Non-Compete Enforceability

In this installshutterstock_543904594ment in Seyfarth’s 2016 Trade Secrets Webinar Series, International attorney Dominic Hodson focused on non-compete considerations from an international perspective. Dominic discussed general principals and recent international developments in non-compete issues around the globe. Companies who compete in the global economy should keep in mind these key points:

  • Requirements for enforceable restrictive covenants vary dramatically from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, there are some common requirements and issues regarding enforceability based on the region, particularly in common law jurisdictions such as the UK, Canada (excluding Quebec), Australia/New Zealand, and Singapore/Hong Kong. A restrictive covenant is void unless it is reasonable to protect a legitimate interest of the employer; simply wanting to stop competition post-termination is not a legitimate interest.
  • Outside of common law countries, there is no uniformity in rules, and every country must be taken separately. There are often detailed statutory rules that the clause must fulfill, but nevertheless there are repeating themes: There must be reasonableness to the non-compete agreement, and you must require proportionality between the clause and the interest sought to be protected.
  • With respect to non-common law countries, liquidated damaged are often allowed. Civil law countries tend to be much more forgiving of liquidated damages and don’t have the same rules regarding “penalty clauses.”

shutterstock_444377182According to The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has publicly voiced his support for some restrictions on noncompete agreements, but he does not want to abolish them entirely. Specifically, Governor Baker supports the bill passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives (discussed previously here), but not the far more restrictive bill passed by the Massachusetts Senate (discussed here). According to Governor Baker’s spokesman:

The Governor favors the House version of the noncompete legislation because he believes it better balances workers’ abilities to seek new employment while ensuring cutting edge businesses can protect essential intellectual property. . . . Finding the right compromise on this issue is essential to ensuring innovative businesses want to stay and grow in the Commonwealth.

A conference committee, being led by House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey and Senator Daniel Wolf, with Representatives John Scibak and Jay Barrows and Senators William Brownsberger and Ryan Fattman, will attempt to resolve the differences between the competing bills by the end of the formal legislative session, which wraps up for the year on July 31.

We will be monitoring and will report on any progress in the conference committee this week, so stay tuned.

shutterstock_131276240As we last reported, just a few weeks ago, the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously approved a non-compete bill that revised the original draft bill and addressed some of the business community’s concerns (such as the mandatory garden leave provision, prohibition on judicial reform of overbroad agreements, etc.). However, the Senate yesterday introduced a version that would dramatically curtail the enforceability of non-competes in Massachusetts, making substantial changes to the House’s version (and in some cases, even going beyond the original bill prior to the House’s compromise edits). Most — if not all — of the revisions are sure to concern those companies that use non-competes as one tool to protect their intellectual property:

  • The time limits for non-competes (except in cases where an employee has breached a fiduciary duty or engaged in misappropriation) would be limited to a mere three months, as distinct from the House’s 12 month provision;
  • To be enforceable, an employer must inform the employee of its intention to enforce the non-compete within 10 days of the termination of the employment relationship;
  • All non-competes must be “reviewed” with the employee at least once every 5 years after execution, although it is unclear what this “review” must consist of;
  • The non-compete must be supported by a garden leave clause or other mutually agreed upon consideration — although unlike the House’s version, which required a garden leave provision whereby an employee would receive 50% of his or her annualized salary or other agreed upon consideration (without dictating what the consideration must be), the Senate’s version requires the garden leave and/or other consideration to be equal to or greater than 100% of the employee’s highest annualized earnings within the prior 2 year period (note that earnings can be substantially greater than salary);
  • In addition to the numerous categories of employees that cannot be bound by non-competes under the House’s approved bill, the Senate’s version also prohibits enforcement of non-competes against employees “whose average weekly earnings . . . are less than 2 times the average weekly wage in the commonwealth” (based on the latest figures published by the United States Department of Labor, that would mean that employees making less than approximately $118,000 could not be bound by non-competes);
  • The Senate’s bill would reinstate the provision in the original bill that a court could not judicially reform an overbroad non-compete — a major departure from the current state of the law in Massachusetts (and an about-face from the House’s compromise);
  • The bill would also prohibit a court from relying on the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine to supplement non-competes or render an otherwise unenforceable agreement enforceable;
  • The bill would prohibit any provision that would penalize an employee from defending against or challenging the enforceability of a non-compete agreement (in other words, attorneys’ fees provisions);
  • Finally, Senator Mark Montigny of the Senate’s Committee on Rules has recommended that the bill be declared an “emergency law” — which would mean that if passed, it would go into effect immediately, rather than on October 1.

As previously noted, the current legislative session ends on July 31, so legislators will need to move quickly if this version is to pass. While we noted in our last post that the atmosphere in the Commonwealth seemed favorable to passage of the House’s version, we anticipate that the local business community will strongly voice its opposition to this latest draft.

We will keep you updated as we approach the end of this year’s legislative session…

shutterstock_394290406As a thank you to our valued readers, we are pleased to announce the webinar “Enforcing Non-Compete Provisions in Franchise Agreements” is now available as a podcast and webinar recording.

In Seyfarth’s seventh installment in its series of Trade Secrets Webinars,  Seyfarth attorneys John Skelton, James Yu and Dawn Mertineit focused on the importance of State specific non-compete laws and legislation and recent Federal and State efforts to regulate the use of non-compete agreements; enforcement considerations for the Franchisee when on-boarding and terminating employees; and lessons learned from recent decision regarding enforcing non-compete provisions upon termination and non-renewal.

As a conclusion to this well-received webinar, here are three key takeaway points:

  • As reflected by the May 5, 2016 White House report (Non-Compete Agreements: Analysis of the Usage, Potential Issues, and State Responses), state and federal non-compete legislative proposals and recent enforcement action by the Illinois Attorney General challenging the use of non-compete agreements for lower level employees, Franchisors and Franchisees need to anticipate more regulation and scrutiny.
  • With respect to their own employees, Franchisors and Franchisees need to develop and implement on-Boarding, termination and other procedures designed to ensure that both departing and prospective employees understand their ongoing obligations with respect to the company’s confidential and proprietary information and trade secrets and that such information is protected throughout the employment relationship.
  • The enforceability of non-compete provisions are most often litigated in the context of a request for a preliminary injunction and several recent decisions confirm that to enforce a non-compete against a departing franchisee the franchisor (1) should be able to show harm to actual competition; (2) needs to act promptly and that enforcement delays likely means that any alleged harm is not irreparable; and (3) should develop and implement a post-termination plan beyond simply sending a notice of termination as the franchisor will need to present evidence of actual harm.