On August 10, 2018, the Governor of Massachusetts signed “An Act relative to the judicial enforcement of noncompetition agreements,” otherwise known as The Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act, §24L of Chapter 149 of the Massachusetts General Laws. (That bill was part of a large budget bill, H. 4868, available here; the text of the provisions relevant here at pages 56-62 of the bill as linked). The Act limited non-competition provisions in most employment contexts to one-year and required employers wishing to enforce such a one-year period to pay their ex-employees for the time that such employees are sidelined. The Act also precluded enforcing such provisions against employees laid-off or terminated without cause or against employees classified as non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act. These and the other requirements noted below become effective and apply to employee noncompetition agreements entered into on or after October 1, 2018, and the Act curiously contains some significant exceptions as well. Below we will highlight material aspects of the new law, which was recently featured on Employment Law This Week.

Requirements for Enforcement Start Early

In connection with a non-compete agreement provided to an employee at the start of employment, an employer must provide it to the employee at the time of the offer of employment or ten business days prior to starting employment, whichever is earlier. Act, lines 1282-1291, at page 58-59. (The Act defines such agreements as “an agreement between an employer and employee, or otherwise arising out of an existing or anticipated employment relationship, under which the employee or expected employee agrees that he or she will not engage in certain specified activities competitive with his or her employer after the employment relationship has ended.” Act, lines 1264-1267, at page 57-58)

For a non-competition agreement presented to an employee during employment, the employer must provide it to the employee ten business days before it takes effect and such an agreement must be supported by “fair and reasonable consideration independent from the continuation of employment.” Act, lines 1287-1297, at page 58-59.

The Act also requires that a non-competition agreement “expressly state that the employee has the right to consult with counsel prior to signing.” Act, lines 1289, at page 59.

Further, the Act applies to all employees and independent contractors working in Massachusetts regardless of whether the agreement has a choice-of-law provision specifying the law of some other jurisdiction applies. Act, lines 1249-51, at page 57. (How it will apply to sales personnel with multi-jurisdiction territories remains to be seen, and its provision purporting to apply its requirements to those who are a “resident of” Massachusetts as opposed to those working there certainly appears one likely to be litigated as well. Act, lines 1346-1349, at page 61.)

The Death of Reasonable Pro-Employer Restrictions In Massachusetts?

The Act certainly requires employers to pay attention. But it preserves many tools for employers to use with employees, so it seems that reports of the death of such restrictions is greatly exaggerated. When employers understand a core of four concepts about the new law, they will be able to structure their approach accordingly.

First and foremost, the Act requires that most non-compete periods be limited to one-year during which the employee receives garden-leave pay or some “other mutually agreed-upon consideration.” Act, lines 1318-1330, at page 60. The Act defines garden-leave pay as payment of at least half of the employee’s highest base salary during the two years preceding the restricted period but it does not define in any way the phrase “other mutually agreed-upon consideration.” Id. The Act also allows the one-year period to be extended to two years and the obligation to pay compensation to vanish where the employee has breached fiduciary duties or has taken property belonging to the employer. Act, lines 1305-1313, at page 59-60. In the end, the Act states that such provisions “must be no broader than necessary to protect one or more . . . legitimate business interests of the employer” but also that “[a] noncompetition agreement may be presumed necessary where the legitimate business interest cannot be adequately protected through an alternative restrictive covenant, including but not limited to a non-solicitation agreement or a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.” Act, lines 1298-1304, at page 59.   But the Act also notes that courts may “reform or otherwise revise” such agreements to be consistent with the Act and Massachusetts public policy. Act, lines 1331, at page 60 and Act, lines 1343-1345, at page 61.

