By Dan Hart, Atlanta
Following Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s signing of House Bill 30 (“H.B. 30”) on May 11, Georgia’s Restrictive Covenant Act is now law, effective immediately. The Governor’s signing of the bill caps months of debate and speculation about the effective date of a nearly identical bill that the Legislature enacted in 2009. That legislation, H.B. 173, was contingent on voters’ approval of a ballot referendum to amend the Georgia Constitution – a measure that voters overwhelmingly approved last November. Although the legislature clearly intended the 2009 bill to become effective the day after last November’s election, uncertainty about the effective date of the constitutional amendment raised concerns about the effective date of the statute. Accordingly, the legislature enacted H.B. 30 to fix these problems. (For our previous posts on this issue, see here and here.) The new law thus applies to all restrictive covenants entered into on or after the statute’s May 11 effective date.
The statute effects a sea-change in the law in Georgia, which historically has been an inhospitable forum for employers seeking to enforce restrictive covenants against former employees. Among other changes, the Act creates statutory presumptions under which courts must presume that restraints two years or less in duration are reasonable in time and that restraints more than two years in time are unreasonable. It also eases the drafting requirements for specific restrictive covenants, abolishes the previously existing requirement of a time-restriction for non-disclosure provisions, and creates a statutory burden-shifting regime whereby, if employers can meet an initial burden of showing that restrictive covenants are in compliance with the statute, parties challenging such restrictive covenants bear the burden of establishing that the covenants are unreasonable. Perhaps most significantly, the new law also permits Georgia courts to “blue pencil” (i.e., partially enforce) restrictive covenants that otherwise would be overbroad and, therefore, completely unenforceable under existing Georgia case law.
With the new law now officially enacted, should employers now assume that Georgia courts will always uphold restrictive covenants against their employees? Not exactly. As ESPN’s Lee Corso might say, “Not so fast, my friends!” Employers should continue to exercise caution in this area for at least three reasons:
First, the Restrictive Covenant Act applies only to restrictive covenants entered into on or after May 11, 2011. Existing Georgia case law applies to restrictive covenants entered into on or before November 2, 2010 (the day that Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment upon which the new law depends), and might also apply to restrictive covenants entered into between November 3, 3010 and May 10, 2011. For that reason, employers may continue to face an uphill battle in enforcing restrictive covenants that predate the new law unless they meet the narrow requirements that previously existed under Georgia law.
Second, while the Act permits Georgia courts to partially enforce overbroad restrictive covenants, it does not require that they do so. Until case law develops under the new statute, employers and their lawyers cannot be certain of what situations Georgia courts will exercise or decline to exercise their blue-penciling power. Based on law in other jurisdictions, however, it appears likely that Georgia courts may decline to exercise their blue-penciling power in cases where they believe that employers have unreasonably overreached for the purpose of creating an in terrorem effect on employees. Thus, employers should continue to exercise restraint when drafting restrictive covenants and should avoid drafting unreasonably broad covenants with the expectation that they will be fixed by the courts.
Third, although most provisions of the Act are beneficial to employers, the Act places restrictions on the types of employees who may be subjected to true non-compete provisions (as opposed to non-solicitation or nondisclosure provisions). Such provisions may be enforced only against employees who:
· “Customarily and regularly solicit for the employer customers or prospective customers;”
· “Customarily and regularly engage in making sales or obtaining orders or contracts for products or services to be performed by others;”
· Perform specified management duties (which are set forth in the Act using language that closely follows the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL) definition of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA”) “executive” exemption);
· Perform the duties of a “key employee” (which the Act defines as “ an employee who . . . has gained a high level of influence or credibility with the employer’s customers, vendors, or other business relationships or is intimately involved in the planning for or direction of the business of the employer or a defined unit of the business of the employer” or “an employee in possession of selective or specialized skills, learning, or abilities or customer contacts or customer information who has obtained such skills, learning, abilities, contacts, or information by reason of having worked for the employer”); or
· Perform the duties of a “professional” (which the Act defines using language that closely follows the DOL’s definition of the FLSA’s “professional” exemption.
Before requiring employees to execute new non-compete agreements, employers should ensure that employees who are subject to the restriction fall within one of the definitions included in the statute.
Notwithstanding these necessary precautions, employers might consider revamping their standard restrictive covenants to take full advantage of the changes created by the Act. When undertaking such an effort, employers may want to consider the following issues:
· Are your non-solicitation provisions consistent with the language approved by the Act? The Act provides that “[a]ny reference to a prohibition against ‘soliciting or attempting to solicit business from customers’ or similar language shall be adequate [for non-solicitation restrictions] and narrowly construed to apply only to: (1) such of the employer’s customers, including actively sought prospective customers, with who the employee had material contact; and (2) products and services that are competitive with those provided by the employer’s business.” Because this provision loosens the previously-existing rules for drafting non-solicitation covenants, employers may be able to streamline the language that they use for such covenants.
· Are your definitions of restricted geographic territories and competitive activities consistent with the language approved by the Act? The Act provides that “[a]ctivities, products, or services [covered by a restrictive covenant] shall be considered sufficiently described if a reference to the activities, products, or services is provided and qualified by the phrase ‘of the type conducted, authorized, offered, or provided within two years prior to termination’ or similar language containing the same or a lesser time period.” Likewise, the Act provides that “[t]he phrase ‘the territory where the employee is working at the time of termination’ or similar language shall be considered sufficient as a description of geographic areas if the person or entity bound by the restraint can reasonably determine the maximum reasonable scope of the restraint at the time of termination.” These provisions significantly loosen rules that previously existed for drafting restrictive covenants in Georgia and may likewise provide some employers with an opportunity to streamline their agreements.
· Are your nondisclosure provisions drafted as broadly as reasonable? Existing case law in Georgia requires nondisclosure provisions to bear a reasonable time limitation (usually a period of two years or less) with respect to any information that does not constitute a “trade secret” as defined by relevant law. Consistent with this requirement, many employers in Georgia historically have drafted their nondisclosure covenants to apply to a period of two years or less. Because the Act abolishes the requirement of a time limitation for nondisclosure covenants, employers should consider whether they want to revise the language in their existing nondisclosure covenants.
If you are interested in reviewing your existing restrictive covenant agreements for compliance with the new statute, or if you would like assistance drafting such agreements for your workforce, contact a Seyfarth Shaw Trade Secrets Group attorney.