Non-Compete Enforceability

According to a March 26, 2020, News Release issued by the Department of Labor (“DOL”), initial unemployment claims in the United States soared to a seasonally adjusted 3.3 million the week ending March 21, 2020, the greatest single week increase in recorded history, primarily because of layoffs resulting from COVID-19. Indeed, the DOL reports that:

During the week ending March 21, the increase in initial claims are due to the impacts of the COVID-19 virus. Nearly every state providing comments cited the COVID-19 virus impacts. States continued to cite services industries broadly, particularly accommodation and food services. Additional industries heavily cited for the increases included the health care and social assistance, arts, entertainment and recreation, transportation and warehousing, and manufacturing industries.

Some researchers estimate that as many 1 in 5 US employees are subject to non-compete agreements. This means that, in all likelihood, hundreds of thousands of employees who are subject to non-compete agreements were terminated in the last week or so alone.
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In Seyfarth’s first installment in its 2020 Trade Secrets Webinar Series, Seyfarth attorneys Robert Milligan, Jesse Coleman, and Joshua Salinas reviewed the noteworthy legislation, cases, and other legal developments from across the nation over the last year in the area of trade secrets and data theft, non-competes and other restrictive covenants, and computer fraud—plus, predictions

In-house attorneys often wear multiple hats when performing work for private companies. Some of their work clearly falls under the provision of legal services, while others can be less clear quasi-business roles. And when those in-house lawyers who perform non-legal work are asked to sign a non-compete agreement in connection with their employment, questions can arise both as to the enforceability of those agreements and whether an attorney violates the rules of professional conduct by signing such an agreement as we have previously discussed.
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Continuing our annual tradition, we have compiled our top developments and headlines for 2019 & 2020 in trade secret, non-compete, and computer fraud law. Here’s what you need to know to keep abreast of the ever-changing law in this area.

1. Another Year, Another Attempt in Congress to Ban Non-Competes Nationwide

Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced legislation in 2019 entitled the Workforce Mobility Act (“WMA”). The WMA seeks to ban non-compete agreements outside of the sale of a business or dissolution of a partnership.

Not only would the WMA abolish covenants not to compete nationwide, outside of the extremely narrow exceptions highlighted above, but it would also provide the Department of Labor (DOL) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with broad enforcement power. If enacted, the legislation would empower the FTC and DOL to enforce the ban through fines on employers who either fail to notify employees that non-compete agreements are illegal or who require employees to sign covenants not to compete. Additionally, the WMA establishes a private right of action for all employees allegedly aggrieved by a violation of the WMA.

The WMA contains a carve out for parties to enter into an agreement to protect trade secrets. As currently drafted, the WMA does not abrogate the scope of protections provided by the Defend Trade Secrets Act.

Presently, there are no generally applicable federal restrictions on non-compete agreements, and enacting such a law would have to pass Constitutional muster. We expect to see continued activity at the federal legislative level to attempt to ban or limit the use of non-competes.

2. New State Legislation Regarding Restrictive Covenants


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Within the last five months, the two executive arms responsible for enforcing antitrust laws—the US Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”)—held public workshops to examine the effect of non-compete clauses in employment contracts on the labor market. The DOJ held its workshop on September 23, 2019, while the FTC recently held its own at the top of the year, on January 9, 2020. The purpose of the FTC workshop was “to examine whether there is a sufficient legal basis and empirical economic support to promulgate a Commission Rule that would restrict the use of non-compete clauses in employer-employee employment contracts.”

Why the FTC now wants to regulate in the employment space is not readily apparent apart from attempting to capitalize on a low-hanging fruit populist issue concerning the overreporting of some companies allegedly using non-competes with low-wage workers.
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On Tuesday, January 28 at 12:00 p.m. Central, in the first installment of the 2020 Trade Secrets Webinar Series, Seyfarth attorneys will review noteworthy legislation, cases and other legal developments from across the nation over the last year in the area of trade secrets and data theft, non-competes and other restrictive covenants, and computer fraud.

On January 31, 2020, Boston partner Erik Weibust will be speaking at the Practicing Law Institute’s program “Noncompetes and Restrictive Covenants 2020: What Every Lawyer, Human Resources Professional, and Key Strategic Decisionmaker Should Know” in San Francisco. Erik will be speaking a part of a roundtable discussion entitled “Advanced Issues in Noncompete Matters,” which will

Last summer, after a decade of fits and starts, and just minutes before the end of the 2018 legislative session, the Massachusetts legislature finally passed comprehensive non-compete reform, which went into effect on October 1, 2018. It had become almost a sport watching what the legislature would do at the end of each year with that current year’s version of non-compete reform, which ranged from all out bans to merely codifying the common law. (For a recap of the many twists and turns over the years, here is just a smattering of blog posts on the topic)

If you assumed that we would get 2019 off, you would be mistaken. As we pointed out in the pages of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and Law360, the 2018 law caused as much confusion as it did clarity, and we predicted that amendments and clarifications would be necessary. And it didn’t take long for the first such clarification to be proposed. 
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As we previously covered, a group of 18 state attorneys general in July filed comments with the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), asking the FTC to incorporate labor concerns when reviewing corporate mergers and to use its enforcement powers under the Sherman Act to stop the use of non-compete, non-solicit, and no-poach agreements in many situations. Many of those same attorneys general recently sent another letter to the FTC, this time urging it to use its rulemaking authority “to bring an end to the abusive use of non-compete clauses in employment contracts.”

In the most recent letter, the attorneys general endorsed the arguments presented in a March 20, 2019, petition submitted to the FTC by various labor unions, public interest groups, and legal advocates, requesting that the FTC initiate rulemaking to classify abusive worker non-compete clauses as an unfair method of competition and per se illegal under the FTC Act for low wage workers or where the clause is not explicitly negotiated. As they did in their previous letter, the attorneys general contend that non-competes “deprive workers of the right to pursue their ambitions and can lock them into hostile or unsafe working environments.” The attorneys general also argue that the arguments in support of non-compete clauses are unpersuasive and that employers can use other “less draconian” ways to recoup their investment in job training, methods of business, and other intangibles. The attorneys general further argued that non-competes burden businesses seeking to hire new employees, which in turn inhibits innovation and drives up consumer costs by suppressing competition.
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Manhattan restaurant Sottolio, Inc., d/b/a Norma Gastronomia Siciliana hired Giuseppe Manco—“a noted  Italian pizza chef, or pizzaiolo”—to consult on its menu. At the same time, Manco and his wife purchased a 9% interest in the restaurant, becoming co-owners of the business. Manco signed a non-compete and non-disclosure agreement in connection with his hiring, under which Manco agreed, for ten years, to not replicate, copy, or duplicate Plaintiff’s confidential information, including its “signature recipes” for arancine, pasta alla norma, caponata, anelletti al forno, and carbonara di mare, or to use the signature recipes within a ten mile radius of Sottolio’s Manhattan restaurant. 
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