Mass Law Blog

An Oral Agreement is Only as Good as the Paper It's Written On

by | Feb 2, 2009

You’ve got to wonder what Steelcraft was thinking when it decided to file a lawsuit against its former employee, James Hensel.

It’s hard enough to enforce a written noncompete agreement, much less an oral agreement, but that’s what Steelcraft tried to do in this case. The absence of a written agreement didn’t deter Steelcraft, which sought a preliminary injunction against Hensel. Steelcraft was able to allege nothing more than an “oral” noncompete agreement. One of several requirements for enforceability of a noncompete agreement is that it be reasonable in duration and geographic scope, and even though Steelcraft alleged an oral agreement, it said nothing about that element, rendering the agreement unenforceable in the eyes of Worcester County Superior Court Judge Richard T. Tucker.

Steelcraft also alleged that Hensel had taken Steelcraft trade secrets (the decision doesn’t discuss precisely what these were), but once again its argument was rejected on the grounds that it had failed to establish that it had properly protected the alleged secrets.  For good measure, the judge noted that Steelcraft had failed to enter into a confidentiality agreement with the former employee.

There’s a bit more to this case (favorable to Hensel, harmful to Steelcraft), but the point is made: if you fail even to get a written noncompete agreement from your employee, don’t expect that you’ll be able to stop him from competing based on an oral agreement. “He said – She said” just doesn’t work here.

To read the full decision in Steelcraft v. Mobi Medical click here.