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Can my former employer sue me if I didn't sign a non-compete or non-solicitation contract/agreement and no paperwork?

Akron, OH |

I recently left my position at a local family owned business due to being asked to resign because I didn't have a touchy feely attitude. I have been the sole in office employee for 2 years and once the owners added in a new office person, decided I wasn't a good fit any longer. From day one with the company I have been helping them "grow" their company to what it is today. Everything from all training of in-field staff to writing the manuals for every department. I have no paperwork on file whatsoever. They never had me fill anything out, sign anything, nothing. However, I was the one that helped in developing the paperwork and forms for the overall company, but never signed anything myself.
I am considering opening my own company now. Do they have anything to stand on in order to sue me?

From my understanding of what people are answering, I do agree that the manuals belong to them. As for opening my own competing business I would create my own documents, logo, trainings, and manuals specific to my own company. The type of company or service would be the same, but I would differentiate it from theirs. My question would be, since I have no offer letter, no files, no paperwork on ever even working for them except a paycheck; can they try to sue my company even if I change those documents?

Attorney Answers 4

Posted

Filing a court action against you is easy. Winning would be the tough part. Talk with a local attorney if you are concerned.

The above is not intended to be legal advice, but may be used for general information. Please contact an attorney for specific help tailored to your needs. www.figgardenlaw.com

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Bruce E. Burdick

Bruce E. Burdick

Posted

See http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/101 and scroll down to the definition of work for hire.

Posted

Yes indeed they have grounds to so you if you use their materials that they authored. And, all the materials you created were authored by the company not you under the definition of work for hire in 17 USC 101. It is if they wrote them not you for all practical legal purposes.

It is likely that if you did not sign any noncompete, you can compete but you cannot compete using their copyrighted materials. You need to come up with completely new forms and paperwork if you want to be sure you are not going to get sued. You also need to come up with a new and distinctive trademark so that you can protect your reputation and establish a unique identity that would be protectable in the long run. The last thing you need right now is legal problems as you start up.

I am not your lawyer and you are not my client. Free advice here is without recourse and any reliance thereupon is at your sole risk. This is done without compensation as a free public service. I am licensed in IL, MO, TX and I am a Reg. Pat. Atty. so advice in any other jurisdiction is strictly general advice and should be confirmed with an attorney licensed in that jurisdiction.

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Bruce E. Burdick

Bruce E. Burdick

Posted

Note: it is not necessary that you sign anything for you to fall under the "work for hire" definition under 17 USC 101. It is implicit in an employer-employee relationship. If you are an independent contractor a written agreement would be needed and other conditions would need to be met, but the default for an employee is that the employer owns all copyrights for materials created by the employee during the course of employment if the materials relate to the business of the employer. This is actually fairly logical because employers must work through employees, and that is how they create works of authorship. See an intellectual property law attorney or employment law attorney in your local jurisdiction for confirmation if you doubt this. Also you can look up the definition of work for hire here www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/101

Posted

Mr. Burdick is correct. Your employer paid you to write manuals, etc... for it. The manuals are their property. Seek legal counsel - they may not win the lawsuit but it will cost everyone an awful lot of time, money and aggravation. Better to put a lid on it legally, with documents this time. Good luck.

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Posted

Q: "I am considering opening my own company now. Do they have anything to stand on in order to sue me?"
R: The answer depends on what kind of new business you open, how you go about starting that business, what you take with you from your former employer, and how you advertise your new business.

As my colleagues note, the "the paperwork and forms" that you created while employed are the property of your former employer. So don't take copies with you. As for the other issues, you need to speak with an employment attorney licensed to practice in Ohio. Good luck.

The above response is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.

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