On April 13, 2015 we blogged about the decision of the Ninth Circuit in Golden v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group, 782 F.3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2015). There, the Ninth Circuit considered whether, under California law, an employee could be ordered to sign a settlement agreement that included language that restricted him, inter alia, from future employment with his former employer.

Dr. Golden is an emergency-room doctor who sued California Emergency Physicians Medical Group (“CEP”), among others, regarding his loss of staff membership at a medical facility.  His lawsuit was based on various state and federal causes of action, including racial discrimination.  The parties orally agreed in open court to settle the case and the settlement terms included “a substantial monetary amount,”  dismissal of the action, a release of CEP and a waiver of any and all rights to employment with CEP or at any facility that CEP may own or with which it may contract in the future (the “no-employment provision”).  Dr. Golden refused to sign the written agreement and attempted to have it set aside.  His attorney moved the court to withdraw as counsel, moved the court to intervene and further moved the court to enforce the settlement agreement so he could collect his contingency fee. In further proceedings, a magistrate judge recommended that Dr. Golden be ordered to sign an amended agreement, and that recommendation was adopted by the district court judge who concluded the settlement agreement was not within the ambit of Business and Professions Code § 16600, which makes unlawful in California (with limited exceptions) any contract to the extent it restrains someone from engaging in a lawful trade, business or profession.  Dr. Golden refused to sign the agreement and filed a notice of appeal.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s enforcement of the settlement agreement and remanded the case to the district court to determine whether a no employment provision in the agreement is a “restraint of substantial character” to the Plaintiff’s medical practice.

On remand, the district court again ordered Dr. Golden to sign the settlement agreement, concluding that the no-employment provision was not a restraint of substantial character. Dr. Golden again appealed.

In its July 24, 2018 decision, the Ninth Circuit surveyed California law and noted first that a contractual provision imposes a restraint of substantial character if it significantly or materially impedes a person’s lawful profession, trade, or business.  The Ninth Circuit noted that a provision need not completely prohibit the business or professional activity at issue, nor need it be sufficient to dissuade a reasonable person from engaging in that activity.  Rather, the “restraining effect must be significant enough that its enforcement would implicate the policies of open competition and employee mobility that animate Section 16600.”  The Court noted that it “will be the rare contractual restraint whose effect is so insubstantial that it escapes scrutiny under Section 16600.”

Looking to the provision in the settlement agreement at issue, the Ninth Circuit noted that it impeded Dr. Golden’s ability to practice medicine in three ways.

First, the settlement agreement prohibited Dr. Golden from working or being reinstated at any facility owned or managed by CEP.

Second, the settlement agreement prohibited Dr. Golden from working at any CEP-contracted facility.

Third, the settlement agreement provided that if CEP contracts to provide services to, or acquires rights in a facility where Dr. Golden is currently working as an emergency room physician or hospitalist, CEP has the right to terminate his employment with no liability.

The Ninth Circuit held that the first provision, which barred Dr. Golden from future employment at facilities owned or managed by CEP did not impose a substantial restraint on his medical practice. The Ninth Circuit further held, however that the second and third provisions did substantially restrain Dr. Golden’s practice of medicine and were therefore barred by Section 16600.  These two provisions limited employment with third parties based merely on whether CEP contracted with them. As a result, if Dr. Golden was employed by a hospital that later contracted with CEP to provide, for example, anesthesiology services, Dr. Golden would be ineligible for employment with the hospital.

Given the size of CEP’s business in California—it staffs 160 facilities in the state and handles between 25% and 30% of the state’s emergency room admissions, these provisions were a substantial restraint on Dr. Golden’s trade.

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling may leave open whether a provision in a settlement agreement that permits an employer to terminate the employment of an employee where it acquires the employee’s new employer will pass muster under Section 16600.  The provisions at issue in Golden were extremely broad: Plaintiff was prohibited from employment with entities with which CEP contracts to provide services to, or “acquires rights” in.  A different, more limited provision that prohibited employment at entities as to which the employer acquires outright may be held not to impose a substantial restraint on trade.  Further, the Ninth Circuit relied in part on CEP’s broad reach in the state of California.  This leaves open that smaller employers may be able to impose restrictions that larger employers with more market share may not.

In a very thorough analysis following a 3 day Preliminary Injunction hearing Judge Jed Rakoff declined to issue injunctive relief to a former employer seeking to enjoin four former employees and their new employer from competing or from soliciting clients or employees. The decision is far ranging in the employee movement context touching upon inadvertent retention of confidential information, the propriety of new employers providing broad indemnifications and large signing bonuses to the recruits,  and the scope of allowable “preparatory conduct” in a one year non-compete period, among other issues presented in the context of a group of employees in the eDiscovery services space collectively on the move.

