Thomson Reuters Practical Law has released a new edition of “Preparing for Non-Compete Litigation,” a Practice Note co-authored by our colleague Peter A. Steinmeyer of Epstein Becker Green.

Following is an excerpt:

Non-compete litigation is typically fast-paced and expensive. An employer must act quickly when it suspects that an employee or former employee is violating a non-compete agreement (also referred to as a non-competition agreement or non-compete). It is critical to confirm that there is sufficient factual and legal support before initiating legal action. Filing a complaint for monetary damages or a request for an injunction can backfire if an employer is not prepared with sufficient evidence to support its request. This Note discusses the steps an employer can take to best position itself for successful enforcement of a non-compete and the strategic considerations involved with initiating non-compete litigation. In particular, it discusses:

  • Best practices for investigating a suspected violation and gathering relevant evidence.
  • Key steps for evaluating the likelihood a court will enforce a non-compete.
  • Factors to consider before initiating legal action.
  • The options for enforcing a non-compete through legal action and the key decisions relevant to each option.

Click here to download the full Note in PDF format.

In its 2008 landmark decision Edwards v. Arthur Andersen LLP (2008) 44 Cal. 4th 937, the California Supreme Court set forth a broad prohibition against non-compete provisions, but it left open whether or to what extent employee non-solicit provisions were enforceable. Since Edwards, no California appellate court has addressed that issue in a published opinion – until recently. On November 1, the California Court of Appeal in AMN Healthcare, Inc. v. Aya Healthcare Services, Inc., ruled that a broadly worded contractual clause that prohibited solicitation of employees for one year after employment was void under California Business and Professions Code section 16600, which provides “Except as provided in this chapter every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade or business of any kind is to that extent void.” The decision calls into question the continuing viability of employee non-solicitation provisions in the employment context, and employers who regularly include such provisions in their agreements should reassess their use and enforcement of those provisions.

AMN and Aya are competing healthcare staffing companies that provide travel nurses, to medical care facilities throughout the country. The individual defendants were former travel nurse recruiters of AMN who left AMN and joined Aya, where they also worked as travel nurse recruiters.

The individual defendants each signed a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement (CNDA) with AMN, which included a provision preventing them from soliciting any employee of AMN to leave AMN for a one-year period. Section 3.2 of the CDNA provided:

Employee covenants and agrees that during Employee’s employment with the Company and for a period of [one year or] eighteen months after the termination of the employment relationship with the Company, Employee shall not directly or indirectly solicit or induce, or cause others to solicit or induce, any employee of the Company or any Company Affiliate to leave the service of the Company or such Company Affiliate.

Because AMN’s travel nurses were employees of AMN, section 3.2 of the CNDA applied to prevent a former AMN employee from recruiting a travel nurse on a temporary assignment for AMN.

After the individual defendants resigned, AMN sued them, asserting various causes of action, including breach of the non-solicitation provision in the CNDA. Defendants filed a cross-complaint, requesting the court declare the non-solicitation provision in the CNDA void and enjoining AMN from enforcing the provision against other former AMN employees.

The defendants moved for summary judgment of AMN’s complaint and of their own cross-complaint. Defendants claimed that the non-solicitation provision in the CNDA was an improper restraint on individual defendants’ ability to engage in their profession – soliciting and recruiting travel nurses – in violation of Business and Professions Code section 16600. The trial court agreed, and granted defendants summary judgment on AMN’s complaint and granted summary adjudication of defendants’ declaratory relief cause of action. Then the court enjoined AMN from enforcing the employee non-solicitation provision in the CNDA as to any former California employee and awarded defendants attorney’s fees.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. In doing so, the court concluded that the non-solicitation provision in the CNDA was void under section 16600. “Indeed, the broadly worded provision prevents individual defendants, for a period of at least one year after termination of employment with AMN, from either ‘directly or indirectly’ soliciting or recruiting, or causing others to solicit or induce, any employee of AMN. This provision clearly restrained individual defendants from practicing with Aya their chosen profession—recruiting travel nurses on 13-week assignments with AMN.” The court further found that a one-year, post-termination restriction preventing a former AMN recruiter from contacting and recruiting a travel nurse on a 13-week assignment with AMN “at a minimum equates to a period of four such assignments for a given nurse. The undisputed evidence thus shows section 3.2 of the CNDA restricted individual defendants’ ability to engage in their ‘profession, trade, or business.'”

