Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Don't Mess With Texas!": Dancing Coach Jailed for Teaching the Cha Cha

A Texas judge sentenced a dance instructor to a 30-day sentence for violating a court order that enjoined him from teaching dance classes within 25 miles of his former place of employment -- the Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Plano, Texas (a Dallas suburb). This case involved a very standard contract dispute. The former employer argued that the instructor, Eric Rush, violated the terms of a "non-compete" clause in his employment contract, by competing for the dance company's client-base. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, the court held that Rush violated the agreement by "creating a Web site advertising his work, posting Craigslist notices offering his services and contacting Arthur Murray students." The court ruled for the employer and ordered Rush to "to discontinue any Web sites, quit soliciting Arthur Murray customers and refrain from working with area dance studios until the end of 2009." Rush apparently violated the injunction by teaching the "cha cha" to a client at another local dance company.

My take: Non-compete clauses are standard fair, but many courts and employee advocates believe they can go too far in restraining the liberty of workers. Several states will refuse to enforce the clauses if they are unreasonable as to scope or duration. I have not seen the particular contract, so it is impossible for me to analyze it thoroughly, but based on the news articles, it seemed reasonable enough -- at least on the apparent requirement that Rush not solicit clients of his former employer. That's the essence of non-competition.

But even if the contract itself were reasonable, the court's injunction and its contempt ruling might go too far. Restraining internet usage raises First Amendment issues and basic concerns with practicality. Even if the 25-mile restriction is a fair reading of the contract (or even an explicit term in the contract), preventing Rush from advertising on the web probably makes it nearly impossible for Rush to establish an independent client base, not to mention a client base that does not live within the geographic scope of the injunction.

The 30-day jail sentence for contempt seems a bit over-the-top as well. Many judges would have simply fined Rush. Perhaps the court could have required him to turn over the proceeds he earned while violating the injunction. The stakes just do not seem high enough to warrant such a harsh penalty. I am inclined to agree with Rush's lawyer who analogizes the sentence to "killing a fly with a bazooka." But as a former Texas resident, I remember seeing sentences that seemed excessive to me quite frequently -- thus proving the old saying: "Don't Mess With Texas" (which actually originated as a slogan for an anti-littering campaign, not a statement of raw Texas toughness).

[Hutchinson: Sorry, I am now guilty of using the slightly misleading headline technique, but I hope you enjoyed reading the essay.]


Anonymous said...

Would you still think the punishment was too harsh if you knew that Rush had violated the court order 3 separate times? He wasn't jailed for violating the non-compete, but rather for violating a court order. Most of us don't get three bites at that apple before jail!

Anonymous said...

There is only on reason the Plano Studio pursued Eric. Eric must possess a raw talent such as charisma, creativity and pure honest sales strategies that the owners of Arthur Murray could not compete against. I even heard that this studio has 12 instructors in it and still they chose to feel threatened by him. Doesn't say much on the faith of thier own service.

I have heard nothing but bad sales pressure techniques from Arthur Murray Dance Studio Plano. I hear that Zach Stevens and Claudia Knoche hid stuff from thier employees all the time...?

Real Time Analytics