In Socko v. Mid-Atlantic Systems of CPA, Inc., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Uniform Written Obligations Act (“UWOA”) could not render a restrictive covenant not supported by adequate consideration enforceable nonetheless. In so doing, the Court emphasized that such restrictive covenants – agreements that restrict an employee’s ability to compete against an employer after termination - are disfavored restraints on trade. As the dissent noted, the opinion does appear contrary to the plain language of the UWOA, but this dissonance highlights the disfavored nature of restrictive covenants.
As part of his employment with Mid-Atlantic, Socko signed three restrictive covenants: one upon the beginning of his employment, a second upon return to Mid-Atlantic after terminating his employment, and a third, more restrictive, agreement signed during his employment. Along with the third restrictive covenant, Socko did not receive a bonus, promotion or other consideration. The document recited the magic words of the UWOA that “the parties intended to be legally bound.” Socko resigned from Mid-Atlantic and went to work for a competitor, and Mid-Atlantic filed suit for breach of the restrictive covenant.
Pennsylvania law requires that restrictive covenants must be accompanied by adequate consideration. To meet this requirement, the employee must sign the agreement at the commencement of employment, or the employer must supply new consideration for restrictive covenants signed after the commencement of employment. “New consideration” includes a benefit to the employee or a beneficial change to the employee’s status. Socko did not receive any new consideration for the new restrictive covenant that Mid-Atlantic sought to enforce. Importantly, the new restrictive covenant also included language superseding all previous restrictive covenants, thus rendering the second restrictive covenant, which was supported by sufficient consideration, ineffective.
To address this problem, Mid-Atlantic argued that Socko was barred from challenging the restrictive covenant on the basis that it was not supported by new consideration because it contained the UWOA language. Mid-Atlantic asserted that the “magic words” foreclosed the usual analysis of consideration for restrictive covenants signed after the commencement of employment. The Supreme Court, affirming the Superior Court’s holding, held that the UWOA language does not foreclose such an analysis as it relates to restrictive covenants. In so doing, the Supreme Court rejected Mid-Atlantic’s framing of the issue. The issue was not, as Mid-Atlantic asserted, that the UWOA foreclosed Socko from challenging the validity of the agreement based on a lack of consideration. Instead, the Supreme Court stated that the issue was whether the UWOA acted as a substitute for consideration.
The Supreme Court relied on principles of statutory construction and the body of case law holding that restrictive covenants are disfavored restraints of trade to find that the UWOA language would not act as a substitute for consideration to support a restrictive covenant. The Supreme Court noted that the unique treatment of restrictive covenants in the law, including rigorous judicial scrutiny, required this outcome.
While this holding will not shock employment lawyers, as it is consistent with the court’s jaundiced approach to restrictive covenants, it does highlight important considerations for the use of such documents. Employers strive to foster their entry level employees into valuable positions, and such a practice benefits employer and employee. Employers must consider when and whether to require those employees to execute restrictive covenants, the consideration they will provide for new restrictions, and whether there are other, more productive, ways to retain a valuable employee and protect the business. The Supreme Court’s decision does not change the analysis, but it does clarify that no mere technicality will encourage a court to set aside the rigorous scrutiny of restrictive covenants required by the case law.