In Coleman v. Retina Consultants, P.C., the Georgia Supreme Court reversed a trial court’s decision to enjoin a former employee based on his non-compete provision, but it upheld the injunction to the extent that it prevented the employee from using his former employer’s trade secrets. The case is especially interesting from a factual perspective, as it covers the increasingly common situation of an employee and employer disputing ownership of software developed over the course of employment. The relevant facts as follows:

Retina Consultants is a medical practice specializing in retina surgery. Retina Consultants hired Brendan Coleman as a software engineer in 2000. When Coleman joined Retina Consultants, he already had written and marketed a medical billing program called Clinex.  While employed by Retina Consultants, Coleman, with the assistance of the doctors who worked for Retina Consultants, modified his Clinex program to suit Retina Consultants’s specific business needs. Coleman integrated Retina Consultants’s trade secrets and confidential information into the new program, which was named Clinex-RE. Clinex-RE integrated electronic medical records, image storage, and a billing software component. Clinex and Clinex-RE are different programs, but Clinex-RE only works in conjunction with Clinex.

In 2003, Coleman and Retina Consultants entered into a Software Agreement that set forth that Retina Consultants owned Clinex-RE, Coleman owned Clinex, and that Retina Consultants had a non-exclusive license to use and sell Clinex. The Software Agreement also contained a non-compete provision stating that “Coleman will not distribute, vend or license to any ophthalmologist or optometrist the Clinex software or any computer application competitive with the Clinex-RE software without the written consent of Retina Consultants.”

Shortly before resigning on November 24, 2008, Coleman removed all applicable encryption keys and source and access codes for Clinex, along with any manual/installation instructions. After his resignation, Coleman attempted to license Clinex and Clinex-RE to other ophthalmologists; refused to disclose to Retina Consultants the passwords required to use Clinex and Clinex-RE software; refused to provide copies to Retina Consultants of all documentation in his possession and control relating to the programming and use of the software; refused to return to Retina Consultants copies of the Clinex-RE software; used Retina Consultants’s trade secrets; and took funds from a bank account belonging to a business set up jointly by Retina Consultants and Coleman. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the trial court was influenced by Coleman’s pre- and post-resignation behavior when it elected to enjoin Coleman in a broad fashion based on the non-compete provision.

Coleman appealed directly to the Georgia Supreme Court, which held unsurprisingly that the non-compete provision was unenforceable because it lacked geographic or temporal terms. However, the Supreme Court decided that the Clinex-RE package was a trade secret belonging to Retina Consultants, so Coleman could be enjoined from using it. Coleman could not be enjoined from using Clinex, because that was his property. Thus, the Supreme Court found that the trial court erred when it enjoined Coleman from retaining Clinex encryption keys, access codes, source codes, manual/installation instructions, passwords, and documentation. In the end, Retina Consultants was able to prevent Coleman from using the software that it owned, but the trial court went too far in stopping Coleman from using his software and in enforcing a limitless non-compete provision. 

The case illustrates the fact that the statutory protections of an applicable trade secret statute can act as a useful backstop in the event that a non-compete provision is unenforceable.