By Patricia Collins
Reprinted with permission from the February 28th edition of the The Legal Intelligencer © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.Further duplication without permission is prohibited
The Pennsylvania Superior Court, in Metalico Pittsburgh v. Newman, et al (No. 354 WDA 2016, April 19, 2017), dealt a blow to employees attempting to avoid the application of a non-solicitation covenant.
In Metalico, two employees, Newman and Medred, executed employment agreements containing a covenant not to solicit customers, suppliers and employees during the “Post-Employment Period.” The Post-Employment Period varied depending upon the manner of the termination of employment, and commenced upon the last day of employment with Metalico. At the end of the three-year period, Metalico terminated the employment agreements, but continued to retain Newman and Medred as “at-will” employees, and recited new compensation and other terms of employment. These terms differed from those contained in the employment agreement. Newman and Medred were terminated one year later. Metalico filed suit against Newman and Medred, alleging that they were violating the non-solicitation covenant in their subsequent employment.
On the eve of a preliminary injunction hearing, Newman and Medred filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, arguing that the employment agreements containing the non-solicitation covenants had terminated, and therefore the non-solicitation provisions no longer applied. They argued that the agreement to continue as “at-will” employees acted as a novation of the employment agreement.
The trial court agreed with Newman and Medred, and granted their motion for partial summary judgment. But the Superior Court did not agree. Instead, the Superior Court found that the covenant remained in place pursuant to a survival provision in the employment agreement. That provision stated that if employment under the agreement “expires,” the agreement continues in effect “as is necessary or appropriate to enforce” the non-solicitation covenant.
The trial court found that upon converting Newman’s and Medred’s status to “at will” employees, the parties had stated new terms for the employment relationship going forward. In so doing, the parties did not recite that the non-solicitation provision would stay in place. The failure to continue the compensation and benefits provided in the employment agreement, in the trial court’s view, invalidated the non-solicitation covenant. The trial court justly noted: “Metalico cannot claim the benefits of its bargain while denying its employees the same.”
The Superior Court disagreed, noting that because the survival language was included in the employment agreement, it constituted the bargained-for benefit for the employees. The Superior Court rejected any argument that there was a failure of consideration, because failure of consideration only applies if the consideration was never received – the employees here did receive three years of the promised compensation and benefits under the agreement. The Superior Court refused to find that the parties to the employment agreement intended to terminate and extinguish the previous agreement, thus extinguishing the non-solicitation covenant as well. In so doing, the Superior Court relied upon Boyce v. Smith-Edwards-Dunlap Co., 580 A.2d 1382 (Pa. Super. 1990). However, the Boyce case dealt with the use of the restrictive covenant as a defense to a claim raised by the employee.
It is well-settled that restrictive covenants in employment agreements are disfavored under Pennsylvania law. Courts, including the Superior Court, have refused to enforce such agreements on technicalities. For example, in Socko v. Mid-Atlantic Systems of CPA, Inc., 99 A.3d 928 (Pa. Super. 2014), the Superior Court refused to enforce a covenant not to compete in an employment agreement entered into after the commencement of employment and not accompanied by any beneficial change in the employee’s status, but which recited that it was signed “under seal” under the Uniform Written Obligations Act. The Court found that a seal does not provide adequate consideration to enforce a restrictive covenant. Instead, the Superior Court noted, there must be “actual valuable consideration.” The holding in Socko left employment law practitioners and litigators with the belief that there are no “gotchas” when it comes to restrictive covenants.
Metalico appears to change that. Metalico voluntarily agreed to let the employment agreement terminate and to continue employment on an “at-will” basis. This change of status benefits Metalico, leaving it free to terminate the employees or change their compensation and benefits at will (thus the name) and without concern about the terms of a written agreement. The employees lost these protections. The practical result of the Superior Court’s holding is that the employees lost the protections of the agreement, but retained their post-employment obligations. This is inconsistent with Pennsylvania’s historical animosity towards these restrictive covenants, and appears to truly represent a “gotcha” for these employees.
Metalico expands the universe of enforceable restrictive covenants. This is not an uncommon fact pattern, and one which might have given an employer’s attorney pause prior to filing for a preliminary injunction in the past. The holding could have the impact of reducing the care required in drafting, terminating and enforcing disfavored restrictive covenants, and eliminating some of the defenses available to employees seeking to avoid the covenant. Interestingly, nowhere in the opinion does the Superior Court recite the oft-cited language that such covenants are disfavored in the law. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court takes the opportunity to do so on appeal.
Patricia Collins is a Partner with Antheil Maslow & MacMinn, LLP, based in Doylestown, PA. Her practice focuses primarily on commercial litigation, employment and health care law. To learn more about the firm or Patricia Collins, visit www.ammlaw.com.
Employers are now using a new strategy in an effort to keep their employees from leaving the company and working in a competitive enterprise. Traditionally, employers used restrictive covenant agreements, almost always built in to the employee’s written employment agreement. These covenants prohibit employees from engaging in competition with a former employer. Courts tend not to favor restrictive covenants because they impinge on the ability of a worker to earn a living – they are a restraint of trade.
To limit the scope of restrictive covenants, courts impose a reasonableness standard. Restrictions for a limited time, such as a year, and a small geographical area, such as a five mile radius, were favored. Long-term and broad covenants were not. The employee’s skill set and knowledge of the original employer’s enterprise are also key factors in assessing the business need for any restrictions. The more skill needed to do the work, the more knowledge an employee has of the employer’s business strategies, the more justifiable the non-compete clause becomes.
