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Judge Kenneth Romines’ promotion creates challenges for non-compete litigants in St. Louis County Court
In this article, I intend to discuss some changes to the way that St. Louis County Courts handle “Equity” cases. This issue mostly touches on how Non-Compete cases are handled, in the employment law context.
I cannot say with any certainty whether the changes benefit employers or employees more. It might be a complete wash, where both sides are equally effected.
A capsule summary of the changes: We used to have a special judge who was assigned to hear all “equity cases”. This judge was our Equity Expert. But he got promoted to the Court of Appeals.
Rather than assign another judge to be the “Equity Expert”, the County Court decided to let ALL judges hear equity cases, the same as they hear all kinds of other cases.
Before I discuss what this might mean, I want to introduce you to the concept of Equity.
“Equity” differs from “the civil law” as regards the remedies the judge can impose. In a civil lawsuit, we usually seek money as damages – and the civil law provides a mechanism (a trial by jury) for us to seek such damages. But what if we need to have a judge order that someone do something, or stop doing something?
When we ask a judge to order that someone do something (other than pay money) or stop doing something, we are asking for “Equity”, rather than money damages. The Wikipedia link above offers the example of a plaintiff whose neighbor will not return his only milk cow, where the man wants his cow back rather than the value of the cow. A court of “equity” can order the neighbor to return the cow.
The type of equity case I most often deal with is the Non-Compete. case. Most commonly, an employer is suing a former employee for allegedly violating a non-compete agreement, and is trying to get an “Equity Judge” to issue an injunction prohibiting the employee from competing.
Judge Romines was promoted to the Court of Appeals. Here is his bio page: Judge Kenneth Romines.
Judge Romines was a great equity judge. I do not mean that he was overly friendly to my clients’ positions. I mean that he knew the law very well, and he knew the tricks lawyers pulled, and he knew how to efficiently drill down to the core issues and facts in equity cases. And then he made well reasoned decisions (like them or not).
With Judge Romines, we knew what we would have to show in order to have a decent chance of getting a ruling in our favor. We knew what he would ask us at the hearing, and we could be prepared to address his concerns.
Likewise, we knew when our circumstances would likely be a loser in front of Judge Romines, so we could be governed accordingly and often avoid litigation. Our clients benefited.
Imagine a full courtroom early in the morning. Litigants and lawyers fill the room awaiting the start of “docket call” in Judge Romines’ courtroom. People with all manner of disputes are waiting to ask Judge Romines to issue orders to make someone honor a roofing contract, or make someone trim a tree or something.
The bailiff calls the courtroom to order. Judge Romines takes the bench.
Judge Romines is a great raconteur, and an effective and efficient legal pragmatist. He loves to tell stories, and his stories are full of humor. He often brought his humor into the courtroom. He would begin to address the crowd —–.
(The following is a paraphrasing of an actual speech I heard Judge Romines deliver to the docket one day:)
Who am I?
What do I know about roofs?
I studied law, not construction.
I’ve never replaced a roof.
Oh, I’ll be happy to listen to both of you.
And after I listen, I’ll go and consult the oracles. [Yes, he actually says such things]
And then I WILL make a decision.
And one or both of you will be very unhappy.
But you don’t want ME making the decision, I assure you, because I don’t know anything.
Here’s what you should do – Go out into that hallway, and you offer to pay a little more money, or you offer to do a little more, and you get this dispute settled, because you probably won’t like what I’m going to do.
You’ve got to respect Judge Romines’ approach. He was uniquely effective.
So, we have many people hearing equity cases now. Each judge will have his or her own unique background and interest as regards Non-Competes. Maybe some judges will have a great deal of knowledge about that area of law, or maybe not.
Maybe some judges will be philosophically opposed to issuing injunctions that prevent employees from working. Or maybe some judges will be reluctant to deny injunctions, thinking that there’s little harm in issuing an injunction for a short period (until a formal hearing in two weeks) .
The chance is small that a lawyer is going to see a particular judge, sitting on a non-compete case, with sufficient frequency to become confident about how the judge will view a particular set of circumstances.
And so, we have less ability to predict what an equity judge is likely to do nowadays, in Non-Compete cases.
This lack of certainty means greater risk for our clients. It’s certainly possible that *some* Non-Compete cases will be easier to settle due to the uncertainty. But it’s equally possible that *some* Non-Compete cases will go to court now, rather than settle, because one party wishes to try their luck with the new judges (whereas they would have been confident that Judge Romines would have ruled against them).
Actually, it’s probably a good thing that the court is spreading around the responsibility to handle equity cases. I would have hated to see Judge Romines be replaced by a judge whose decisions I did not particularly respect. I would then have been stuck with that judge for many years, to the detriment of my clients. At least now, my clients will have plenty of opportunity to get a fair shake, even though an occasional judge will be unsatisfactory.
Article written by | Tim Willoughby
Maintained by Attorney Phil Willoughby
Founded by Tim Willoughby, Esq. (1959-2013)
Phil is a Missouri employment lawyer who is licensed to practice in Kansas and Missouri, and primarily takes cases in Saint Louis and Kansas City. He is a member of the Missouri Bar Association and Kansas Bar Association. Additionally, he has practiced in the United States Federal Courts of Missouri in St. Louis and Kansas City. He has also practiced in the Kansas Federal District Court in Kansas City, Kansas.
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