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.

So far, the year 2018 has brought an increasing number of labor and employment rules and regulations. To help you stay up to date, we are pleased to invite you to join our Employment, Labor & Workforce Management Webinar Series. Each month, we will focus on a specific industry, topic, or practice area.

Our July webinar will be hosted by Epstein Becker Green’s Health Employment and Labor (HEAL) strategic service team and Trade Secrets and Employee Mobility service team. This webinar will provide an overview of the legal landscape of non-compete agreements in the health care industry, including state law requirements and restrictions, public policy considerations, recent developments, and expected trends. The webinar will also address key considerations when drafting and enforcing non-competes, engaging in the due diligence process, and integrating providers following a health care transaction.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018
12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. ET

Register for this complimentary webinar today!

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.

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[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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

While agreements that restrict employees from leaving a job and working for a competitor (commonly known as “non-compete” agreements) are standard in many industries, they are relatively scarce in the media and journalism sectors. Outside of television companies restricting star talent, and media companies restricting executives, it has rarely been common practice for journalists to be subject to non-compete restrictions.  However, it appears that may be changing.

Citing the common reasons that are often put forth for non-compete clauses, two online based news companies founded in 2012 are now incorporating non-competes into their contracts. NowThis (a social news company that was co-founded by the executive chairman of BuzzFeed, a co-founder of the Huffington Post with Ariana Huffington) and the Independent Journal Review (an opinion and news website founded by former Republican staffers) have both made news in the last month for inserting broad non-compete clauses into new hire contracts.

The Independent Journal Review clause bars employees from working at “any competing business” “anywhere in the world” for six months prior to departure. Competing businesses are defined as any business that is involved in the practice of publishing news content.  The NowThis clause appears to be a bit more narrow.  It bars employees from working at a specified list of news media companies, including CNN, BuzzFeed, and Conde Nast.

Both of these companies may have trouble enforcing their non-compete provisions. In recent years, as companies invest more in their new hires, it has become common to try to use non-competes to prevent competitors from poaching employees and benefiting from that investment.  There has been a corresponding rise in regulation and backlash on the part of those who believe this to be an unnecessary and even harmful tactic.  For example, the state of California has banned the use of non-compete clauses in nearly all circumstances, and other states have seen judges increasingly refuse to enforce non-compete clauses. In the state of New York, the Attorney General’s office has even gone after media companies (e.g. Law360) for the use of non-compete clauses.

What Should Employers Do Now?

As this back and forth between employers and employees (frequently with the state on their side) continues to play out, it is best for employers to ensure that, if they include a non-compete clause in their standard contracts, that it is narrowly tailored in scope and geography to ensure that it is most likely to be enforced. As always, it is best to be cognizant of each applicable state law and craft employment agreements accordingly.

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.

Our colleagues Lauri F. Rasnick and Adriana S. Kosovych, attorneys in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Implementing and Applying the Employee Choice Doctrine: Employers Focus on Forfeiture to Protect Their Company’s Assets.”

Following is an excerpt:

Employers seeking to protect their competitive advantage and find an alternative method of influencing employees to not compete are increasingly relying on so-called “forfeiture for competition” agreements in place of traditional non-competes. This trend is driven, in large part, by the “employee choice” doctrine. In states that have adopted the employee choice doctrine, such as New York, a post-employment non-compete will not be subject to the usual reasonableness standard when it is contingent upon an employee’s choice between receiving and retaining a benefit (e.g., restricted stock, stock options, or some other deferred compensation) and competing.

Read the full post here.