On Monday, attorneys general in eleven states, including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, and Illinois, revealed that they are investigating several prominent fast food franchisors for their potential use of no-poaching or non-compete agreements restricting the ability of low wage workers to obtain a better-paying job with another franchise. To that end, these attorneys general have propounded document and information requests to these restaurants, returnable August 6, 2018.

In the Illinois AG’s press release, Attorney General Madigan stated that “No-poach agreements trap workers in low-wage jobs and limit their ability to seek promotion into higher-paying positions within the same chain of restaurants.” Madigan claims that at least 58 percent of major franchisors have no-poach provisions in their franchise agreements. This is not the first time that the Illinois AG has taken aim at non-compete agreements. Over two years ago, Madigan’s office sued sandwich chain Jimmy John’s for employing what it deemed “highly restrictive non-compete agreements,” ultimately reaching a $100,000 settlement with the franchisor. Ten months after Illinois passed the Freedom to Work Act, which prohibits private sector employers from requiring non-compete covenants of low-wage employees, defined as the greater of the applicable federal, state, or local minimum wage (currently $7.25 under federal law and $8.25 under Illinois state law) or $13 per hour, Madigan sued a national payday lender for requiring its employees, including workers who earn less than $13 an hour, to sign a non-compete agreement as a condition of employment.

Illinois is not the only state to pursue non-compete reform. Several other states recently have enacted legislation curbing the use of non-competes with respect to certain categories of workers, such as certified nurse practitioners and midwives (New Mexico) and workers in the broadcasting industry earning under a certain salary (Utah). Other states have proposed similar legislation. For example, New Hampshire bill SB 423 would ban non-compete agreements with “low-wage employees.” On the other end of the spectrum, Vermont House Bill 556 and Pennsylvania House Bill 1938 would ban all non-competes other than those formed in connection with the sale of an ownership interest in a business entity or the dissolution of a partnership or limited liability company. Even if these bills ultimately fail, they signal a rising trend of state-level restrictive covenant reform, which will likely gain momentum as state attorneys general step up enforcement in this area.

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.

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.

Earlier this week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued payday loan company Check Into Cash of Illinois, LLC for allegedly requiring that all of its employees in Illinois, regardless of position or pay, sign a standard non-compete agreement which broadly limits their employment mobility for one year post-termination.

According to the Complaint, Check Into Cash’s standard non-compete agreement effectively precludes employment with any entity that offers any “consumer lending service,” regardless of whether the entity is an actual competitor; it applies within a 15 mile radius of any of Check In To Cash’s more than 1,000 stores – regardless of the location where the employee actually worked; all employees are required to sign it; and employees receive no consideration for signing the agreement, other than the prospect of at-will employment.

The Complaint was brought pursuant to the recently enacted Illinois Freedom to Work Act (which bars non-competes for Illinois employees earning $13/hour or less), Illinois common law, and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

Although this lawsuit was filed in Illinois, there is similar political (and judicial) hostility to non-competes for low-wage workers across the country.  Given this climate, employers everywhere should take a moment to review any non-competes for low level or low wage employees and, if needed, take pro-active remedial action.

In this age of social media, a frequently asked question is whether social media activity can violate a non-compete or non-solicit.   Although the case law is evolving, courts which have addressed the issue have focused on the content of the communication, rather than the medium used to convey it.  In so doing, they have distinguished between mere passive social media activity (e.g., posting an update about a new job) as opposed to more targeted, active actions (e.g., not merely posting about a new job, but also actively recruiting former co-workers or clients).

A “LinkedIn” case recently decided by the Illinois Appellate Court, Bankers Life v. American Senior Benefits, involved conduct which fell between these two extremes: an individual, Gregory P. Gelineau, who was contractually barred from soliciting former co-workers, sent three former co-workers  generic requests to become “connections” via LinkedIn.  The requests did not go further than that, but they were not purely passive in that they sent to specific individuals.  Gelineau’s former employer, Bankers Life, filed suit, accusing him of breaching his non-solicitation obligation.

After surveying decisions from around the country involving various forms of social media activity, the Court explained that the different results reached in these decisions “can be reconciled when looking at the content and the substance of the communications.” Here, the Court noted that the LinkedIn requests sent by Gelineau did not discuss Bankers Life or Gelineau’s new employer, did not suggest that the recipient view Gelineau’s new job description, and did not encourage the recipient to leave Bankers Life and join Gelineau’s new employer.  Rather, they were bare requests to become “connections” on LinkedIn.

The Court held that such bare requests were not the sort of direct, active efforts to recruit which would have been a breach of Gelineau’s contractual non-solicitation clause.

While the facts of Bankers Life fall in between the two extremes of social media activity addressed by other courts, the case ultimately turned on an evaluation of the content of the activity, as opposed to the medium.  This approach is consistent with that taken by courts whenever they are tasked with determining whether particular conduct constitutes an unlawful “solicitation.”

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.

Our colleagues Peter Steinmeyer and Scarlett Freeman of Epstein Becker Green authored an article in Workforce Magazine titled “Courts Take Closer Look at Noncompete Clauses.”

Following is an excerpt:

In the past few years, courts have been re-examining what constitutes adequate consideration for a restrictive covenant. In 2013, the Illinois Court of Appeals held, contrary to longstanding precedent, that in the absence of other considerations, mere employment constitutes adequate consideration for a restrictive covenant only if the employee remains employed for at least two years after signing the restrictive covenant.

This two-year rule applies regardless of whether the employee signed the restrictive covenant as a new or existing employee and regardless of whether the employee voluntarily resigned or was fired. Notably, multiple federal district courts in Illinois subsequently declined to apply the bright-line rule, instead considering other factors such as compensation, raises and bonuses, and the terms of the employee’s termination. …

As courts increasingly address challenges to the adequacy of consideration in restrictive covenants, employers can take measures to ensure that a restrictive covenant will be enforced. By simply remaining aware of fluctuating state laws, employers can structure employment agreements to incorporate adequate consideration under applicable state law.

