Practicing Law Institute’s “Noncompetes and Restrictive Covenants 2020″ has been posted on-demand and is currently available for viewing until January 2021. Among many other panelists and speakers, Seyfarth partner Erik Weibust spoke on a panel entitled “Advanced Issues in Noncompete Matters.”  CLE credit is available.

For the first time in 15 years, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”), Massachusetts’ highest court, issued a decision analyzing the enforceability of non-solicitation covenants, the distinction between such covenants in the context of the sale of a business versus employment, and equitable tolling of restrictive covenants. As set forth below, this decision serves as an important reminder to businesses who impose restrictive covenants governed by Massachusetts law.

Factual Background

While the factual background of the case is long and twisty, only a few key details are necessary to rehash here. The defendant Matthew McGovern (“McGovern”) entered into a restrictive covenants agreement with his former co-shareholders of the Prime Motor Group (“Prime”), in exchange for plaintiffs’ agreement to buy out McGovern’s minority share in Prime with no discount. The agreement, which was made a year after McGovern had been terminated as an employee and as part of a resolution of the parties’ dispute concerning McGovern’s alleged violation of an earlier restrictive covenants agreement, prohibited McGovern from hiring, soliciting, or encouraging Prime employees to leave Prime for 18 months. The agreement contained no tolling provision, but provided that plaintiffs would be entitled to injunctive relief if McGovern breached, without needing to prove irreparable harm.  
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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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In a trilogy of recent cases, the Texas Courts of Appeals have employed the “commercial speech” exception to exclude certain business claims from the scope of the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act (“TCPA”). This trend will likely only accelerate now that the legislature has further reduced the TCPA’s reach with additional statutory changes, restricting the protections regarding the right of association and the TCPA’s application to trade secret cases and non-compete cases.

Background

The TCPA is an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute allowing litigants to seek early dismissal of a lawsuit if the legal action is based on, or is in response to, a party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association. Like other states, Texas enacted the TCPA to address concerns over the increasing use of lawsuits to chill the exercise of First Amendment rights.
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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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A law firm can terminate an at-will lawyer who refuses to sign an agreement prohibiting them from soliciting the firm’s customers or clients following cessation of employment, according to the Supreme Court of Kentucky. In Greissman v. Rawlings and Associates, PLLC, the court held that where a non-solicitation agreement included a savings clause which excepted the solicitation of legal work from where “to the extent necessary to comply with the rules of professional responsibility applicable attorneys,” it did not violate those rules as a matter of law. This is consistent with what we have previously written on this issue; so long as there is no restriction on the practice of law, post-employment restrictive covenants do not necessarily run afoul of states’ Rules of Professional Conduct (in most states, Rule 5.6, which is generally intended to protect clients, not attorneys). 
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