Legislative efforts to limit or ban the use of non-compete provisions in employment agreements have proliferated in the early months of 2018.

Perhaps most eye-catching was legislation (titled the “Workforce Mobility Act”) introduced in the U.S. Senate in late April 2018 that would prohibit employers from enforcing or threatening to enforce non-compete agreements with employees and require employers to post prominently a notice that such agreements are illegal.  Co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Chris Murphy (CT), Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Ron Wyden (OR), the bill envisions the Department of Labor enforcing the non-compete ban by levying fines on employers of $5,000 for each week that a violation of the Act occurs.  The bill also provides for a private right of action for workers to pursue damages in federal court.  A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives.  If enacted into law, the Workforce Mobility Act would have sweeping effects in the workforce.

Efforts by state legislatures to curb non-competes have continued apace, but such bills generally are drafted with more limited scope than the Workforce Mobility Act bill.  For example, on May 10, 2018, the New Jersey Assembly Labor Committee advanced Assembly Bill A1769, which would bar the use of non-compete agreements with respect to certain types of workers (mostly low-wage workers), and set a one year limit on employee non-compete agreements with respect to employees who are terminated by a company.

Massachusetts legislators have long tried (unsuccessfully so far) to enact legislation restricting non-competes, and they are at it again.  On April 17, 2018, Massachusetts House Bill 4419 was introduced, and it seeks, among other things, to prohibit enforcement of non-competes against certain low-wage employees, to limit the geographic and temporal scope of non-competes, and to require employers to provide advance notice to prospective employees if entering into a non-compete is a condition of employment.

Earlier this year, Utah and Idaho passed or amended their statutes dealing with post-employment restrictions on competition.  Colorado passed new limitations on non-competes involving physicians.

Employers should stay aware of these legislative efforts regarding non-competes, as they could, if enacted, invalidate some or all of the employers’ non-competition provisions with their employees.  In evaluating that possibility, employers should consider whether they are adequately protecting their legitimate business interests in their trade secrets and client relationships through other means as well, such as confidentiality/non-disclosure, non-solicitation agreements, and/or “garden leave” provisions.  As Ben Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

A recent decision from an Arkansas appellate court raises two important issues of enforceability of non-competition agreements: (1) the enforceability of a non-compete after expiration of the contractual non-compete period and (2) the applicable standard for determining whether a valid protectable interest exists.

In Bud Anderson Heating & Cooling, Inc. v. Neil, the plaintiff Bud Anderson Heating and Cooling, Inc. (“BAHC”), a HVAC vendor and service provider, appealed a lower court’s denial of BAHC’s petition for a one-year prospective injunction seeking to enforce an expired non-compete agreement with defendant Neil, which was allegedly violated when Neil joined a competitor located within BAHC’s territory and subsequently successfully solicited a BAHC customer.  Before addressing the merits of BAHC’s complaint, the appellate court considered—and ultimately rejected—Neil’s argument that BAHC’s appeal was moot since the injunction sought extended beyond the contract’s one-year-from-date-of-termination period.  In so holding, the court relied on (1) caselaw from other jurisdictions finding that extension of a noncompetition period is within a court’s broad equitable powers and (2) application of the “capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception to the mootness doctrine,” previously unapplied in this context.

Turning to the merits of the appeal, the appellate court found that the trial court should have applied an “able to use,” not an “actual use” standard in determining whether to grant BAHC’s injunction. Under an “able to use standard,” a petitioner need only demonstrate the ability of a former employee to use the former employer’s proprietary information to obtain an unfair competitive advantage; proof that the employee actually used such information is not required.

The Bud Anderson decision is noteworthy in two respects.  First, Arkansas employers may be able to enforce non-competes after expiration of the non-compete period, thereby achieving longer non-compete periods that would ordinarily be deemed by courts unreasonable and invalid.  Second, Arkansas employers seeking to enforce non-competes can take advantage of an “able to use” standard, which is easier to meet than an “actual use” standard.  However, given that the Bud Anderson decision presents not one but two issues of first impression, it would not be surprising if the case were to ultimately end up before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Notwithstanding these developments in Arkansas, employers should note that other courts have reached different conclusions on both of these issues. As always, it is critical to know the state-specific law in the applicable jurisdiction.

Whenever possible, restrictive covenants should be carefully worded to track the language of applicable law in the jurisdiction where they will be enforced. The South Dakota Supreme Court’s recent decision in Farm Bureau Life Insurance Co. v. Dolly provides a strong reminder of this lesson.  The case concerned an action by Farm Bureau to enforce a restrictive covenant against Ryan Dolly who had worked for Farm Bureau as a captive life insurance agent. Dolly’s contract with Farm Bureau contained a restrictive covenant providing that Dolly would “neither sell nor solicit, directly or indirectly…any insurance or annuity product, with respect to any policyholder of [Farm Bureau]… for a period of eighteen (18) months following the termination of” his contract.