Read the full article here.

In a decision issued in late October, AssuredPartners, Inc. et al. v. William Schmitt, 2015 IL  App. (1st) 141863 (Ill. App. 2015),  the Illinois Appellate Court struck down as overbroad and unreasonable, the noncompete, nonsolicit and confidentiality provisions in an employment agreement.  The Court then refused to judicially modify or “blue pencil” these provisions because the Court deemed their deficiencies “too great to permit modification.”  This decision is essentially a primer on current Illinois law regarding restrictive covenants and confidentiality agreements.

Starting with the noncompetition provision at issue, the Court held that it was overbroad because it restricted the former employee, a wholesale insurance broker of lawyers’ professional liability insurance, from a broader scope of activities than those he engaged in during his employment (i.e., it prohibited him from working with all types of professional liability insurance, not just the type that he actually brokered).

Additionally, the Court held that the geographic scope of the noncompetition agreement (i.e., all 50 states and the territories of the United States) clearly exceeded “that which is necessary to protect ProAccess and Jamison from threats against its business interest” and that such geographic overbreadth imposed “an undue burden” on the employee “by forcing him to work in another country if he wishes to continue earning a living as a wholesale broker specializing in LPLI or any other type of professional liability insurance.”

Finally, the Court noted that the length of the restriction – 28 months – was a “significant period to impose on an employee whose effective term of employment . . . lasted only 20 months.”

Accordingly, the Court held that the noncompetition provision failed to meet the requirements of reasonableness set out in the Illinois Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncement in this area, Reliable Fire Equip. Co. v. Arredondo, 2011 IL 111871 (2011).

Turning next to the post-employment, customer non-solicitation provision, the Court likewise found it to be unreasonably overbroad, as it applied to actual and potential customers of the plaintiff entities and of their subsidiaries, regardless of whether they were involved in the same activities as the former employee – and regardless of whether the former employee ever had contact with them while working for ProAccess.

Finally, the Court turned to the contractual confidentiality provision, which “prohibit[ed] the use or disclosure of any ‘information, observations and data (including trade secrets) obtained by [Schmitt] during the course of [his] employment with [Jamison/ProAccess] concerning the business or affairs of [plaintiffs] and their respective Subsidiaries and Affiliates.”  The Court held that this clause was broad enough to cover “ virtually every fact, plan, proposal, data, and opinion that he became aware of during the time he was employed by ProAccess – without regard as to whether such information was in any way proprietary or confidential in nature, or whether he in fact obtained the information through a source outside of his work.  It is patently overbroad.”

Additionally, the Court noted that it “cannot assume that the information Schmitt acquired during his employment with ProAccess resulted solely from plaintiffs’ businesses, as opposed to the customer relationships that he had established prior to his employment.”  The Court emphasized that this confidentiality provision “does not merely restrict the dissemination of confidential information; it drastically limits Schmitt’s ability to work in the insurance industry by preventing him from using any knowledge that he gained while in plaintiffs’ employ, regardless of whether he gained such knowledge, directly or indirectly, as a result of his employment” (emphasis in original).

For good measure, the Court further explained that the confidentiality clause is not saved because of its exception for confidential information that “becomes generally known to and available for use by the public.”  The Court explained that “[t]here is a great deal of information that is not ‘generally’ known to the public; not all of it merits protection under a confidentiality provision.”

Because the Court found these deficiencies to be so significant, it held that they were “too great to permit modification.”  Accordingly, rather than judicially modify or “blue pencil” any of these provisions, the Court struck them down.

Over all, the notion that permeates throughout AssuredPartners is that the restrictions at issue were fundamentally unfair to the individual former employee.

Coming on the heels of the Illinois Appellate Court’s blockbuster decision in Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc. (in which the same court held that, absent other consideration, two years of employment is required for a restrictive covenant to be deemed supported by adequate consideration – even where the employee signed the restrictive covenant as a condition to his employment offer – and even where the employee voluntarily resigned), AssuredPartners is a reiteration of the degree of judicial scrutiny currently being applied to restrictive covenants in Illinois.

In light of these decisions, Illinois employers are advised to draft as narrowly as possible, to pay particular heed to the consideration provided, to carefully consider choice of law and forum selection provisions, and to review existing restrictive covenants in light of the degree of judicial scrutiny currently being applied.

A couple years ago, the Illinois First District Appellate Court decided the case of Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, 2013 IL App. 120327.  There, the Court held that, absent other consideration, two years of employment are required to constitute adequate consideration for a restrictive covenant, regardless of whether the covenant was signed at the outset of employment or after, and regardless of whether the employee quit or was fired.  Since then, some Judges in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois have applied Fifield, and others have declined to do so.

Earlier this week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued its first opinion reviewing a decision in which the District Court applied, or refused to apply, FifieldInstant Technology LLC v. DeFazio, (Case Nos. 14-2132 & 14-2243).  In the District Court, Judge Holderman applied FifieldIn its opinion, however, the Seventh Circuit simply reviewed the District Court’s factual determinations, determined that they were not clearly erroneous, and did not discuss Fifield or its application by the District Court at all.  The Court did, though, spend some time discussing an anti-raiding clause that was also at issue.  The Seventh Circuit explained that, because Instant Technology had such high workforce turnover (77% of the people who worked there two years before the trial left in the interim), it could not argue that its interest in maintaining the stability of its workforce was a legitimate business interest sufficient to support an anti-raiding clause that prohibited former employees from soliciting Instant Technology employees to join competing companies.