By Robert Milligan, Kurt Kappes and James McNairy

The California Supreme Court released its highly anticipated decision in Edwards v. Arthur Andersen LLP  today and held that employee non-competition agreements are invalid, even if narrowly drawn, unless the agreement falls within a statutory exception. 

In doing so, the Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s narrow restraint exception, which excepted the prohibition contained in Business and Professions section 16600 on non-competition agreements where one was barred from pursuing only a small part or limited part of the business, trade or profession.

In its decision, the Court limited its review to two issues:

1)      To what extent does Business and Professions Code section 16600 prohibit employee non-competition agreements;

2)      Is a contract provision requiring an employee to release “any and all” claims unlawful because it encompasses nonwaivable statutory protections, such as the employee indemnity protection of Labor Code section 2802.

The Court concluded that Business and Professions Section 16600 prohibits employee non-competition agreements unless the agreement falls within the applicable statutory exceptions of sections 16601, 16602, or 16602.5. The Court also held that a contract provision whereby an employee releases “any and all” claims does not encompass nonwaivable statutory protections, such as the employee indemnity protection of Labor Code section 2802.

On the first issue, the Court found that California state courts have consistently affirmed that section 16600 evinces a settled legislative policy in favor of open competition and employee mobility. Section 16660 states: “Except as provided in this chapter, every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.” (emphasis added) The chapter excepts non-competition agreements in the sale or dissolution of corporations (§ 16601), partnerships (§ 16602), and limited liability corporations (§ 16602.5). 

The Court noted that it had previously invalidated an otherwise narrowly tailored agreement as an improper restraint under section 16600 because it required a former employee to forfeit his pension rights on commencing work for a competitor (citing Muggill v. Reuben H. Donnelley Corp. (1965) 62 Cal.2d 239, 242-243). The Court, quoting Muggill, stated section 16600 invalidates provisions in employment contracts and retirement pension plans that prohibit “an employee from working for a competitor after completion of his employment or imposing a penalty if he does so unless they are necessary to protect the employer’s trade secrets.”

The two clauses at issue in Edwards’ agreement with Andersen provided:

1)      If you leave the Firm, for eighteen months after release or resignation, you agree not to perform professional services of the type you provided for any client on which you worked during the eighteen months prior to release or resignation. This does not prohibit you from accepting employment with a client. 

2)      For twelve months after you leave the Firm, you agree not to solicit (to perform professional services of the type you provided) any client of the office(s) [Los Angeles] to which you were assigned during the eighteen months preceding release or resignation. 

Andersen argued that the Court should interpret the term “restrain” under section 16600 to mean simply to “prohibit,” so that only contracts that totally prohibit an employee from engaging in his or her profession, trade, or business are illegal. 

The Court rejected that argument and found that Andersen’s non-competition agreement was invalid because the two specific clauses at issue in the agreement restricted Edwards from performing work for Andersen’s Los Angeles clients and therefore restricted his ability to practice his accounting profession. 

Earlier in the decision, the Court expressly stated it did not address the applicability of the “so-called trade secret exception to section 16660.” Before the Supreme Court granted the petition for review in Edwards, the lower appellate court’s decision remanded the case to the trial court to determine if the trade secret exception applied, i.e. the non-competition agreement was necessary to protect trade secrets. The Court’s disposition indicates that the issue is closed though and that there will be no such remand to the trial court:

We hold that the noncompetition agreement here is invalid under section 16600, and we reject the narrow-restraint exception urged by Andersen. Noncompetition agreements are invalid under section 16600 in California even if narrowly drawn, unless they within the applicable statutory exceptions of sections 16601, 16602, or 16602.5

Andersen asked the Court to adopt the limited or “narrow-restraint” exception to section 16600. The Court noted that confusion over the Ninth Circuit’s application of section 16600 arose in a paragraph in the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Campbell v. Trustees of Leland Stanford Jr. Univ. (9th Cir. 1987) 817 F.2d 499, in which the Ninth Circuit stated that some California state courts have excepted application of section 16600 “where one is barred from pursuing only a small or limited part of the business, trade or profession” (citing Boughton v. Socony Mobil Oil Co. (1964) 231 Cal.App.2d 188 and King v. Gerold (1952) 109 Cal.App.2d 316). The Court found that the reasoning in these state court cases does not provide persuasive support for adopting the narrow restraint exception because Boughton involved the use of land, not a restriction upon a plaintiff’s practice of a profession, and King relied upon a trade secret exception to the statutory rule. 

The Court acknowledged that recent Ninth Circuit cases have followed Campbell to create a narrow-restraint exception to section 16600 in federal court. The Court stated that California state courts have not embraced the Ninth Circuit’s narrow restraint exception and stated “no reported California state court decision has endorsed the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning, and we are of the view that California courts have been clear in their expression that section 16660 represents a strong public policy of the state which should not be diluted by judicial fiat” (citing Scott v. Snelling and Snelling, Inc. (N.D. Cal. 1990) 732 F. Supp. 1034, 1042).

In sum, while the Court’s decision clearly states California does not recognize a “narrow restraint” exception to the general rule that employee non-competition agreements are invalid, the Court did not specifically address when non-solicitation of customer and employee clauses are permissible to protect trade secrets. 

The San Francisco Chronicle also has posted an article about this case.