A recent Washington Post article proclaimed that “even janitors have noncompetes now.” New Jersey and Pennsylvania are considering legislation to regulate the terms and enforceability of documents that restrict employees’ ability to compete with their former employees. "Noncompete Litigation Lessons from the 10th Circuit". These restrictions require discussion and attention: they impact the economy, employee mobility, and the trade secrets and good will of businesses. In the coming weeks, we will explore issues relating to noncompetes in order to shed some light on this complex employment law topic, and offer guidance to both employers and employees grappling with the potential risks and consequences of missteps in these agreements.
This week, let’s start with the basics.
Pennsylvania law recognizes that an agreement that restricts the ability to compete is a restraint on trade, and courts should construe them narrowly. Such agreements are only permitted in two contexts: where they are ancillary to the employer – employee relationship (including independent contractor relationships), or where they are ancillary to the sale of a business. The restriction must be reasonable in terms of scope, geography and time. A court will review whether the restriction in the agreement is narrowly tailored to address certain legally protectable interest, such as good will, trade secrets or specialized training.
Such agreements, as with all contracts, must be accompanied by consideration. In the context of employment-related noncompetes, continued employment will not suffice. Instead, the noncompete must be executed at the beginning of the employment relationship, or, if signed during the employment relationship, accompanied by additional consideration such as a promotion, raise or bonus.
Noncompetes come in many forms: restrictions on working for competitors or setting up a competing business; restrictions on soliciting or accepting work from customers, clients, vendors or suppliers; restrictions on working as an employee for a customer, client, vendor or supplier; and restrictions on soliciting employees away from the employer. Limitations on solicitation are generally more enforceable than blanket restrictions on competition. Some noncompetes are accompanied by a period of severance pay, commonly referred to as “garden leave”. Some agreements include provisions for the employer to release an employee from a noncompete under certain conditions.
When an employee breaches a noncompete, the employer has a powerful weapon to enforce the document: the employer can request an emergency order from the court prohibiting the employee, and even the employee’s new employer, from engaging in activity in breach of the agreement. The court proceeding that results in the emergency order, called a preliminary injunction, usually occurs quickly, and such litigation is expensive and stressful. Often, noncompete agreements have provisions that require the employee to pay the employer’s legal fees in the event of a breach. A court is free to “blue pencil” the noncompete. This means that the court can rewrite the restrictions in a manner that is reasonable and consistent with the employer’s legally recognized protectable interests.
In the next installment of my Navigating Noncompetes series, you will see how to apply some of these basics to examine the issues that employers should consider in drafting and enforcing noncompetes.