In Spring 2011, the Georgia legislature passed a new restrictive covenant statute, which, for the first time, allowed Georgia courts in reviewing non-competition agreements between employer and employee to blue-pencil or “modify a covenant that is otherwise void and unenforceable so long as the modification does not render the covenant more restrictive with regard to the employee than as originally drafted by the parties.” O.C.G.A. § 13-8-53(d). Since the new Georgia statute only applies to agreements executed after its enactment, there has been limited litigation concerning the meaning and scope of this provision.
Most of the litigation between 2011 and the present has involved requests by a party that the Court strike an offending provision in a non-compete agreement. Recently, the Northern District of Georgia was given the opportunity to determine whether Georgia’s blue-pencil provision also gives Georgia courts the authority to modify an unenforceable non-compete provision. In LifeBrite Labs., LLC v. Cooksey, No. 1:15-CV-4309-TWT, 2016 WL 7840217, at *1 (N.D. Ga. Dec. 9, 2016), the former employer, LifeBrite, sued its former employee, Cooksey, after she began working for a competitor company. Cooksey’s non-compete provision provided as follows:
7.2. Non-Competition. For as long as she is employed and for a period of one (1) year thereafter, employee shall not participate, directly or indirectly, as an owner, employee, consultant, office management position, in any proprietorship, corporation, partnership, limited liability company or other entity, engaged in any laboratory testing that is being sold by employee on behalf of company.
The Northern District of Georgia found that this provision was overbroad and unenforceable as it did not contain any geographic limitation. Consequently, the Court considered whether or not Georgia’s blue-pencil rules allowed it to modify the non-compete provision to insert a reasonable geographic limitation. In reasoning through the analysis, the Court referred to pre-2011 cases in which Georgia courts interpreted a similar non-compete provision in the context of sale of business agreements. In those cases, Georgia courts held that the blue-pencil marks but it does not write. Thus, the NDGA declined to enforce Cooksey’s non-compete and held that in applying Georgia’s blue-pencil statute, “courts may not completely reform and rewrite contracts by supplying new and material terms from whole cloth.”
The NDGA also noted that Georgia’s employers are “sophisticated entities” which “have the ability to research the law in order to write enforceable contracts; courts should not have to remake their contracts in order to correct their mistakes.” This case is simply further caution to Georgia employers to review their non-competition agreements for overbreadth, vagueness, and the absence of essential limiting terms. As always, the attorneys at Seyfarth Shaw LLP are available to assist in these endeavors.
The LifeBrite Laboratories, LLC v. Cooksey case was dismissed with prejudice on January 25, 2017.