My Business Partner Took our Clients and Started Their Own Business – What Can I Do?

Business Partner

When a business partner decides to take clients and start their own business, it can feel like a significant betrayal and a serious threat to the stability and success of your current business. In Florida, as in many jurisdictions, there are legal and practical steps you can take to address this situation. The specific actions you can take depend on the circumstances, including the legal structure of your business, any agreements you and your partner may have signed, and the specific actions your partner has taken. Here's some tips on navigating this challenging scenario.

Legal Considerations

  1. Review of Agreements
    • What to Look For: Examine partnership agreements for clauses that outline the process and repercussions for dissolution, breaches, and competition. Look for non-compete and non-disclosure agreements that specifically restrict your partner's ability to start a competing business or solicit clients. Assess client contracts for any exclusivity clauses or provisions that may have been violated.
    • Key Questions for Your Attorney: Ask how enforceable these agreements are in Florida, what specific breaches have occurred, and what remedies are available to you.
  2. Non-Compete Clauses
  • What to Look For: The duration, geographic limitations, and scope of the business activities restricted by the non-compete clause. Florida Statute § 542.335 requires such agreements to protect legitimate business interests, including substantial relationships with specific prospective or existing customers.
  • Key Questions for Your Attorney: Inquire about the likelihood of enforcing the non-compete clause against your partner and the process for doing so. Discuss potential defenses your partner might raise and how to counteract them.
  1. Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)
    • What to Look For: Details regarding what constitutes confidential information, the duration of the NDA, and any breach penalties. Verify if your partner had access to trade secrets or proprietary information that is now being used competitively.
    • Key Questions for Your Attorney: How can you prove the information was confidential and that a breach occurred? What remedies are available, and what evidence is required to support your claim?
  2. Duty of Loyalty
  • What to Look For: Evidence of your partner using partnership resources for their benefit or directly competing with the partnership before its dissolution. This could include soliciting clients while still a part of the business.
  • Key Questions for Your Attorney: What constitutes a breach of the duty of loyalty in Florida? How can you demonstrate that your partner’s actions damaged the business?
  1. Theft of Trade Secrets
  • What to Look For: Unauthorized use of business secrets that are not generally known to the public and derive economic value from being confidential. This includes client lists, business strategies, and proprietary processes.
  • Key Questions for Your Attorney: What constitutes a trade secret under the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act (FUTSA)? How can you prove misappropriation or unauthorized use of these secrets?

Practical Steps

  1. Gather Evidence

What to Gather: Communications with your partner that suggest their intent or actions to compete, any evidence of them soliciting clients, financial records showing a loss of business, and documentation of the proprietary nature of the information they took.

  1. Communicate with Clients

How to Approach: Contact clients professionally to express your commitment to their satisfaction and the ongoing value your business provides. Avoid disparaging your former partner, as this can backfire legally and reputationally.

  1. Seek Legal Counsel

What to Do: Find an attorney with experience in business disputes and partnership law in Florida. Prepare all relevant documents and evidence for your consultation.

  1. Consider Mediation

Why and How: Mediation can be a less adversarial and more cost-effective option. It involves a neutral third party helping you reach a voluntary, negotiated resolution. Ask your attorney about this possibility and the likelihood of a favorable outcome.

Strategies to Minimize Future Risks

Addressing the immediate situation is paramount, but equally important is taking steps to minimize the risk of similar occurrences in future business endeavors. Here’s how you can protect your business interests and prevent potential conflicts with partners or employees moving forward, especially within the context of Florida's legal framework.

  1. Comprehensive Legal Agreements
    • Detail Needed: Ensure that all business agreements—including partnership agreements, employment contracts, non-compete clauses, and NDAs—are detailed and cover potential areas of dispute. These documents should clearly define roles, responsibilities, the scope of confidentiality, and the limitations on competition post-employment or partnership.
    • Key Considerations: Work with a legal professional to tailor these agreements to your business needs while ensuring they comply with Florida law, particularly regarding the enforceability of non-compete agreements. See Florida Statute § 542.335).
  2. Regular Review and Updates of Legal Documents
    • Process: Business agreements should not be static. As your business evolves, so too should your contracts. Regularly review and update these documents to reflect changes in your business structure, strategy, and the legal landscape.
    • Action Item: Schedule annual or bi-annual reviews with a legal professional to ensure all documents are up to date and provide adequate protection.
  3. Clear Dispute Resolution Mechanisms
    • Structure: Incorporate clear, predefined mechanisms for resolving disputes within your partnership or business agreements. This can include mediation and arbitration clauses that outline a process for addressing disagreements before escalating to litigation.
    • Benefit: These mechanisms can provide a faster, less costly, and more amicable way to resolve disputes, preserving business relationships and the company's reputation.
  4. Proper Onboarding and Training
    • Importance: Educate new partners and employees about the importance of confidentiality, the specifics of any non-compete agreements, and their role in protecting the company's proprietary information.
    • Implementation: Develop an onboarding program that includes training on these topics, and ensure that all staff understand the legal and ethical obligations they are under.
  5. Implementation of Security Measures
    • Data Protection: Employ physical and digital security measures to protect sensitive information, including client lists, financial data, and business strategies. This includes secure servers, access controls, and regular audits.
    • Employee Access: Limit access to sensitive information to those who need it to perform their job functions, and track access to this information as a deterrent to potential misuse.
  6. Culture of Transparency and Communication
    • Fostering Openness: Build a company culture where open communication is encouraged, and concerns can be raised without fear of retribution. Regular meetings and feedback sessions can help identify and address grievances early.
    • Preventing Disputes: A transparent culture can help prevent misunderstandings and disputes that might otherwise escalate into more significant issues, including litigation.
  7. Exit Strategies and Succession Planning
  • Planning: Include clear exit strategies and succession planning in your partnership agreements. This planning should cover scenarios such as retirement, voluntary departure, and other circumstances that might lead to a partner leaving the business.
  • Outcome: Having a plan in place can minimize disruptions and conflicts when transitions occur, ensuring the business remains stable and continuity is maintained.


Discovering that a business partner has taken clients to start their own venture is a challenging and stressful situation. While daunting, it is not insurmountable. By understanding your legal rights and options, gathering evidence, and seeking professional advice, you can take steps to protect your business and potentially recover damages. Remember, each situation is unique, so personalized legal advice is indispensable. If you have questions or need advice on your partnership dispute, contact the Business lawyers at MSD Business for a free consultation.

About the Author:

A person in a suit and tie

Description automatically generated Chase Carpenter is a partner in the Business Division of Law Offices of Moffa, Sutton, & Donnini, P.A.. His practice revolves around business transactions and business litigation. Mr. Carpenter handles a wide range of cases including contract drafting, partnership disputes, commercial leases, and construction litigation. These cases encompass diverse industries, including healthcare, technology, real estate investment, and government contracting.

About the Firm:

The Law Offices of Moffa, Sutton, & Donnini, P.A., also known as MSD Business, is a local business law firm in Tampa, FL, serving clients throughout Fort Lauderdale and statewide. Our firm has a long history of helping clients navigate all types of complex legal matters, including local and state tax issues. In our business law practice, we assist clients with everything from mergers and acquisitions to contract disputes, business litigation, general counsel, and more.