Second, the Act precludes enforcement of non-competition agreements against certain classes of employees. An employer may not enforce non-competes against employees who are (i) nonexempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, (ii) undergraduate or graduate students who are in an internship program or other short-term employment relationship with an employer (whether paid or unpaid) while enrolled in a full-time or part-time undergraduate or graduate educational institution, (iii) under age 18, or (iv) terminated without cause, though “cause” and “without cause” are undefined. Act, lines 1332-1342, at page 61. Still, the Act expressly states that a number of traditional restrictions fall outside its requirements, and may continue to be used by Massachusetts’ employers, including the following as agreements unaffected by the Act:

  • those “not to solicit or hire employees of the employer”
  • those “not to solicit or transact business with customers, clients, or vendors of the employer”
  • those “made in connection with the sale of a business entity or substantially all of the operating assets of a business entity or partnership, or otherwise disposing of the ownership interest of a business entity or partnership, or division or subsidiary thereof, when the party restricted by the noncompetition agreement is a significant owner of, or member or partner in, the business entity who will receive significant consideration or benefit from the sale or disposal”
  • those “outside of an employment relationship”
  • “forfeiture agreements,” which are defined as “an agreement that imposes adverse financial consequences on a former employee as a result of the termination of an employment relationship, regardless of whether the employee engages in competitive activities following cessation of the employment”
  • nondisclosure or confidentiality agreements
  • invention assignment agreements.

[Act, lines 1268-1281, at page 58.]

Perhaps of greatest interest, employers may still extract longer non-competes “made in connection with the cessation of or separation from employment if the employee is expressly given seven business days to rescind,” which means that noncompetition agreement may be part of a severance agreement. Id. How that will play out where one enters into a severance agreement with one who would otherwise be terminated without cause will prove interesting.

Third, the Act also limits both geographic scope and precludable competitive activities. It does so by limiting scope to those geographic areas employee actually worked in and those services the employee actually provided—during employee’s last two years of employment. This is seen in the statutory language that says “[a] geographic reach that is limited to only the geographic areas in which the employee, during any time within the last two years of employment, provided services or had a material presence or influence is presumptively reasonable” and that “[a] restriction on activities that protects a legitimate business interest and is limited to only the specific types of services provided by the employee at any time during the last two years of employment is presumptively reasonable.” Act, lines 1310-1317, at page 60.

Fourth, the Act also seems to limit venue to certain specific courts. The Act states that “[a]ll civil actions relating to employee noncompetition agreements subject to this section shall be brought in the county where the employee resides or, if mutually agreed upon by the employer and employee, in Suffolk county; provided that, in any such action brought in Suffolk county, the superior court or the business litigation session of the superior court shall have exclusive jurisdiction.” Act, lines 1350-1354, at page 60-61. The notion of “exclusive jurisdiction” will also likely be the subject of contested claims brought in federal court under the Act.

All Things Considered, I’d Rather Be In ….

As noted at the outset, the Massachusetts Act is a set of significant, material changes for employers. But they are manageable when one understands the full panoply of options that remain open to employers in Massachusetts and takes the time to plan with counsel for the October 1st transition to a new non-compete regime that in fact will continue to include much of what is already in use for sophisticated employers. So, Massachusetts will remain manageable.

In managing workforces, particularly when addressing employee turnover, employers often find themselves facing issues regarding how best to safeguard their confidential business information and how to protect their relationships with clients and employees. In recent years, the legal landscape underlying these issues has been evolving, as lawmakers and judges grapple with the tension in these matters between protection and free competition.

In this Take 5, we examine recent developments, both in the courts and legislative bodies, concerning trade secrets and employee mobility:

  1. Antitrust Action Against No-Poaching Agreements: The Trump Administration Continues Obama Policy
  2. Drafting “Garden Leave” Clauses in Employment Agreements
  3. Will Insurance Cover a Company Sued in a Trade Secrets Lawsuit?
  4. Defend Trade Secrets Act Developments in 2017
  5. New and Proposed State Statutes and Federal Legislation Limiting Non-Compete Agreements

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

Several states in recent years have enacted laws that have been designed, in varying degrees, to limit non-competes, including California, Illinois, and Nevada. Which states and cities are most likely to do the same in 2018?

