Patty has been practicing law since 1996 in the areas of Employment Law, Health Care and Litigation, with extensive experience in advising employers and health care providers as well as complex litigation in federal and state courts. Patty’s knowledge of employment law includes the Employee Retirement Income Security Act; federal and state employment discrimination laws, and employment contracts and wage claims.
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Actually, this blog post is not really about binders full of women – the title is pure, unadulterated pandering. But it is about the conversation that generated that Tweet-worthy sound bite. In case your computer, smartphone, television and ears were down this week, let’s recap. At the October 16, 2012 town hall Presidential Debate, an undecided voter asked how the candidates would address pay inequality for women. President Obama answered by referencing his support of the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Governor Romney answered with a story about binders full of women searching for female candidates, and providing flexibility for female employees. An employment lawyer drooled. Please note that this is not a political discussion, but a legal one, and the analysis that follows is about whether the law would permit the approaches recommended by the candidates.
President Obama had the easy path. The Lilly Ledbetter Act is now the law. Under the civil rights laws, employees have 180 days from the alleged discriminatory act to file a complaint with state or federal equal employment commissions. If the employee fails to file the claim in the time required, the employee’s claim is forever barred. Poor Ms. Ledbetter discovered, too late, that she was paid less than a male employee for the same work. The court dismissed her claim because she filed it more than 180 days after the first discriminatory paycheck. The Lilly Ledbetter Act states that the statute of limitations for an equal pay claim resets with each paycheck. It was the first statute that President Obama signed into law.
Governor Romney’s answer invites employment lawyer criticism. To be clear, this is not political criticism, but legal criticism. The answer essentially had two parts: first, his search for female candidates and second, his willingness to provide flexibility to female employers who needed to get home to make dinner. Let’s start with the search for female candidates. The civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender. It was not clear from Governor Romney’s answer whether or not he was referring to an affirmative action program, or whether there was a written diversity plan at issue. But, certainly, the goal of employing an underrepresented group in the office of the governor is a laudable one.
Nevertheless, an employment lawyer worries. Imagine two candidates, both with comparable education and experience, both interviewed well, and, in all respects were both qualified candidates. One is male, one is female. Could the governor decide to hire the female candidate solely because she was female? Put another way, would it be discrimination on the basis of gender for an employer to deny employment to the equally qualified male candidate solely on the basis of his gender? The legal answer is yes. An interesting defense to such a claim is that the governor had made a policy decision that his cabinet must reflect the views of qualified women. Employers should always base their decisions on qualifications for the job. Where an employer has decided that gender, for example, is part of the qualifications for the job, they must also articulate a legitimate business reason for such a qualification.
Governor Romney also talked about the need for flexibility for female employees. Tsk tsk, Governor Romney, tsk tsk. The law requires that Governor Romney provide the same level of flexibly for all of his employees, regardless of gender. The law also requires that Governor Romney avoid making employment decisions based on gender stereotypes (i.e., the woman needs to get home to make dinner). An employment lawyer loses a few hours of sleep.
Interestingly, this is the place where the candidates intersect. The law requires equal pay for equal work, and the Lilly Ledbetter Act keeps that claim alive with each new paycheck. But employees, male and female, do ask for flexible work schedules, and many employers are happy to oblige to keep good candidates. Our advice: don’t be like Governor Romney! Make sure flexibility is available to all employees, and that the pay is commensurate with the work provided.
The candidates’ discussion does highlight the challenges for employers: sometimes, an employer’s good intentions, the realities of the workplace, and the requirements of the law seem at odds with one another. Even presidential candidates struggle with these competing concerns. It is our experience that employers can work through these complex issues and strike a balance with good legal and human resources advice.
In a recent case that may not bode well for the enforcement of noncompete agreements in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed twenty years of Virginia precedent relating to noncompetes, agreements pursuant to which an employee agrees not to compete with an employer for a period of time after the termination of employment. Until this recently, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia had similar laws relating to noncompetes. Historically, courts in all states have not looked favorably on such agreements, and have used various tools to limit or deny enforcement of noncompetes. Prior to the court’s decision in Home Paramount Pest Control v. Shaffer, the law in Virginia was similar to Pennsylvania law: a Court could re-write overbroad noncompete agreements so that the document was consistent with the employer’s protectable interests. In Home Paramount Pest Control, the court stated that it would no longer re-write such provisions, and that it was free to refuse to enforce a noncompete that was overly restrictive.
The former employee in Home Paramount Pest Control signed a noncompete agreement that prohibited him from competing with his former employer’s fumigation business in any manner, in any geographic area where he worked for Home Paramount Pest Control for a period of two years after his termination. Prior to this case, it was well settled that if the court found the restrictions of the noncompete broad, it could rewrite the document and enforce more reasonable provisions. The court generally exercised its re-writing power to limit the geographic or temporal scope of the document, or to find that specific conduct did not violate a noncompete if the employer could not articulate a protectable interest in prohibiting the conduct, even where the clear language of the agreement prohibited the competitive conduct. Generally speaking, “protectable interest” means that the employer has provided something to the employee that it has the right to protect, such as access to trade secrets, or specialized training. If the restriction on future employment did not match a protectable interest, the court would not enforce the restriction.
In Virginia at least, this is no longer the case. The Virginia Supreme Court noted that it had “incrementally clarified” the law relating to noncompetes so dramatically over the past two decades that it was free to find the noncompete unenforceable in this case. Most interestingly, the court focused on language that lawyers generally believe is good drafting. The agreement in question contained a list of prohibited activities designed to address every conceivable kind of competition, as well as the ubiquitous “in any capacity whatsoever” catch-all for good measure. The court found that the employer could not articulate a protectable interest that would justify such a sweeping prohibition. Specifically, the court was looking for a nexus between the employee’s job duties, and the prohibitions imposed by the noncompete.
In the good old days, the court would simply have revised the agreement to remove whatever restrictions were too broad, such as the “in any capacity whatsoever” language. Or, the court may have found that there was no protectable interest in prohibiting the employee from engaging in his current employment. But the Virginia Supreme Court refused to do so, noting that incremental changes in the law required a different result. I will not bore the reader with the court’s very interesting discussion of how the doctrine of stare decisis applies to the case, except to note that the court recognized its decision as a departure from well-settled law.
While this case does not apply in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, many states have seriously limited the enforceability of noncompetes. We are making sure to discuss these issues with our clients, and draft noncompetes as narrowly as possible. We are also thinking creatively about other solutions to the problem of competition, trade secrets and specialized training, such as non-solicitation provisions. The Virginia Supreme Court has given us new reasons to draft carefully.