Effective as of October 1, 2018, Massachusetts will become the 49th state to adopt a version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (leaving New York as the only holdout). Massachusetts did so as part of a large budget bill recently signed into law, which also resulted in the adoption of the Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act. (The text of the Massachusetts version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act is set out on pages 47-52 of the bill, H. 4868, while the effective date is set out on page 117. Here is a link to the entire budget bill.)

While there are differences from existing Massachusetts law regarding trade secrets, the new law is similar in most respects to the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”). Nevertheless, the remedy provisions of the two laws are not identical, and there will be situations where greater relief is available under one statute than the other. For example, ex parte seizure orders are only available under DTSA, and attorney’s fees and exemplary damages are only available under DTSA if certain required disclosures about whistleblower immunity were made in agreements containing confidentiality provisions. The new Massachusetts law allows attorneys’ fees in circumstances of willful and malicious misappropriation and/or where claims or defenses are pursued in bad faith.

Additionally, employers should be aware that the Massachusetts statute does not apply to “misappropriation occurring prior to” October 1, 2018 or to “continuing misappropriation that began prior to” that date but continued after it.

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.

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.

Many physicians and other health care workers are familiar with restrictive covenants like non-competition and/or non-solicitation agreements, either as employees who have been asked to sign such covenants as a condition of their employment or as business owners seeking to enforce such covenants to protect their medical practices from competition. These covenants are usually designed to prohibit physicians or other practitioners from leaving and setting up a competing practice nearby using patient contacts, information, and/or training that they received during their employment or association with the former employer.

Restrictive covenants generally are regulated by state laws and cases, which can differ markedly from one state to the next. For physicians and some other health care professionals, there can be an additional level of complexity in the analysis of such covenants, because many states, in light of the unique position the medical profession holds in the public interest, apply special rules to covenants that restrict medical practice. Courts considering such covenants may ask whether enforcement will cause a shortage of doctors in a particular area, or within a particular specialty. A paramount consideration usually is the right of patients to obtain treatment from the physician or other health care professional of their choice.

By statute, several states that may allow non-competes generally (provided they are reasonable and protect legitimate business interests) will not enforce them at all against physicians. Massachusetts was an early adopter, in 1977, of a statutory prohibition on physician non-competes. Mass. Gen. Law Ch. 112 § 12X renders void any non-compete provision restricting “the right of a physician to practice medicine in a particular locale and/or for a defined period of time.” In the early 1980s, Delaware and Colorado enacted similar laws. 6 Del. Code Ann. § 2707; Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-2-113.[1] In 2016, Rhode Island followed suit and enacted a law just like Massachusetts’ statute. R.I. Gen. Laws §5-37-33.

Some other states do not prohibit physician non-competes but apply stricter standards to such agreements than they do to employee non-competes generally. For example, enacted in 2007 and amended several times thereafter, Tennessee’s statute allows physician (including radiologist) non-compete provisions if they: (1) are in writing; (2) last no longer than two years after the physician’s employment is terminated; and (3) either (a) are geographically limited to the greater of the county where the physician is employed or a ten mile radius of the primary practice site; or (b) there is no geographic restriction, but the physician is restricted from practicing at any facility in which the employer provided services during the physician’s time of employment. Tenn. Code Ann. § 63-1-148.

Texas law allows physician non-competes provided that the covenant must: not deny the physician access to a list of the patients seen or treated within one year of termination of employment; provide access to medical records of the physician’s patients upon proper authorization; provide for a buyout of the covenant by the physician at a reasonable price; and allow the physician to provide continuing care and treatment to a specific patient or patients during the course of an acute illness. Tex. Bus. & Com. Code Ann. § 15.50.

A New Mexico statute first enacted in 2015 prohibits provisions in agreements which restrict the right of healthcare practitioners (including physicians, osteopathic physicians, dentists, podiatrists and certified registered nurse anesthetists) to provide clinical healthcare services.[2]  (That limitation does not apply to agreements between shareholders, owners, partners or directors of the practice.) The law, however, does allow non-disclosure provisions relating to confidential information; non-solicitation provisions of no more than one (1) year; and imposes reasonable liquidated damages provisions if the practitioner does provide clinical healthcare services of a competitive nature after termination of the agreement.  In addition, healthcare practitioners employed by the practice for less than three (3) years may be required, upon termination, to pay back certain expenses to the practice, including loans; relocation expenses; signing bonuses or other incentives related to recruitment; and education/training expenses.  N.M. Stat. § 24-1l-1 et seq.

