In Smith Barney, Inc. v. Darling, No. 09-C-540, 2009 WL 1544756 (E.D. Wis. Jun. 3, 2009), the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin denied Smith Barney’s request for temporary injunctive relief in aid of arbitration against five departing financial consultants and their new employer. Smith Barney sought an injunction to: (1) require the former employees to return all customer information; and (2) prevent the departing employees from soliciting Smith Barney customers. The former employees countered by arguing that the non-solicitation and non-disclosure covenants relied upon by Smith Barney were unenforceable under Wisconsin law. They also argued that they were entitled to retain client contact information.

The District Court agreed with the departing employees on all fronts. It found that the non-disclosure of confidential information provisions were unenforceable because they did not contain time limitations. (Wisconsin and Georgia are the only two states that we are aware of that have such requirements.) It also found that the non-solicitation of customers provisions found in the former employees’ employment agreements were unenforceable because they covered customers “whose name became known” to the former employees during their time at Smith Barney. The Court reasoned that the provision would cover individuals who came into Smith Barney’s office to ask for directions, as well as individuals whom the former employees met at softball games. In fact, the Court went so far as to point out that the restriction covered customers of the departing employees’ new employer – Robert W. Baird & Co. – about whose existence the departing employees learned during their employment with Smith Barney. The Court went on to conclude that additional non-solicitation covenants in various agreements with the five former employees were unenforceable because they covered customers that did not do business with Smith Barney and/or with whom the departing employees had not had contact in years. Because Wisconsin courts do not blue pencil otherwise unenforceable restrictive covenants, these flaws in the provisions were fatal.

The Court also addressed the impact of the Protocol for Broker Recruiting, to which Smith Barney is a signatory. Even though Baird & Co. is not a signatory to the Protocol, the departing employees argued that Smith Barney could not show entitlement to injunctive relief because it had tacitly conceded that departing employees are not a threat by signing the Protocol. Smith Barney countered by noting that some of the accounts at issue were excluded from the Protocol. The Court concluded that Smith Barney’s argument was “not sufficiently developed” to merit an award of temporary injunctive relief. 

Ultimately, the Court ordered the departing employees to return or destroy client account information, but not client names, addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses. The Court did not address explicitly in its published decision whether Smith Barney had shown that some or all of this information constituted a trade secret under Wisconsin law, despite the fact that Smith Barney had pled a claim for trade secret misappropriation against the defendants. The Court did state that Smith Barney could have an evidentiary hearing on an expedited basis, if it chose.