Washington state has joined the ranks of an ever-growing number of states that impose significant restrictions on employee non-compete agreements. On May 9, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1450, titled “An Act Relating to restraints, including noncompetition covenants, on persons engaging in lawful professions, trades, or businesses,” into law. The Act will go into effect on January 1, 2020. We reported on the bill in detail in March.

This change to Washington law is significant. Businesses with employees or independent contractors in the state should revisit their non-compete agreements and take the necessary steps to ensure compliance with the Act by the end of this year. Among other things:
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Caramel Crisp LLC, the owner of Garrett Popcorn Shops (“Garrett”), the renowned Chicago-based purveyor of deliciously flavored popcorn, recently filed suit in federal court in Chicago against its former director of research and development, Aisha Putnam, alleging that she misappropriated the company’s trade secrets, including its recipes for Garret’s famous popcorn, after she was fired. Putnam was hired in 2014 and was eventually promoted to the role of Director of Research and Development, where she had access to some of Garrett’s most confidential information and trade secrets. In that role, she was required to sign a confidentiality and non-compete agreement, which, among other things, required her to return all of Garrett’s confidential information upon the termination of her employment.
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A California federal district court recently granted a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) against a former employee for misappropriating proprietary and confidential information in violation of the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”), the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“CUTSA”), and company confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements. Bemis Co., Inc. v. Summers, No. 219CV00344TLNKJN, 2019 WL 1004853, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 28, 2019).

Background

Plaintiff Bemis Company, Inc. (“Bemis”) sued a former employee for trade secret misappropriation and breach of contract. Bemis is one of the largest global suppliers of flexible and rigid packaging products, including snack food bags, candy wrappers, cheese packaging, hot dog packaging, medicine packaging, and much more.
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Last week, the Ninth Circuit finally ruled that a former Anheuser-Busch employee cannot avoid claims filed by the brewer alleging misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of a nondisclosure agreement, the latest in a long running saga that started when Anheuser-Busch filed suit 6 years ago. Former Anheuser-Busch employee James Clark (“Clark”) had filed a motion to strike the company’s trade secrets claims accusing him of stealing proprietary information under the California Anti-SLAPP statute (“strategic lawsuits against public participation”). 
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Academics and advocacy groups—including nonprofit organizations and several major labor unions—have filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to initiate the rulemaking process and ban non-compete agreements. The petitioners advocate regulations “to prohibit employers from presenting a non-compete clause to a worker (regardless of whether the worker is classified as an ‘employee’ or an ‘independent contractor’), conditioning employment or the purchase of a worker’s labor on the worker’s acceptance of a non-compete clause, or enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a non-compete clause against a worker.”
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As readers of this blog well know, there is a growing trend of state legislatures seeking to limit or outright ban non-competes. (See here, here, and here as just a few examples of state efforts to curb non-competes—not to mention the proposed federal legislation and international efforts—in the last six months.) Last week, the Washington Senate jumped on the bandwagon by passing a bill with a 30–18 vote that would severely limit the enforceability non-competes. (Similar efforts failed last year, as we reported here.)  Some of the key features of this year’s bill are as follows:
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On March 7, 2019, a group of six United States senators from both sides of the aisle submitted a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a federal investigation into the use of non-compete agreements on the basis that their widening use in recent years raises concerns about their negative impact on both workers and the national economy.  Specifically, the letter asks the GAO to assess the following three questions:

  1. What is known about the prevalence of non-compete agreements in particular fields, including low-wage occupations?
  2. What is known about the effects of non-compete agreements on the workforce and the economy, including employment, wages and benefits, innovation, and entrepreneurship?
  3. What steps have selected states taken to limit the use of these agreements, and what is known about the effect these actions have had on employees and employers?


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As we’ve previously written about on this blog, last summer the Massachusetts legislature passed a non-compete reform bill which went into effect on October 1, 2018. Readers of this blog will recall our concerns that the new law is in many ways confusing and may lead to unpredictable results. Now, nearly five months after its effective date, Magistrate Judge Dein of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts has issued the first published decision citing the new Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149, § 24L—unfortunately, this decision does not analyze an agreement that is subject to the Act, but it does confirm our suspicions that creative practitioners will try to use the new law to attack the enforceability of agreements entered into before the effective date.
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On February 21, 2019, the New Hampshire Senate, in a bipartisan voice vote and without debate, passed Senate Bill 197, which would prohibit employers from requiring low-wage workers to enter into non-compete agreements, and makes such agreements void and unenforceable.

The Bill applies to “Low-wage employees,” which is defined to include (i) employees who make less than or equal to twice the federal minimum wage, i.e., $14.50 per hour based on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour; and (ii) “tipped employees” under New Hampshire Revised Statute § 279:21, who make less than or equal to twice the tipped minimum wage (statutorily set at 45 percent of the federal minimum wage), i.e., $6.54 per hour. 
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The American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) will host its annual Trade Secret Law Summit at the American Express Company in New York City’s Financial District on March 21-22, 2019.

Seyfarth is a proud sponsor of the Summit, at which partners Erik Weibust (Vice Chair of AIPLA’s Trade Secret Law Committee) will be speaking on