When Dolly started selling insurance for a different issuer, Farm Bureau sought an injunction prohibiting Dolly from soliciting or selling to Farm Bureau policyholders.  The Trial Court enjoyed Dolly from soliciting Farm Bureau policyholders but declined to prohibit him from selling to Farm Bureau policyholders who reached out to him directly.

After consulting the South Dakota statute governing contracts with captive insurance agents (SDCL 53-9-12), the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed.  The Court interpreted SDCL 53-9-12 to prohibit all restrictive covenants between life insurance companies and captive agents except agreements (a) not to solicit existing customers of the insurer within a specified area; and (b) not to engage directly or indirectly in the same business or profession as that of the insurer.  The Court ruled that the agreement not to sell to existing customers was neither an agreement not to solicit, nor an agreement to refrain from the business altogether and was therefore invalid under South Dakota law.

Failure to track the precise language of the statute prevented Farm Bureau from enjoining conduct which it otherwise could have prevented had it tracked the statutory language more closely.

We non-compete lawyers often rely on an old rule of thumb when analyzing the enforceability of a non-compete: if the restriction is so broad that it would even prohibit an employee from working as a janitor for a competitor, then it is very unlikely to be enforced by a judge. And so when a federal judge expressly endorses such a rule of thumb, the urge to blog about it is simply irresistible.

In Medix Staffing Solutions Inc. v. Daniel Dumrauf, Judge Ellis of the Northern District of Illinois addressed the enforceability of a restrictive covenant which prohibited employment in any capacity at another company in the industry.  The defendant argued that this restriction was so broad that it “would bar him from even working as a janitor at another company.”  While Judge Ellis described that example as “a bit far-fetched,” she nonetheless found “no language in the Covenant that makes it an inaccurate statement of [the Covenant’s] prohibitions.”  Accordingly, she held that the restriction was unenforceable on its face and that “[t]here is no factual scenario under which it would be reasonable.”  Accordingly, she held that “[t]his is an ‘extreme case’ where dismissal at the motion to dismiss stage is permissible and appropriate.”

And while noting that courts have the power to modify overbroad restrictive covenants, Judge Ellis refused to do so here, holding that Medix must instead “live with [its] decision” not “to draft an appropriate restrictive covenant.”

So, employers, the moral of the story is this: if your non-compete really would block an employee from working as a janitor for a competitor, it is time to update your non-compete, paying due heed, of course, to issues of adequacy of consideration for any such modification and other case law and statutory developments.

Following the FBI’s recent raid of the office and home of Michael Cohen the bounds of the attorney-client privilege have become a topic of debate and discussion. During the raid, the FBI seized business records, documents, recordings, and emails. Earlier this week, Judge Kimba Wood for the Southern District of New York ruled that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York could review the documents seized with a special team in place to review for privilege despite Mr. Cohen’s objections to this process.

Thus, the question has quickly become when is the attorney-client privilege actually applicable? Simply put, just telling a lawyer something, or copying a lawyer on an email, does not make the conversation or email privileged. Not all communications with an attorney are privileged from disclosure under the attorney-client privilege. The reality is that a communication (i.e. emails, correspondence, oral communications, etc.) will only be privileged when the subject communication meets certain criteria, and it is confidential (meaning that it is not shared with non-attorney/non-client third parties).

In order for the privilege to apply to the communication itself, the “primary purpose” of the communication must be to seek or provide legal advice. In other words, a communication is not privileged if it does not: (1) request legal advice or (2) convey information reasonably related to a request for legal assistance. Thus, asking an attorney about investment advice or other non-legal issues is NOT privileged. Moreover, having a discussion (or email exchange) with an attorney, where others are present (or included) is NOT privileged.

Since in-house counsel often act as part of an executive team, they may be providing more than just legal advice. Thus, general “[b]usiness advice, unrelated to legal advice, is not protected by the privilege even though conveyed by an attorney to the client,” because the purpose and intent is not to communicate legal advice. See In re Vioxx Prds. Liab. Litig., 501 F. Supp. 2d 789, 797 (E.D. La. 2007) (emphasis added) (quoting In re CFS-Related Securities Fraud Litig., 223 F.R.D. 631 (N.D. Okla. 2004)).

Emails to or from in-house counsel that seek both business and legal advice will not satisfy the “primary purpose” requirement. More specifically, an email that lists an attorney and a non-attorney in the “To” field may not be privileged if it has a mixed purpose (i.e. seeks both business and legal advice). Meanwhile, emails that list an in-house attorney in the “To” field and a non-attorney in the “cc” field are only privileged if the non-attorney is copied so as to notify that person that legal advice was in fact sought and what legal advice was provided. Also, emails, texts and discussions by an attorney with an opposing counsel or other third party are not privileged.