Four senior sales executives of plaintiff Document Technologies Inc (“DTI”) collectively decided to leave DTI and signed new employment agreements with LDiscovery. LDiscovery provided the four with agreements that indemnified them from claims of improper conduct by DTI as well as significant signing bonuses to make up for lost compensation during the one year non-compete period they agreed to abide by. The Court found nothing wrong with these agreements and also that accepting employment and engaging in preparatory meetings and analysis of the marketplace were permissible preparatory acts and do not violate the non-competition prohibitions in their agreements with DTI. The Court also found that there was no breach of the employee non-solicit where the four employees coordinated their job search since they had each individually resolved to leave DTI in advance of coming together. Collectively reaching the conclusion to seek alternative employment was found not to be a breach of the employee non-solicit provisions each had in their agreement with DTI. The Court was skeptical that where the employees were all “at will” versus subject to a term contract, that the three prong test of enforceability under BDO Seidman could be met. The fact that they marketed themselves as a “package” deal was not unfair competition supporting a finding of breach. Similarly, LDiscovery could not be held liable for tortious interference by recruiting the team, providing them with signing bonuses and by indemnifying them.

This decision provides a good framework for legal analysis when determining the propriety of a team move and whether certain conduct of the employees and their new employer warrant injunctive relief.

James P. Flynn
James P. Flynn

The State of Utah recently enacted Utah Code Annotated 34-51-101 et seq., the so-called Post-Employment Restrictions Amendments, which limit restrictive covenants entered into on or after May 10, 2016 to a one-year time period from termination. Although this could curtail certain employers’ plans, the amendments enacted provide some important exceptions and are in fact much more favorable to employers than those first proposed, which would have precluded virtually all post-employment restrictions in Utah. The statute and the exceptions and limitations are discussed below.

The statute as written declares a non-conforming “post-employment restrictive covenant” is “void.” Because Utah courts have not specifically adopted the “blue-pencil approach,” and any approach to reformation is unclear from case law or unresolved, the implications of the statute are unclear. Will voiding the “post-employment restrictive covenant” void the entire agreement of which it is a part, or just the post employment restrictions? Such questions remain to be answered.

The new law does have several important exceptions. It does not apply to (1) a “reasonable severance agreement,” (2) any restrictive covenants stemming from the sale of a business, (3) non-solicitation agreements, (4) nondisclosure agreements, and (5) confidentiality agreements. Perhaps most importantly, it is not retroactive. Of course, whether or not the statute will apply to an amendment to a pre-existing non-compete with a restricted period greater than one year remains to be seen.

Additionally, the statute’s exceptions must themselves be examined and applied with care. For example with respect to severance agreements, the statute will only allow enforceable post-employment restrictions “mutually and freely agreed upon in good faith at or after the time of termination.” Thus, employees may argue that the very use of a form restriction weighs against enforceability. Utah employers will need to carefully consider how to approach these issues, and to make any updates or changes to existing agreements before May 10, 2016.

Finally, and perhaps of most practical importance, Section 34-51-301 of the statute allows employees to recover attorneys’ fees where a post-employment restriction is found unenforceable:

If an employer seeks to enforce a post-employment restrictive covenant through arbitration or by filing a civil action and it is determined that the post-employment restrictive covenant is unenforceable, the employer is liable for the employee’s:
(1) costs associated with arbitration;
(2) attorney fees and court costs; and
(3) actual damages.

This provision could have a practical impact on the risk calculus associated with pursuing enforcement of restrictive covenants. Just another consideration among the many that are occasioned by this new statute.

An executive’s resignation and intention to begin work for a competitor of his former employer has resulted in a bicoastal battle of lawsuits over the terms of a noncompete clause in his employment agreement.

On April 27, 2009, David Donatelli resigned his position as president of EMC Corp.’s storage division. That same day, Donatelli filed a lawsuit in California state court asking for a declaratory judgment voiding the noncompete clause in his employment agreement with EMC Corp. Donatelli’s attorneys are no doubt cognizant of California law’s hostility to noncompete clauses and sought to establish jurisdiction where the chances of enforcement of the noncompete are minimal. Donatelli intended to begin working at Hewlett Packard on May 5, 2009.

Placing a close second in the proverbial race to the courthouse, on April 28, 2009, EMC Corp. filed a suit in the Superior Court, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, alleging that Donatelli violated the noncompete in his employment agreement. EMC Corp. quickly moved for preliminary injunctive relief, and on May 4, 2009, Judge Stephen E. Neel issued a temporary injunction preventing Donatelli from starting his new position at Hewlett Packard as planned, pending a full hearing, noting: “Donatelli’s intention to work for HP in California, which has a statutory prohibition on covenants not to compete, does not warrant denial of EMC’s request for injunctive relief.”

It will be interesting to see if the California court renders a decision prior to the hearing in the Massachusetts court, and whether one court will defer to the other.