Florida Court Upholds Non-Compete Agreement Against St. Petersburg Chef

In January, the Three Birds Tavern, a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida, sued its former employee, chef Domenica Macchia, for breaching a non-compete agreement.  Macchia, a well-known chef in north Florida, worked briefly for Three Birds before jumping ship to go work for another local restaurant called Beak’s Old Florida.  At the time the lawsuit was filed, I gave the plaintiff’s maybe a 10% chance of success.  Some other practitioners chimed in and suggested that the plaintiff’s case might be legitimate— there could be secret recipes at issue or secret cooking techniques.

Let me be clear:  The complaint contains no actual allegations that Macchia had access to trade secrets or confidential information or that she has stolen such materials.   In fact, the section of the complaint titled Factual Allegations does not suggest that even one legitimate business interest is at issue.  Instead, in laying out the facts of the dispute, the plaintiff basically raises the following issues:  (1) Macchia signed a non-compete agreement with Three Birds and is now working for a competing restaurant and (2) Macchia was supposed to create a new menu for Three Birds and train the staff, but failed to do so.

But then, when you reach the actual counts of the complaint, the plaintiff pulls out the standard boilerplate language:  An injunction is necessary to protect Three Birds’ “menu item recipes and procedures, valuable confidential business information and customer goodwill.”  Again, Three Birds does not actually allege that Macchia had access to secret recipes or stole secret recipes.   Three Birds does not indicate, in any concrete terms, what valuable confidential information they are talking about.   This is the sort of vague, unsubstantiated claim of confidential information that courts have rejected time and again.  But not the Circuit Court for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Pinellas County, Florida.

In a tersely worded opinion, the Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction, holding

Plaintiff ‘s Verified Complaint, and the accompanying Motion For Injunctive Relief, state a claim that has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.

The Court’s order contained no discussion of the legitimate business interest that supported enforcement of the non-compete agreement.  Further, the Court’s order contained no discussion of irreparable harm.  As it turns out, the underlying employment agreement actually addressed the issue of damages:  The agreement contained a buyout provision:  Either party could pay a liquidated sum to buy out the remaining term.  Basically, the agreement, on its face, makes clear that money damages are an adequate remedy.  In spite of these considerations, the Sixth Judicial Circuit entered an order barring Macchia from working for any restaurant in Pinellas County.