By Ryan Malloy and Erik Weibust

The status of law reform in Massachusetts with respect to employee non-compete agreements remains in flux. Pending Massachusetts House Bill 2293, “An Act Relative to Noncompetition Agreements,” aims to codify Massachusetts common law with respect to non-compete agreements while affording greater procedural protections to those subject to contractual restrictions on employment mobility. Since its inception, House Bill 2293 has undergone significant review, comment, and revision. We have previously blogged on the proposed legislation.

The basic requirements of House Bill 2293 remain the same as common law. Under the proposed legislation, non-compete agreements must be necessary to protect one or more of the following legitimate business interests of the employer: i) trade secrets to which the employee had access while employed; ii) confidential information that would otherwise not qualify as a trade secret; or iii) goodwill and/or customer relationships. The restrictions imposed by the non-compete agreement must be reasonable in duration, geographic reach, and scope of proscribed activities. Furthermore, the agreement must be consonant with public policy.

Notably, the bill applies only to non-compete agreements; it does not concern non-solicitation, anti-raid, confidentiality, or assignment of invention agreements. The most recent draft of the bill would statutorily cap the duration of non-compete agreements to 6 months (compared to a one-year cap under the current pending bill), with a cap of 2 years for separation agreements. The modified draft also omits the current pending bill’s provision that would require an employer to pay the subject employee’s attorney’s fees if the employer acts in bad faith or is unsuccessful in enforcing the non-compete agreement because either the court does not enforce it or the court substantially reforms a material restriction in it.

Constituents have voiced both support and concern for the bill. While many object to the 6-month duration cap as insufficient to protect employer interests, others oppose the bill in its entirety, viewing any restrictive covenant legislation as a potential impetus for costly litigation and citing to economic hardship in California as a symptom of failed attempts to regulate non-compete agreements. Additional concerns include an unclear definition of “fair and reasonable consideration” and the court’s ability to deny enforcement of otherwise valid contractual obligations under the bill. Still, those in support insist that the bill is necessary to achieve consistent judicial results that would protect valuable employer proprietary and confidential information.

According to Massachusetts State Representative Lori Ehrlich, co-sponsor of House Bill 2293, it is not likely that the controversial bill will be taken up again before the end of 2012. In fact, House Bill 2293 may be combined with proposed legislation that would largely adopt the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA) in Massachusetts, thereby rendering the final version of the bill unrecognizable.

Please see the instagraphic below summarizing the evolution of the proposed law reform and status of key provisions.

For more information regarding the proposed legislation, please listen to our recorded webinar concerning the latest in trade secret and non-compete legislative developments.

On January 20, 2011, Massachusetts State Representatives Lori Ehrlich, William Brownsberger, and Alice Hanlong Peisch re-filed the Massachusetts non-compete bill, aptly entitled “An Act Relative to Noncompetition Agreements.”  The bill was originally submitted in late 2009 as House No. 1799, and since that time has undergone significant review, comment, and revision.  While much of the bill remains the same, its sponsors made changes to address several concerns the business community had expressed about particular provisions.  There is no current timeline for a vote on the bill, but we do expect there to be ample opportunity to provide additional input.

What Remains the Same As the Prior Bill?

The bill applies to non-compete agreements in the context of employment, including forfeiture for competition agreements (agreements that impose adverse financial consequences if an employee engages in competitive activities).  However, the bill specifically excludes non-solicitation agreements (both of customers and employees); non-compete agreements outside the employment context, such as those that are executed in the sale of a business; forfeiture agreements (agreements that impose adverse financial consequences as a result of termination regardless of whether the employee engages in competitive activities); and agreements not to reapply for employment.  The bill does not apply to non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements. 
In essence, the bill codifies the existing common law rules, which provide that non-compete agreements are enforceable only if they are reasonable in duration, geographic reach, and scope of proscribed activities necessary to protect the employer’s trade secrets, confidential information, or goodwill, and are consonant with public policy.  In addition, the bill does not change current Massachusetts law permitting courts to reform or modify unreasonable non-compete agreement provisions.

The bill requires non-competes to be in writing, signed by both parties, and “to the extent reasonably feasible,” they must be provided to the employee at least seven business days in advance of employment.  If the agreement is executed after the commencement of the employment relationship, the employee must be provided with notice and “fair and reasonable” consideration (beyond continued employment).

The bill restricts non-compete agreements to one year, except for “garden leave” clauses (agreements by which the employer agrees to pay the employee during the restricted period), which may last up to two years. 

The bill mandates the payment of attorneys’ fees to employees if a court refuses to enforce “a material restriction or reforms a restriction in a substantial respect,” or if it finds that the employer acted in bad faith.  Attorneys’ fees are not mandated, however, if a particular provision is “presumptively reasonable,” as defined by the statute, or if the employer made “objectively reasonable efforts to draft the rejected or reformed restriction so that it would be presumptively reasonable,” even if a court refuses to enforce or reforms the provision.  An employer may be entitled to its legal fees if it prevails only if they are otherwise permitted by statute or contract, the agreement is presumptively reasonable, the non-compete was enforced, and the employee acted in bad faith.

What Has Changed From the Prior Bill?

Perhaps the most significant change in the current version of the bill is that it no longer restricts the use of non-compete agreements to employees making more than $75,000 per year.  Instead, the bill calls for courts to consider the economic circumstances of, and economic impact on, the employee.  This is important because there are many companies doing business in the Commonwealth, oftentimes start-ups, that employ individuals who are paid less than $75,000 per year, but who are otherwise provided with potentially lucrative equity interests, stock options, or the like.  The departure of these employees to a competitor can cripple a start-up company and can even cause hardship to well-established companies that may utilize these other types of non-monetary compensation and pay key employees less than $75,000.  This salary benchmark was also a concern for companies that employ part-time or seasonal employees, and staffing agencies, to name a few, which may not meet the $75,000 salary benchmark in a calendar year.    