Why Employers Like the Employee Choice Doctrine
The strategy that employers are now using in some states, including Pennsylvania, is a little more artful. Employers are offering employees post-employment benefits such as stock options and deferred compensation with a condition – a catch. The catch is that the benefits are only available if the employee who leaves the company does not compete with the employer providing the benefits. The employee is given a choice to either accept the benefits and not compete, or compete, but forfeit the benefits and be subject to repayment, or "clawbacks” of benefits already paid. The choice has become known as the employee choice doctrine.
The employee choice option works better for the employer than the typical restrictive covenant because it enables the employer to shift the burden to the employee. In the classic non-compete case, the employer's remedy was to seek an injunction against the competing former employee ordering him or her to cease the competition. In employee choice cases, the employer can still seek an injunction. Better still, the employer can just terminate the benefits (the stock option or other post-employment benefit) thus shifting the burden to the employee to seek redress in the courts by demanding payment of the benefit.
In some states, like New York, there is no review of the employee choice option to assure that the choice offered to the former employee is reasonable. That is not the case in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania law currently does allow employees to craft employment benefits that are tied to non-competition, but the tie has to be reasonable. The cases in Pennsylvania are evolving. As with restrictive covenants, the more reasonable, meaning less strict, the choice is - the more likely Pennsylvania courts will uphold it.
Key Drafting Issues in Employee Choice Benefit Contracts
When drafting employee choice benefit provisions, employers should keep in mind the following points:
• The Employee must have a real choice. The choice between competing in the new position and forfeiting the benefit or not competing and keeping the benefit should be clear. In short, the employee should understand that there is a trade-off.
• The Employee has to leave voluntarily. The choice option is likely only valid if the employee controls the decision about leaving the current employer. Some courts reason that the employee choice doctrine is not really a choice if the employer fires the employee without cause. In such a circumstance, the employer has little or no legitimate business interest in enforcing the non-compete obligation.
• Consideration. For the employee to be forced to make a choice between forfeiting assets and working with a competitor, the employer has to give the employee additional consideration over and above that which the employee would have been entitled to receive in the normal course of working for the employer, including severance or other payments normally paid upon termination.
Why Legal Counsel Can Help
Experienced business counsel understand the evolving nature of the employee choice doctrine. In particular, they keep current with the Pennsylvania and federal court decisions so they can craft documents which have the best chance of surviving attack by employees who seek to avoid them by claiming that the choice is invalid as a restraint of trade.
Before drafting, and certainly before presenting an employee benefit with a forfeiture provision – employers should seek to have their business counsel review the language of the benefit contract.
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.
A recurring issue employers must address is the enforceability of restrictive covenants entered into with an employee. These restrictive covenants are typically non-disclosure (confidentiality), non-solicitation, and/or non-competition agreements. The timing, form, and substance of these agreements will determine whether a court will find them valid. From a former employee’s perspective, the issue is basically the same but reversed: can the employee disregard a previously signed restrictive covenant without being liable for monetary damages to his former employer (and if newly employed at another company, keeping the second company out of litigation)?
Two cases recently decided by the Pennsylvania Superior Court provide guidance for employers and employees:
Fleisher v. Bergman, concerned an employee who was hired as a full-time employee. At the time of his hire, employee signed a restrictive covenant which was a confidentiality and non-competition agreement. The restrictive covenant provided that employee would not divulge any “Confidential Information” (e.g., customer lists, pricing policies, names of vendors) to other parties without the consent of employer; the Agreement further mandated that for a period of five years after termination of his employment, employee would not “. . . solicit or do business with any . . . entity . . . that was, within the three year period preceding the Employee’s termination, a Client or Prospect of Employer... ”
Restrictions against competition are frequently included in employment agreements and agreements for the sale of business assets or stock. The restriction against competition is designed to secure a time period for the employer or buyer of business assets, as the case may be, during which the employer/buyer is free from competition for a departed employee or seller so as to facilitate the transition and better protect their own business assets and customer relationships. If properly drafted and implemented, restrictions against competition are enforceable under Pennsylvania law.
The primary method of enforcement in the event of breach is a preliminary injunction in equity. In order to prevail on a petition for preliminary injunction, a petitioner must demonstrate several factors including (1) the need to prevent irreparable harm which cannot be compensated by money damages, (2) that more harm will result from the denial of the preliminary injunction than from granting same, (3) that the injunction will restore the parties to the status quo, (4) the likelihood of success on the merits, (5) that the injunction is designed to abate the offending activity, and (6) that the injunction will not negatively impact public policy. In most cases the issues of likelihood of success on the merits and irreparable harm incapable of compensation with money damages represent the contested issues.
In Bucks County, the petition for preliminary injunction must be accompanied by a verified complaint and an order for hearing. The petition is often, though not always, heard by the initial pre-trial judge assigned to the case at the time of filing. Court administration reviews all petitions for preliminary injunction and assigns the presiding judge, courtroom and date for evidence to be taken. The order for hearing is an essential aspect of the petition; without it, no hearing will be scheduled.
The petitioner in any injunction matter bears a heavy burden. Adequate evidence as to the need for enforcement of the covenant, the potential irreparable harm and right to relief must be presented. Because the entry of injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy, the evidence must be clear and persuasive. In employment and business asset transfer cases, the language of the restriction in the applicable agreements must be constrained to those aspects of competition which are reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer/buyer. For example, a covenant which is overbroad in terms of geography, time or scope will not be enforced.
Preliminary injunctive relief may be acquired in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas if supported by the underlying agreement and if properly perfected under the practices and procedures employed in the County.
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.