And a Connecticut law enacted in 2016, rather than prohibiting physician non-competes, limits the allowable duration (to one year) and geographical scope (up to 15 miles from the “primary site where such physician practices”) of any new, amended or renewed physician agreement.  The law also renders physician non-competes unenforceable if the physician’s employment or contractual relationship is terminated without cause.  Conn. Gen. Stat. §20-14p(b)(2).

Other states may have, or may be considering enacting, statutes restricting non-competes and related agreements for healthcare providers. The trend is certainly toward limitations on such agreements. Accordingly, consultation with local legal counsel regarding these issues is highly recommended for any person or entity practicing in the healthcare industry.

____________

[1] Under Delaware and Colorado’s non-compete statutes, physicians can be required to pay damages “reasonably related to the injury suffered” by a breach of any such agreement. The Colorado statute was amended in 2018 to clarify that physicians may disclose their continuing practice and provide new contact information to any of their patients who have a “rare disorder,” and not be subject to claims for damages.

[2] This prohibition was expanded in 2018 to include certified nurse practitioners and mid-wives, and to prohibit the use of choice of forum and choice of law agreements to prevent circumvention of the prohibition.

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.

In 2016, several states enacted laws that were designed, in varying degrees, to limit non-competes, including Illinois, Utah, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Which states are most likely to do the same in 2017?

Idaho:  A bill proposed in January, House Bill 61, would amend an existing Idaho law that has made it easier for employers to enforce non-competes against the highest paid 5% of their employees and independent contractors.  The bill would alleviate the burden placed on such “key” personnel by the existing law by, among other things, eliminating the rebuttable presumption of irreparable harm to the employer that is automatically established if a court finds that the key employee or independent contractor is in breach of his or her non-compete.

Maryland:  On January 27, 2017, Maryland lawmakers proposed House Bill 506, which would render null and void any non-compete provision in an employment contract that restricts the ability of an employee who earns equal to or less than $15.00 per hour or $31,200 annually to enter into employment with a new employer or to become self-employed in the same or similar business. The bill was adopted by Maryland’s House and is now in its Senate.

Massachusetts:  On January 20, 2017, lawmakers proposed Bill SD.1578, which would impose significant limitations on the reach of non-competes in Massachusetts.  If enacted, the proposed law would, among other things:  limit the temporal scope of non-compete agreements to 12 months from the date of termination of employment (or 2 years if the employee has breached his or her fiduciary duty or has unlawfully taken property belonging to the employer); prohibit non-competes against certain categories of workers, including nonexempt employees, students, employees terminated without cause, and employees 18 years or younger; and require non-competes to be supported by consideration independent from the continuation of employment.

Nevada:  A bill proposed in February, A.B. 149, would make a non-compete “void and unenforceable” in Nevada if it prohibits an employee from seeking employment with or becoming employed by a competitor for a period of more than 3 months after the employee’s termination, which is an extremely short duration in the non-compete realm.  Willful violators of the law would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000; in addition, the Nevada Labor Commissioner may impose an administrative penalty of up to $5,000 for each such violation.

New York:  On October 25, 2016, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he planned to introduce legislation in 2017 that would, among other things, prohibit the use of non-competes for low-wage workers and require employers to pay employees additional consideration if they sign non-compete agreements.  While he has not yet introduced this bill, Schneiderman has given no indication that he will backtrack from his 2016 announcement.

Washington:  After a bill that would have, among other things, limited non-competes to one year faced strident opposition from businesses, Washington legislators penned a more watered-down version of a bill designed to make non-compete agreements more transparent.  Specifically, Bill HB 1967, which passed the Washington House on March 8 and is now in the Senate, requires that all the terms of a non-compete contract be disclosed in writing before the employee signs the contract. While this revised bill is far less restrictive than other proposed bills, if enacted, it will nevertheless be beneficial to Washington employees.

Stay Tuned: The Maryland and Washington bills have the most traction, as they have already passed the states’ Houses.  Nevertheless, at this point it is simply too early to predict whether the law proposed in those states or elsewhere will garner enough support to clear the necessary legislative and executive hurdles to be enacted.  In the meantime, employers across all states should stay tuned and continue to draft narrowly tailored and enforceable non-competes.

David J. Clark
David J. Clark

Last month, two New England states enacted laws restricting the use of non-competition provisions in agreements governing an employment, partnership or other professional relationship of a physician.

Broadly speaking, the aim of both of these laws is to protect patients’ choice regarding medical care by limiting the ability of employers or partners to contract with physicians such that the physicians’ ability to practice medicine would be restricted at the end of the professional relationship.

