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.