The New Hampshire and New York City legislatures have introduced bills that seek to prohibit the use of non-compete agreements with regard to low-wage employees. Under New Hampshire’s Bill (SB 423), a “low-wage employee” is defined as one who earns $15.00 per hour or less.  The New Hampshire Bill was introduced on January 24, 2018 and is scheduled for a hearing in February.  Under New York City’s bill (Introduction 1663), a “low-wage employee” means all employees except for manual workers, railroad workers, commission salesmen, and workers employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity whose earnings are in excess of $900 dollars a week. In addition, the New York City Bill would prohibit employers from “requir[ing] a potential employee who is not a low-wage worker to enter into a covenant not to compete, unless, at the beginning of the process for hiring [the employee], [the] employer disclos[es] in writing that [the employee] may be subject to such a covenant.”  The New York City Bill was introduced by the City Council on July 20, 2017 and filed on December 31, 2017.

Other more sweeping proposals to restrict the use of all non-compete agreements have been introduced in Pennsylvania and Vermont.  The scope of Vermont’s Bill (HB 556) appears to be broader than Pennsylvania’s and prohibits, with exceptions, any agreement “not to compete or any other agreement that restrains an individual from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business.” HB 556 was introduced on January 3, 2018 and is currently in Committee.  Pennsylvania’s Bill (HB1938) prohibits (also subject to some exceptions), an agreement between an employer and employee that “is designed to impede the ability of the employee to seek employment with another employer.” The Bill includes provisions that would award attorneys’ fees and damages (including punitive damages) to those employees who prevail in litigation against an employer concerning the non-compete. HB 1938 also would require that any litigation involving a resident of Pennsylvania be decided in a Pennsylvania state court under Pennsylvania law.  The Pennsylvania Bill was introduced and referred to Committee on November 27, 2017.

Massachusetts and Washington have also introduced legislation that would add requirements for employers seeking to use non-compete agreements. In Massachusetts, six separate bills have been introduced, three of which (HB 2371, SB 840, and SB 1017) would require employers to include a “garden leave clause” (or “other mutually agreed upon consideration”) in the non-compete agreements.  The garden leave clause would require employers to pay former employees, on a pro rata basis, either 50 percent (under HB 2371) or 100 percent (under SB 840 and SB1017) of their earnings for the duration of the restricted period.  The Massachusetts Bills were introduced and referred to Committee on January 23, 2017.  In Washington, lawmakers recently introduced a bill (HB 1967) which would require employers to “disclose the terms of the [non-compete] agreement in writing to the prospective employee no later than the time of the acceptance of the offer of employment or, if the agreement is entered into after the commencement of employment, the employer must provide independent consideration for the agreement.”  Additionally, HB 1967 would allow an employer to recover actual damages, statutory damages of $5,000, and attorneys’ fees and costs if an employer requires an employee to sign a non-compete agreement that contains provisions that the “employer knows are unenforceable.”  The Washington Bill was introduced in the House on February 2, 2017 and now is in Committee in the Senate.

At this point it is too early and difficult to predict whether the proposed laws will garner enough support to clear the necessary legislative and executive hurdles to be enacted. Sometimes state bills seeking to restrict the use of non-competes fail to gain enough traction.  Indeed, in 2017 both Maryland’s HB 506 and New Jersey’s SB 3518 died in their respective legislative houses soon after being introduced; Massachusetts especially has a track record of introducing bills intended to limit the use of non-compete agreements that fail to become laws.  Of the bills still in play, the Washington bill is furthest along and seems like it may get passed, though it too may die in Committee.  In any event, employers across all states (and in these states especially) should stay tuned and continue to draft narrowly tailored and enforceable non-competes.

Peter A. Steinmeyer and Lauri F. Rasnick, Members of the Firm in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice, in the firm’s Chicago and New York offices, respectively, co-authored an article in Thomson Reuters Practical Law, titled “Garden Leave Provisions in Employment Agreements.”