Thus, it is important to: (i) keep the primary purpose of all communications with attorneys clear and state when you are seeking legal advice; and (ii) avoid oral communications in the presence of “third parties,” or copying them on emails, texts and other correspondence.

Two western states, Utah and Idaho, have recently passed or amended their statutes dealing with post-employment restrictions on competition.  This continues a national trend in which new state law in this area is increasingly the product of legislative action rather than judicial interpretation.  Thus, even if an employer has no current presence in these states, it is worth one’s time to understand these changes because they could soon be coming your way.

In Utah, the legislature amended the two-year old Post-Employment Restrictions Act (which we had written about before) to limit the enforcement of non-compete agreements against employees in the broadcasting industry.  The statute (HB 241) imposes a compensation test that precludes non-competes for broadcast industry employees making less than $47,476 annually, limits broadcast company employment contracts to four years or less, and nullifies any restriction that would limit competition beyond the original contract expiration date (meaning that an employee with a one year restriction who leaves a broadcast employer three months before contract expiration would have a three-month non-compete rather than a one-year non-compete).  The amendment also allows enforcement only if the employee is either terminated “for cause,” or the employee breaches the employment contract “in a manner that results in” his or her separation, curious language that seems to leave unaddressed whether a non-compete can be enforced where a non-breaching employee simply resigns.  While this amendment is certainly part of the trend of states (Arizona, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York) having statutes specific to non-compete agreements in the broadcasting industry, it also fits in the broader trend of industry-specific limitations targeting an expanding list of industries and the even broader attack on non-compete agreements more generally.

The Idaho legislature also took action recently by amending its non-compete statute to remove an important pro-employer presumption applicable to non-compete agreements for “key” employees.  The Idaho statute, Idaho Code §44-2701 et seq., had since 2016 included a provision (§44-2704(6)) providing that an employer would be entitled to a rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm when a key employee found that employer likely to succeed on its claim that the employee had violated the covenant.  The legislature, in S 1287a, repealed that provision, restoring Idaho law to its pre-2016 status, as Idaho’s governor noted in his statement concerning the bill.  The governor did not sign the bill, but simply allowed it to become law without his signature.  He stated that he refrained from signing the bill because there was “no consensus” in the business community or the tech sector on such agreements, and went on to note that the next session of the legislature should re-adopt a modified version of the presumption provision just jettisoned.  As in Utah, this legislative back-and-forth illustrates the continued attention states are paying to non-compete issues in political, rather than judicial, forums.

On April 3, 2018, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (“DOJ”) announced that it had entered into a settlement with two of the world’s largest railroad equipment manufacturers resolving a lawsuit alleging the defendant employers had entered into unlawful “no-poach” agreements.  The DOJ’s Complaint, captioned U.S. v. Knorr-Bremse AG and Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp., 18-cv-00747 (D. D.C.) alleges that three employers referred to as Knorr, Wabtec and Faively,[1] unlawfully promised one another “not to solicit, recruit, hire without approval, or otherwise compete for employees.”  It goes on to allege “[t]hese no-poach agreements denied American rail industry workers access to better job opportunities, restricted their mobility, and deprived them of competitively significant information that they could have used to negotiate better terms of employment.”

This development should come as no surprise; since October 2016 federal antitrust enforcement agencies[2] have been vocal about their increased focus on no-poaching and wage-fixing agreements among employers.  This past January, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division reiterated that no-poaching agreements among employers remained an enforcement priority and employers could expect the DOJ to announce an increasing number of enforcement actions in the coming months.

Although the allegations against Knorr and Wabtec concern agreements between high-level corporate officers, employers should take steps to ensure that all managers, recruiters, and human resources professionals comply with applicable antitrust laws. For example, seemingly innocuous activities like discussing employee salary and benefits at industry conferences can constitute an unlawful information exchange.  Consulting the joint FTC and DOJ Antitrust Red Flags for Employment Practices provides an accessible starting point for understanding this area of the law.  However, employers will be well served to take additional steps to audit their business practices and communications with competitors throughout the organization in order to detect, and mitigate any legal risk associated with potentially unlawful agreements with competitors.

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[1] “Knorr” refers to Knorr-Bremse AG, including its wholly owned US subsidiaries.  “Wabtec” is an abbreviation of Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation.  “Faiveley” refers to Faiveley Transport S.A.  Faiveley is not included in the case caption because it was acquired by Wabtec in 2016.