Effective on July 12, 2016, the new law in Rhode Island (R.I. Gen. Laws §5-37-33) prohibits non-compete language in most physician agreements.  It renders void and unenforceable “any restriction on the right to practice medicine” found in virtually any contract creating the terms of employment, partnership or other professional relationship involving a state-licensed physician.  The new law therefore invalidates non-competition or patient non-solicitation provisions for Rhode Island physicians.  The new law does not apply in connection with the purchase and sale of a physician practice, provided the restrictive covenant is less than five years in duration.

Effective on July 1, 2016, the new law in Connecticut (Public Act No. 16-95) is less sweeping than the Rhode Island law.  Rather than prohibiting physician non-competes, the Connecticut law limits the allowable duration (to one year) and geographical scope (up to 15 miles from the “primary site where such physician practices”) of any new, amended or renewed physician agreement.  The new law also renders physician non-competes unenforceable if the physician’s employment or contractual relationship is terminated without cause.

Rhode Island and Connecticut are the latest in a slowly growing number of states that have taken legislative action to limit the use of physician non-competes.  Their neighbor Massachusetts was an early adopter of such a statute.  Mass. Gen. Laws chapter 112, §12X (enacted in 1977) bars physician non-competes which include any restriction of the right of a physician to practice medicine in any geographic area for any period of time after termination.  Much of the language in the Massachusetts law appears in the recently enacted Rhode Island statute.

Similar language appears in Delaware and Colorado statutes dating from the early 1980s, which state that covenants are void if they restrict the rights of physicians to practice medicine upon termination of the agreements containing the covenants.

More recently, Texas (in 1999) and Tennessee (in 2012) both enacted statutes (as did Connecticut) applying stricter standards to physician non-competes than are applicable to employee non-competes in general, while stopping short of invalidating such physician non-competes.

It remains to be seen if the enactment this summer of these statutes in Connecticut and Rhode Island is merely a coincidence, or foreshadows more state legislatures pursuing such limitations of physician non-competes.

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.

Barry A. Guryan
Barry A. Guryan

Over the last several years, I have blogged about the Massachusetts Legislature’s many unsuccessful attempts to pass a statute establishing guidelines applicable to non-competes.  (See my latest blog posted last March “Proposed Legislation to Place Limits on Enforcement of Non-Competes in Massachusetts.”)  Former proposed bills have contained several types of provisions to accomplish this including ones that: a) prohibited the enforcement of all non-competes following California’s approach; b) created presumptions of reasonableness regarding the time and geographic scope; and c) banned the enforcement of non-competes signed by non-exempt and lower paid employees. (See my previous blog post “Massachusetts Legislature Fails to Pass any Proposed Bills on Non-Compete or Trade Secret Laws,” which discussed these bills.)

The common goal of all of these bills has been to balance the interests of some employers (primarily startups in the High-Tech sector) in facilitating employee mobility in order to foster more innovation with those of other employers whose goal is to protect their business interests, confidential information and trade secrets.  The debate has been lively in the Legislature as well as the business community.

On May 16, the Joint Committee on Labor Workforce Development in the Massachusetts legislature made another attempt at a “compromise” bill by favorably reporting H. 1701, which includes amendments to the “Massachusetts Non-Competition Agreement Act” proposed this past March.  If it becomes law, it would apply to agreements entered into or after July 1, 2016.

Unlike prior bills, this bill contains a “garden leave” provision that has a lot of stakeholders expressing strong opinions for and against it.  Although “garden leave” traditionally has been understood as an extension of the employment relationship through the end of the “leave,” under the proposed bill the employment relationship does not continue during this period.  The proposed bill requires that a garden leave clause be included within a non-compete agreement, and that a covered departing employee will receive payment, on a pro rata basis, of at least 50% of his or her pay during the restricted period.  The only exception to the applicability of garden leave is when an employee breaches his or her fiduciary duty.

According to legislative observers, this provision has generated criticism from large employers and trade associations which could jeopardize the passage of the bill.  Garden leave provisions have been used as a technique for limiting competition from employees who leave the company, but unlike this bill, they are not used in addition to the non-compete which is supported by its own financial incentives.  Some well-known employer trade organizations have criticized the provision, stating that since the employee is usually paid an additional sum of money when the non-compete is signed, they believe it is unfair to also pay someone additional pay for not working.  Those in favor of this provision believe that an employer would be willing to pay to insure that a particular employee stays out of the market. No doubt, there will be more debate as the bill continues through the legislative process.

The following is a summary of the other key elements of the proposed bill.