Following is an excerpt (see below to download the full article in PDF format):

In recent years, traditional non-compete agreements have come under increasing judicial scrutiny, with courts focusing on issues such as the adequacy of consideration, the propriety of non-competes for lower level employees, and whether the restrictions of a noncompete are justified by a legitimate business interest or are merely a tool used to suppress competition.

Although the Trump Administration’s attitude toward non-compete agreements is unknown, the Obama Administration was disapproving of them. Both the US Department of Treasury and the White House issued reports in 2016 that questioned the widespread use of non-competes and suggested that they hampered labor mobility and ultimately restrained economic growth (see US Department of the Treasury: Non-Compete Contracts: Economic Effects and Policy Considerations (Mar. 2016) and White House Report: Non-Compete Agreements: Analysis of the Usage, Potential Issues, and State Responses (May 2016)). Some states have passed legislation essentially banning non-competes for certain categories of workers, such as low-wage workers in Illinois (820 ILCS 90/1) and technology sector workers in Hawaii (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 480-4(d)). In other states, such as California, almost all post-employment non-competes are unenforceable (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 16600-16602.5).

With this background, employers are seeking alternatives to traditional non-compete agreements to protect their proprietary information and customer relationships. …

Download the full article in PDF format.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: An employer cannot waive its own non-compete agreement to avoid payment, unless the agreement specifically grants it the right to do so.

An employee of a financial services firm in Illinois signed an agreement that required a six-month post-employment non-competition period in exchange for $1 million from his employer. When the worker resigned, the employer sent a notice waiving the agreement and telling the employee that it would not pay him the $1 million. After waiting out the six months, the employee filed suit against his former employer. The Illinois Court of Appeals found that there was no provision in the agreement that allowed the employer to change the terms without consent from the worker, and because the employee upheld his end of the contract, the employer must pay him what is due.

Watch the segment below and see our previous post on this topic.

In Reed v. Getco, LLC, the Illinois Court of Appeals was recently faced with an interesting situation: under a contractual non-compete agreement, the employer was obligated to pay the employee $1 million during a six month, post-employment non-competition period.  This was, in effect, a form of paid “garden leave” —  where the employee was to be paid $1 million to sit out for six months – perhaps to finally correct his golf slice or even learn the fine art of surfing.  It was a win-win situation that seemingly would be blessed by most courts; it was for a reasonable length of time, and the employee was set to be paid very handsomely for sitting out.  Accordingly, it is doubtful that most judges would have had an issue with it.

Yet here, the employer apparently had second thoughts – and just over a week after the employee resigned, the employer notified the employee that it was waiving the six month non-compete, allowing him to work anywhere, and therefore not paying him any portion of the promised $1 million.

Some non-compete agreements have express clauses allowing an employer to do just this – to shorten the non-compete and thereby avoid contractual non-compete payments — but the Court’s opinion makes mention of no such a clause here.

According to the Court, the employer attempted to justify the non-payment on several grounds.

First, the employer argued that because the non-compete itself was to the employer’s benefit, it was free to waive the non-compete period and not make the accompanying $1 million payment. But the Court effectively said, “whoa, not so fast,” noting that the non-compete agreement also had a clause stating that there could be no waiver of any contractual provision unless “signed by the party against whom the waiver or modification is enforced.” Here, the waiver was being enforced against the employee, but the employee signed no such written waiver and therefore the purported waiver was ineffective.  Moreover, the Court found that there was no language in the agreement indicating that actual enforcement of the non-compete provision was a condition precedent to the $1 million payment.

Second, the employer argued that because there was a provision in the non-compete agreement which allowed the employer to waive the restriction if requested by the employee, the employer had the discretion to modify all of the noncompete restrictions, including the $1 million payment obligation.  Again, the Court found that this interpretation was not supported by the plain and unambiguous language of the provision, which only applied to a situation where the employee requested a waiver.

Finally, the employer argued that the employee had a duty to mitigate, and could not simply spend six months doing as he chose while collecting $1 million from his former employer. The Court held that when an employer breaches an employment contract, the employee generally has a duty to reasonably mitigate damages. However, here the promise was that the employee would not engage in competitive activities for six months and, in exchange, the employee would be paid the promised sum.  The employee abided by his non-compete obligation and sat out for six months, so the Court held that the payment was due.