[2] The DOJ Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”)

Earlier this month, Colorado amended its law governing physician non-compete agreements (C.R.S. § 8-2-113(3)).  Since its enactment in 1982, that statute generally has prohibited agreements restricting the rights of physicians to practice medicine, but has allowed contractual provisions requiring a physician to pay damages arising from his or her competition if the damages are reasonably related to the injury suffered by the employer or other contracting party.  Under the amended statute, “a physician may disclose his or her continuing practice of medicine and new professional contact information to any patient with a rare disorder…to whom the physician was providing treatment.”   The goal of the amendment is to avoid interruptions to the continued care of individuals with rare disorders.  The statute looks to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc. to maintain a database of diseases considered “rare disorders.”

Colorado physician practices should review and, if necessary, update any restrictive covenants in their physician agreements to ensure they are enforceable under the amended statute, bearing in mind that physicians now have the right to communicate personal contact information to patients suffering from rare disorders. Going forward, to avoid future disputes, physicians and their employers or practices may even wish to agree upon the language departing physicians can use to communicate information regarding their new practice to persons with rare disorders.

Also, any such review of physician agreements should consider the recent Colorado Supreme Court decision limiting the damages physicians’ practices can recover against physicians in breach of their non-compete agreements.

A little-noticed decision from earlier this year rendered by the Supreme Court of New York, Westchester County, demonstrates how enforcement of post-employment restrictive covenants will often boil down to a single question: does the restriction protect a legitimate business interest of the employer?

In Cindy Hoffman, D.O., P.C. v. Raftopol, plaintiff applied for a preliminary injunction against its former employee, a physician’s assistant, who began working for a competitor in technical violation of her past employment non-compete restriction which barred her for two years from working for competitors located within fifteen miles of any of the plaintiff-employer’s several offices.  Plaintiff asked the court to apply relaxed scrutiny to the covenant, arguing that the physician’s assistant position could be considered to be a “learned profession” in which her services performed were unique and extraordinary.  The court declined to apply such deference where the defendant was not in fact a physician.  Examining the two year restriction under New York’s traditional reasonableness standard, the court still was reluctant to enforce it as written.  Instead, Justice Terry Jane Ruderman blue-penciled the agreement and granted the preliminary injunction only to the extent of preventing the defendant from affirmatively soliciting clients of the plaintiff’s practice for a period of two years.

Safeguarding the plaintiff’s client relationships was the true legitimate business interest worthy of protection, and the court was willing to go no further than that in granting its injunctive relief.

The Colorado Court of Appeals, in Crocker v. Greater Colorado Anesthesia, P.C., recently examined several unique enforceability considerations with respect to a physician non-compete agreement.  Of particular interest was the Court’s treatment of a liquidated damages provision in the agreement.  Pursuant to a Colorado statute (8-2-113(3), C.R.S. 2017), the Court held that the provision was unenforceable because the liquidated damages were not reasonably related to the injury actually suffered.

Michael Crocker, a former physician-shareholder at Greater Colorado Anesthesia (Old GCA), signed an employment agreement with Old GCA that contained a non-compete provision that prohibited Crocker from practicing anesthesiology within 15 miles of a hospital serviced by Old GCA, for two years following termination of the agreement. The employment agreement also included a liquidated damages clause that required a former employee who violated the non-compete agreement to pay “(1) the three-year annual average of the gross revenues produced by the doctor’s practice; (2) minus the three-year annual average of the direct cost of [Old GCA] employee; (3) multiplied by two, to reflect two years of competition; and (4) plus $30,000 to cover the estimated internal and external administrative costs to terminate and replace the competing doctor.”

In January of 2015, Old GCA’s shareholders voted to approve a merger. Crocker dissented. Crocker severed his employment relationship with Old GCA and later began working for another anesthesiology group within the non-compete area outlined in his employment agreement. After the merger, New GCA sought damages for Crocker’s breach of his non-compete. The district court determined that the non-compete was unenforceable. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision on several grounds, including hardship on Crocker and Crocker’s rights as a dissenting shareholder with respect to the merger.

The court also independently rejected New GCA’s request for liquidated damages, determining that the company suffered no damages, and that the liquidated damages clause was unenforceable because it was not reasonably related to “any injury [New GCA] actually suffered due to Crocker’s departure.” Citing the Colorado statute governing liquidated damages clauses in physician non-compete agreements, the court explained that “a damages term in a non-compete provision such as here is enforceable only if the amount . . . is reasonably related to ‘the injury suffered’ in the past tense. Under this plain language, the reasonableness of the relationship between the two amounts must be demonstrated, and it cannot be analyzed prospectively; by definition, it can only be determined upon the termination of employment.”

This case underscores the need for employers seeking to enter into restrictive covenants with their employees to consult with counsel when drafting such covenants. In the circumstances of this case, there was a state statute specifically bearing upon the liquidated damages provision in the physician non-compete agreement, which effectively prevented that provision from being enforced against the employee. The world of restrictive covenants can be tricky and compliance with state laws (statutes and case law) is crucial when the time comes to enforce them.