By Kate Perrelli and Erik Weibust

On October 7, 2009, the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development held a hearing on a non-compete bill, House No. 1799, sponsored by Representatives Will Brownsberger and Lori Ehrlich. Representatives Brownsberger and Ehrlich had each previously sponsored their own independent bills – Brownsberger’s based on California’s statute that bans non-compete agreements altogether, and Ehrlich’s based on Oregon’s statute that permits non-compete agreements with certain restrictions. The two Representatives have spent a considerable amount of time and energy over the past few months crafting a compromise bill, relying on input from proponents and opponents of non-compete agreements, including industry leaders, employees, trade associations, and attorneys. Several of these people testified before the committee about the need for predictability in the area of restrictive covenants — for both employers and employees — and the need to balance the interest of employer’s in protecting their confidential information, trade secrets, and goodwill, with those of employees in being able to switch jobs freely. Although this compromise bill in some respects codifies Massachusetts common law, there are four provisions in particular that warrant further review and refinement:

  • The bill prohibits enforcement of non-compete agreements against employees who make less than $75,000 per year. One concern with this provision is that start-up companies often pay their employees lower salaries until they are able to obtain greater financing, yet provide them with as much, if not more, confidential information and trade secrets than higher paid employees at other companies. The bill ignores this scenario. In addition, there is no method in the bill for determining whether companies that pay hourly wages to their employees, such as staffing agencies, are subject to the law, as it is difficult to determine whether an employee will make more than $75,000 in a given year when they begin their employment, which is when they would be required to execute a non-compete agreement. The bill makes no exception or accommodation for these types of companies or others that would be adversely impacted by the $75,000 minimum.
  • The bill limits non-compete agreements to one year, with the exception of a garden leave clause provision, pursuant to which the employer would pay the employee to sit on the sidelines for the term of the restriction. Courts in the Commonwealth often enforce as reasonable two-year non-compete agreements, and in some limited instances, for longer. A one year limitation may be insufficient in many situations. 
  • Attorneys’ fees are mandatory for successful defendant-employees, yet they are merely permissive for successful plaintiff-employers, and are to be awarded only in the latter situation if the employer can show that the employee acted with bad faith, a very subjective standard. Moreover, an employee also receives attorneys’ fees if he or she files a declaratory judgment action challenging his or her non-compete agreement, provided that two days before doing so, the employee provides the former employer with specific measures that the employee would take to protect the employer’s confidential business interests, which measures are substantially adopted by a court as part of a hearing on preliminary injunctive relief. Again, this provision may place undue pressure on a start-up to accept an employee’s proposal to avoid incurring legal fees.   
  • The bill rejects the inevitable disclosure doctrine, under which it is presumed that an employee who had access to a significant amount of confidential information and trade secrets will disclose that information, even if unintentionally, to his or her new employer. This doctrine plays the important role of acting as a backstop to non-compete agreements, or as the only protection where no non-compete agreement is executed, and is necessary to further protect employers against disclosure by such employees. Complete obliteration of this doctrine will affect certain industries more dramatically than others.

Kudos to the legislators, and the group that they enlisted to fashion this compromise bill.  Massachusetts has stepped back, at least for the time being, from the precipice of following California’s legislature’s path in banning non-competes altogether, and instead, has taken a big step forward to provide more clarity to a very complex, fact-specific area of Massachusetts law. There are steps left to be taken, but the current debate is healthy and productive.