On August 7, 2008, in Edwards v. Arthur Andersen LLP, No. S147190, the California Supreme Court seemingly ruled that Section 16600 of the Business and Professions Code prohibits every attempt by an employer to enforce a non-competition agreement. The court indicated that the only exceptions are those expressly set forth in the statute (agreements in connection with the sale or dissolution of a business).

The same day, a class-action complaint was filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court, Vokes, et al. v. Central Garden & Pet Co., No. C 08-01994, that could test the reach of the Edwards decision.  Plaintiffs are asking the court to invalidate a non-compete agreement signed by Vokes when he became Central Garden’s Senior VP Sales and Trade Relations and, on behalf of all all Central Gardens employees, seeking to invalidate all of Central Gardens’ non-compete agreements as violating Section 16600 and related California statutes.

For more than 20 years prior to going to work for Central Gardens, Vokes had been employed by Doskocil, a competitor of Central Gardens. When he left in January 2007, he was VP of Sales. Upon becoming employed by Central Gardens as its Senior VP Sales and Trade Relations, he signed a non-compete agreement. It provided for 24 months of paid post-termination “independent contractor” status (according to the complaint, however, the compensation amount was “a small fraction of his wages as [a Central Gardens] employee”). The agreement mandated non-competitor employment and non-customer solicitation, in virtually any geographic market served by Central Gardens’ market, during and for the 12 months following the “independent contractor” period.

In July 2008, Vokes resigned from Central Gardens and returned to Doskocil, in Texas. Central Gardens immediately sued in Texas to enforce the agreement and obtained a TRO (according to the Contra Costa County complaint, ex parte and without notice) against Vokes and Doskocil. They then filed the Contra Costa County complaint.

Whether the Contra Costa County court will adjudicate the complaint or will stay the action in light of the earlier-filed Texas complaint is uncertain. Also unclear is whether the Contra Costa County Court will certify the class and whether the agreement might be enforceable at least during the 24-months “independent contractor” period. The outcome of this case, if it proceeds, will be interesting.