Another change in the bill relates to the award of mandatory attorneys’ fees to employees.  While this provision remains in the bill, as discussed above, an employer can avoid paying fees if the court determines that it undertook “objectively reasonable efforts to draft the rejected or reformed restriction so that it would be presumptively reasonable,” even if unsuccessful.  This provision, however, does not provide clear guidance to employers as to the parameters of such “objectively reasonable efforts,” and remains a significant departure from existing law that litigants pay their own attorneys’ fees, win or lose.

Like some other states, including California, the bill, in its prior and current versions, explicitly rejects the inevitable disclosure doctrine (which holds that even in the absence of an enforceable non-compete agreement, a former employee may be prevented from working for a competitor based on the expectation that the employment would inevitably lead to the disclosure of trade secrets or confidential information of the former employer).  The newest version of the bill, however, recognizes that employers may nevertheless protect themselves using other laws and agreements, including applicable trade secrets laws and non-disclosure agreements.   

Other changes from the last version of the bill include: (a) non-competes executed after the commencement of employment no longer must be accompanied by a 10% increase in salary to be presumptively reasonable; now, they must simply be supported by “fair and reasonable consideration”; (b) non-compete agreements no longer need to be separate documents; (c) garden leave clauses are permitted; and (d) the scope of restrictions placed on forfeiture agreements has been limited.

Finally, it is important to note that the bill is not retroactive, and will not apply to agreements entered into before January 1, 2012.

Seyfarth Shaw plans to monitor and participate in the legislative process and will report on the status and evolution of this bill on our blog, Trading Secrets, at  If you have any questions or would like to provide input on the bill, please contact the Seyfarth Shaw attorney with whom you work or any Trade Secrets, Computer Fraud & Non-Compete attorney on our website ( Click here for Seyfarth Shaw’s Management Alert on the bill.

By Kate Perrelli and Erik Weibust

On October 7, 2009, the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development held a hearing on a non-compete bill, House No. 1799, sponsored by Representatives Will Brownsberger and Lori Ehrlich. Representatives Brownsberger and Ehrlich had each previously sponsored their own independent bills – Brownsberger’s based on California’s statute that bans non-compete agreements altogether, and Ehrlich’s based on Oregon’s statute that permits non-compete agreements with certain restrictions. The two Representatives have spent a considerable amount of time and energy over the past few months crafting a compromise bill, relying on input from proponents and opponents of non-compete agreements, including industry leaders, employees, trade associations, and attorneys. Several of these people testified before the committee about the need for predictability in the area of restrictive covenants — for both employers and employees — and the need to balance the interest of employer’s in protecting their confidential information, trade secrets, and goodwill, with those of employees in being able to switch jobs freely. Although this compromise bill in some respects codifies Massachusetts common law, there are four provisions in particular that warrant further review and refinement:

  • The bill prohibits enforcement of non-compete agreements against employees who make less than $75,000 per year. One concern with this provision is that start-up companies often pay their employees lower salaries until they are able to obtain greater financing, yet provide them with as much, if not more, confidential information and trade secrets than higher paid employees at other companies. The bill ignores this scenario. In addition, there is no method in the bill for determining whether companies that pay hourly wages to their employees, such as staffing agencies, are subject to the law, as it is difficult to determine whether an employee will make more than $75,000 in a given year when they begin their employment, which is when they would be required to execute a non-compete agreement. The bill makes no exception or accommodation for these types of companies or others that would be adversely impacted by the $75,000 minimum.
  • The bill limits non-compete agreements to one year, with the exception of a garden leave clause provision, pursuant to which the employer would pay the employee to sit on the sidelines for the term of the restriction. Courts in the Commonwealth often enforce as reasonable two-year non-compete agreements, and in some limited instances, for longer. A one year limitation may be insufficient in many situations. 
  • Attorneys’ fees are mandatory for successful defendant-employees, yet they are merely permissive for successful plaintiff-employers, and are to be awarded only in the latter situation if the employer can show that the employee acted with bad faith, a very subjective standard. Moreover, an employee also receives attorneys’ fees if he or she files a declaratory judgment action challenging his or her non-compete agreement, provided that two days before doing so, the employee provides the former employer with specific measures that the employee would take to protect the employer’s confidential business interests, which measures are substantially adopted by a court as part of a hearing on preliminary injunctive relief. Again, this provision may place undue pressure on a start-up to accept an employee’s proposal to avoid incurring legal fees.   
  • The bill rejects the inevitable disclosure doctrine, under which it is presumed that an employee who had access to a significant amount of confidential information and trade secrets will disclose that information, even if unintentionally, to his or her new employer. This doctrine plays the important role of acting as a backstop to non-compete agreements, or as the only protection where no non-compete agreement is executed, and is necessary to further protect employers against disclosure by such employees. Complete obliteration of this doctrine will affect certain industries more dramatically than others.

Kudos to the legislators, and the group that they enlisted to fashion this compromise bill.  Massachusetts has stepped back, at least for the time being, from the precipice of following California’s legislature’s path in banning non-competes altogether, and instead, has taken a big step forward to provide more clarity to a very complex, fact-specific area of Massachusetts law. There are steps left to be taken, but the current debate is healthy and productive.