What should employers take from this decision? Because provisions obligating payment during non-compete periods can impose significant costs on the employer, employers must realistically assess what they are willing to pay. One option to control such costs is to make explicit in the agreement that the employer has the right to shorten any non-compete or garden leave period, and that the employer also has an accompanying right to proportionately reduce or eliminate any accompanying payment obligation. The absence of such an express contractual authorization was the death knell for Getco in this case.

David J. Clark
David J. Clark

The Massachusetts legislature ended its 2015-2106 session on July 31, 2016, and lawmakers did not pass new legislation regarding non-compete agreements before doing so.

For the last few years, numerous efforts have been made in the Commonwealth to limit the use of non-compete agreements, resulting in several bills introduced in the Statehouse.  The latest bills, introduced in the House in June and the Senate in mid-July, would have set clear boundaries on the use of non-compete agreements by employers, including by establishing requirements that such non-compete provisions be signed and in writing, not exceed 12 months in duration, and be limited to geographic areas where the employee actually provided services. Another notable feature of the proposed bills was the incorporation of the concept of “garden leave” into non-compete provisions, in which an employer would be required to pay its former employee at least 50% of his or her pay, on a pro rata basis, during the non-compete period. The bills also would have prohibited judicial modification of non-competes and enforcement of non-competes against certain types of workers like students, interns, or fired employees.

As the legislative session drew to a close, however, legislators were unable to reach compromises upon issues such as whether and in what form garden leave might be allowed, and whether an employer and employee could agree upon a payment to support a non-compete entered at the termination of employment.

In this presidential election year, the Massachusetts legislature is adjourned until the start of a new session in January 2017. Renewed efforts to pass a non-compete bill in Massachusetts can be expected then.

Last year, I reported on the status of a new non-compete bill that, for the first time in Massachusetts, attempted to codify its non-competition law. After summarizing the details of the bill in April, I reported in October that the bill had died in Committee. However, as stated at that time, Senator Brownsberger, one of its sponsors, promised to present a new bill on the same subject in a future session. Well, the future is now.

The new bill clarifies and modifies the old bill, mostly in an attempt to satisfy businesses that found portions of the bill unacceptable. As modified, the new bill appears to have a good chance of passing this coming spring. Rather than summarize each provision of the modified bill, this article highlights some of its unique provisions.

Highlights of the Modified Bill

1. The new non-compete bill is limited to employment agreements. The bill specifically does not include: agreements not to solicit or hire employees from the employer; agreements not to solicit customers of the employer; non-competition agreements made in connection with the sale of a business; or agreements by employees not to reapply for employment after termination.

2. The new bill limits the length of a valid non-compete agreement to one year, however, it re-introduces the concept of garden leave, which is the only method in which one can extend the covenant not to compete to two years.

3. Unlike the old bill, the modified bill excludes any salary that one must exceed for the agreement to be enforceable. Instead, the new bill simply states that the employee’s compensation be “reasonably adequate,” thus allowing the court to take into consideration the economic impact on the employee.

4. In addition to non-competition agreements entered into at or in anticipation of hire, the new bill also deals specifically with agreements that are entered into during the term of employment. No longer is “continued employment” adequate consideration alone, a concept that some Massachusetts courts have already questioned. If the bill becomes law, the employee must also receive “fair and reasonable” consideration if the agreement is signed during the term of employment.

5. The new bill provides that the non-compete agreement must be in writing and signed by both parties, along with prescribed minimum notice requirements to the employee, before it becomes effective.

6. The new bill rejects the inevitable disclosure doctrine.

7. The new bill creates presumptions of what constitutes reasonable duration and scope of the non-compete agreement, thus providing some guidance to the parties.

There are other important provisions in the attached bill and I am sure that amendments will be proposed before the final bill is presented for a vote. As always, I will keep you posted.