contrator non-competeMost people think of non-compete agreements as a contract between an employer and an employee. However, this is not the only relationship where covenants not to compete may be valid. There are a number of other relationships in which courts have enforced non-compete agreements, including non-compete agreements between a business and an independent contractor and non-compete agreements between a buyer and seller of a business. Covenants not to compete may be included in or ancillary to a variety of business contracts, such as MLM distributor agreements and joint marketing agreements.

One of the most common questions is whether a business can require a “1099” independent contractor to execute a non-compete, and if so, whether the agreement is enforceable as to the independent contractor.

As noted in my recent blog post regarding the general enforceability of non-compete agreements, the law governing non-compete agreements is state specific. In Tennessee, the Court of Appeals has determined that covenants not to compete may be applicable to the independent contractor relationship.Baker v. Hooper, 1998 WL 608285 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998). Courts in other states have reached the same conclusion. In the independent contractor context, non-compete agreements will generally be treated in the same fashion as employer/employee agreements. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee explained the law, as follows:

Although these provisions [with independent contractors] arise outside the employment context, and are entered into between companies with relatively more bargaining power than the average employee, they are still restraints on trade, and the Court concludes that Tennessee courts, if called upon to consider these provisions, would view them in essentially the same light it views non-competes in the employment context.

As such, the provisions are enforceable under Tennessee law only if they are reasonable under the circumstances. Tennessee courts have instructed that the factors to be considered in assessing reasonableness include whether the covenant not to compete seeks to protect a legitimate business interest, the economic hardship imposed on the restricted party, and whether such a covenant would be inimical to the public interest.

Affinion Benefits Grp., LLC v. Econ-O-Check Corp., 784 F.Supp.2d 855, 866 (M.D. Tenn. 2011)

For a general discussion of the factors courts in Tennessee consider when determining the reasonableness of non-compete agreements, see my recent article on the subject. In the independent contractor setting, courts will likely place an emphasis on whether there is a legitimate protectable business interest under the circumstances of the case. The cases in Tennessee emphasize that there is no legitimate interest in protection from competition, only from unfair competition. In making this determination, a business must show the presence of special facts above and beyond ordinary competition that would give the independent contractor an unfair advantage when competing with the business.  Such facts might include whether the independent contractor had access to confidential or proprietary information, such as business secrets, confidential pricing information and confidential customer lists. Unfortunately, there is no simple rule to easily determine whether or not an independent contractor non-compete agreement is reasonable and enforceable; it is a highly fact-driven analysis and the determination will depend on the unique circumstances of each case.

Do you have questions or concerns regarding a non-compete agreement? Contact the Business Litigation & Dispute Resolution Attorneys at Thompson Burton PLLC, who are regularly called upon to prepare, review, negotiate, and litigate non-compete agreements on behalf of businesses and individuals.

About Cole Dowsley

Cole is a commercial litigator who has extensive experience resolving business-related disputes involving a wide variety of legal issues. Cole’s practice includes handling trials and appeals in state and federal court, in addition to alternative dispute resolution forums, such as mediation and arbitration. He has served as counsel to clients in courts and arbitration forums across the country, including Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Cole was selected as a Mid-South Rising Star by Super Lawyers Magazine for 2014.

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  • Amy Lewis

    I am an independent contractor for a gym. I am a personal trainer, however the owner of the gym has given me a 30 day termination notice due to “not enough business for a 2nd trainer”. Since it is because the business is slow, does that allow me to train for another gym/or myself?

    • Kevin Thompson

      Amy, it really depends on what the contract says. It would certainly seem to violate the spirit of the noncompete if they enforced it after they seemingly failed to provide you with much business.

  • kschang

    Sorta brings up the perpetual MLM question… How much of the “downline organization” do you own? I know you spent your blood sweat and tears to build the organization, but in the end, does it belong to the company, or you?

    If non-compete / non-cross-recruit clauses are enforceable, that would mean the upline owns NOTHING, right?