In tortious interference with contract (or prospective business relations) cases, plaintiffs often contend that their contracts with customers—or employees—have been unlawfully interfered with. In many situations, the contract alleged to have been interfered with is an “at-will” contract (i.e., it is a contract that can be canceled by either party at any time, for any reason).
An at-will employment agreement was the subject of a similar claim in a case decided earlier this year. There, a consulting company (“Consultant”) provided services for a manufacturing company (“Client”). Consultant and Client entered into a “no-hire” agreement that read in part as follows:
Both parties agree to not, directly or indirectly, during the period that Consultant provides services for Client, and for a period of one year thereafter, solicit, employ or hire or induce to hire any person who is or has been an employee of either party unless otherwise consented to in writing.
Consultant provided one of its employees to do some consulting work for Client. Sometime later, the employee resigned from Consultant. Client then asked Consultant whether Consultant would object to Client hiring its former employee. Consultant did not consent to the hiring, but Client hired the employee anyway. Consultant then sued Client for breaching the no-hire agreement.
Consultant contended that it was entitled to recover damages in the amount of $341,000. This amount was derived from estimating what the Consultant would have earned based on the employee continuing to work for it for an additional year (minus expenses, including the employee’s salary). The district court granted the defendant Client’s motion for summary judgment, and the appellate court affirmed.
The court of appeals based its ruling on the fact that the employee was “at-will.” Thus, the court reasoned, Consultant’s damages could not be established with “reasonable certainty.” This language is from the court’s opinion:
The damages request relies on the assumption that [the employee] would continue working for [Consultant], earning consulting fees for the year in question. This type of contingency, created by his at-will status, is impermissible in Texas.
The employee could have resigned from Consultant at any time, for any reason. For example, even if Client had not hired the employee, another company (i.e., one that was not bound by an agreement not to hire) might have done so. Thus, Consultant had no guarantee that the employee would remain employed by it in any event, and the court could not know with “reasonable certainty” what Consultant’s damages [as a result of the Client hiring him] might me.
Things to consider:
1. This is a potentially significant decision because it calls into question whether a tortious interference claim can be based on interference with an at-will contract.
2. Perhaps significantly, this case was decided by the federal Fifth Circuit. Whether the Texas Supreme Court will adopt this holding is unknown at this time. It’s possible, based on its holding in Sterner v. Marathon Oil Co., 767 S.W.2d 686 (Tex. 1989) (holding that one can tortiously interfere with an at-will contract), that the Texas Supreme Court will not do so.
Blasé Industries Corp. v. Anorad Corp., 442 F.3d 235 (5th Cir. 2006).