Non-compete agreements:

  1. must be signed, in writing, and state that the employee has the right to seek advice from an attorney;
  2. must be given to the employee the earlier of a “formal offer of employment or 10 days before” starting work;
  3. that are signed after employment must be supported by “fair and reasonable considerationin addition to continued employment.  The current prevailing view of the courts in Massachusetts is that continued employment is adequate consideration whether signed before being hired or signed after employment;
  4. must be tailored to protect certain legitimate business interests, such as confidential business information, goodwill and trade secrets.  Interestingly, the bill states that if another restrictive covenant cannot adequately protect these interests, such as a non-solicitation agreement or a nondisclosure agreement, the non-compete “may be presumed reasonable” if it meets this mandate;
  5. may not exceed a 12 month term (This extends a former bill’s maximum term of 6 months.);
  6. must be reasonable in scope of proscribed activities.  In other words, if there is a nexus between the restricted activities and services that the affected employee has performed over the last 2 years of employment, the non-compete agreement will be “presumptively reasonable”;
  7. must be reasonable in geographic reach, which is limited to the geographic areas where the employee provided services in the last 2 years of employment;
  8. will not be enforced against certain types of workers, including non-exempt employees, student interns or employees that are employed for a short term while in school, employees that have been terminated or laid off, and employees 18 years of age and under;
  9. may not be judicially “reformed” or revised to render it valid (otherwise known as the “blue pencil” rule).  In the past, judges have not been consistent in this regard.

What to Do Now:

There is nothing different that employers must do until a final bill becomes law.  Employers should continue to seek legal advice about properly drafting and enforcing non-competes or to seek legal assistance to enjoin their enforcement.  At present, we are guided by precedent generated by different judges.  The goal of this new legislation is to pass a law that will generate more consistency.  We will continue to keep you posted on its progress through the legislature.

In a recent case in Massachusetts, a Superior Court Judge denied a former employer’s motion for a restraining order in a case alleging a violation of a non-compete agreement and granted the cross motion of the former employee and current employer to compel arbitration even though the current employer was not a party to the arbitration clause which was included in the former employee’s Employment Agreement.

Facts

In Tibco Software, Inc. v Zephyr Health, Inc. and Kevin Willoe, Civil Action No 2015-844-BLS1 (Mass. Superior Court March 31, 2015), Plaintiff Tibco Software, Inc. (“Tibco”) filed a motion for a restraining order and expedited discovery alleging that co-defendant Kevin Willoe (‘Willoe”) breached the non-compete clause in his Employment Agreement with Tibco by working for a competitor, co-defendant Zephyr Health, Inc. (“Zephyr”) shortly after he quit.  Article IX of the Employment Agreement provided that the claims alleged in the Complaint were subject to arbitration.  Even though Zephyr was not a party to the Employment Agreement, both defendants moved to compel arbitration and to stay the action pending the outcome of the arbitration.

Analysis

What is interesting about this case is that the Court was willing to defer the matter to arbitration even though Tibco sought emergency relief to enforce the non-compete clause and even though Zephyr was not a signatory to the arbitration clause in Willoe’s Employment Agreement.  Relying on the representation of counsel for both defendants that the rules governing the arbitration authorized the arbitrator to issue preliminary injunctive relief, the Court left the question of such emergency relief to the arbitrator.

In granting the defendants’ request to stay the case pending the outcome of the arbitration, the Court cautioned the parties that if “there is any delay in the selection of the arbitrator[s], the plaintiff may request an emergency hearing on its motion for a preliminary injunction, such orders, if entered, to be in force only until the arbitrator[s] is selected.”

It is important to note that the Court limited its ruling to situations in which the former employer’s claims arose directly from the restrictions specifically contained in his Employment Agreement.  This approach, adopted by the Court, has been described as “the narrow view.”  Other courts, primarily in the federal sector, have adopted the “broad view” in which a non-signatory to such agreements may compel arbitration where “the issues the non-signatory is seeking to resolve in arbitration are intertwined with the agreement…”  See Vassalluzzo v. Ernst & Young LLP, No. 06-4215-BLS2, 2007 WL 2076471 (Mass. Super. Ct. June 21, 2007).

Conclusion

Regardless of whether a court relies on this broad view or the more narrow view taken in Tibco, it is important to consider the ability of a non-signatory to an employment agreement to avoid emergency relief by moving to enforce an arbitration clause contained in the agreement.  This becomes one of the many important factors an employer must consider in deciding whether or not to include an arbitration provision in an employment agreement at all or at least to carve out such disputes which seek emergency relief from the courts.