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Restaurants duel over chef's noncompete agreement

Baton Rouge readers who have followed previous discussions about the broad and growing application of noncompete agreements in various trades and professions may take interest in a story that has two restaurants squared off over a popular local chef. The parties' differing viewpoints illustrate some of the reasons why drafting and enforcing noncompete agreements can sometimes present one of the most challenging aspects of employment law.

The underlying facts seem simple enough. In 2011, Three Birds Tavern hired local chef Domenica Macchia to lend its kitchen her particular flair for embellishing traditional comfort foods. The chef came with a history of brief, but attention-getting stints at several other local restaurants. In October, 2012, the chef left the tavern to head the kitchen at Beak's Old Florida, a bar and grill also located in the city of St. Petersburg.

Earlier this month, the owners of the tavern filed a lawsuit naming both the chef and her new employer as defendants. The tavern owners accuse the chef of violating the terms of her noncompete agreement and allege that the owner of the bar and grill unlawfully induced the chef to violate her agreement. According to the tavern owners, the noncompete agreement prohibits the chef from working for a competitor in the same county until March, 2014.

The chef claims that she did not realize she was signing a noncompete agreement when she went to work for the tavern. After 10 months of unemployment and financial hardship, she says that she would have signed anything. She also says that she left the tavern due to demands that she work against doctors' orders and mistreatment by management.

The bar and grill owner claims to have had no knowledge of any agreement when he hired the chef. He also asserts that his establishment is not really a competitor of the tavern because it offers an entirely different theme and ambience.

Although the terms of the noncompete agreement seem clear, factual disputes may pose challenges to enforcement. All parties involved may need competent legal counsel to reach a fair resolution to the ongoing employment litigation.

Source: Tampa Bay Online, "Restaurants' lawsuit over St. Pete chef heating up," Kate Bradshaw, Jan. 17, 2013

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