In granting summary adjudication, the court rejected AMN’s reliance on Loral Corp. v. Moyes (1985) 174 Cal. App. 3d 268 for the argument that the CNDA was valid because it only prevented non-solicitation of employees (here, travel nurses). Moyes involved the validity of a contractual clause restricting a former executive officer from “raiding” the plaintiffs’ employees. In determining the provision was more like a permissible non-solicitation or nondisclosure agreement and not an invalid non-competition agreement, the court observed that the agreement “restrained [defendant] from disrupting, damaging, impairing or interfering with his former employer by raiding [the plaintiffs’] employees …. This does not appear to be any more of a significant restraint on his engaging in his profession, trade or business than a restraint on solicitation of customers or on disclosure of confidential information.”

 The court concluded that Moyes‘s use of a reasonableness standard in analyzing the non-solicitation clause conflicted with Edwards – decided over twenty years later – where the California Supreme Court interpreted Section 16600 to be a “settled public policy in favor of open competition,” and rejected the common law “rule of reasonableness.” Because the Edwards court found section 16600 “unambiguous,” and noted that “if the Legislature intended the statute to apply only to restraints that were unreasonable or overbroad, it could have included language to that effect,” the court expressed “doubt [as to] the continuing viability of Moyes post-Edwards.”

The court also affirmed the injunction, which prevented AMN and its employees and agents “from using, enforcing, or attempting to enforce any contract or employment agreement in the State of California which purports to restrain its former employees from directly or indirectly soliciting or inducing, or causing others to solicit or induce, any employee of AMN to leave the service of AMN.” In connection with the injunction, the court approved an award of attorney’s fees to defendants under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which permits fees to be awarded “in any action which has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest if: (a) a significant benefit … has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement … are such as to make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any.”

In affirming the award of attorney’s fees, the court concluded that “Defendants clearly were successful parties within the meaning of the statute … the instant action involved an important issue affecting the public interest, namely the enforceability of section 3.2 [of the CNDA, which], if enforced, prevented former AMN employees from recruiting travel nurses and similar professionals who were on temporary assignment with AMN, even if those same travel nurses had applied to, were known by, and/or had previously been placed by, a competitor of AMN, as the instant case aptly shows.” The court further concluded that “instant action conferred a significant benefit on the public … [and] a large class of persons … namely, all current and former AMN California employees who had signed a CNDA containing a non-solicitation of employee provision similar to section 3.2 of the CNDA.”

The AMN Healthcare decision is significant for several reasons. The court’s expressed doubt as to the viability of Loral Corp. v. Moyes should give pause to both employers who regularly include such provisions in employment agreements and practitioners who advise employers as to the inclusion or enforceability of such provisions. While it could be argued the appellate court’s ruling should be limited to its facts because an employee non-solicitation clause easily restrains a recruiter from engaging in their “profession, trade, or business,” the AMN Healthcare court’s reasoning could be extended to other situations. Further, the court’s award of attorney’s fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 provides a cautionary tale for employers attempting to enforce contractual provisions that run afoul of Business & Professions Code section 16600. Well-informed defendants will bring a cross-complaint seeking injunctive relief, and, if they prevail, could be entitled their attorney’s fees in doing so.

On May 10, 2018, the New Jersey Assembly Labor Committee advanced Assembly Bill A1769, a bill that seeks to provide stricter requirements for the enforcement of restrictive covenants.

If enacted, the legislation would permit employers to enter into non-competes with employees as a condition of employment or within a severance agreement, but such non-competes would only be enforceable if they meet all of the requirements set forth in the legislation. Thus, if enacted, employers will have to comply with the following requirements in order for a New Jersey non-competition agreement to be enforceable:

  1. If the non-compete is entered into in connection with commencement of employment, the employer must disclose the terms in writing to the prospective employee by the earlier of a formal offer of employment, or 30 business days before the commencement of the employee’s employment;
  2. If the non-compete is entered into after commencement of employment, the employer must provide the agreement to the employee at least 30 business days before the agreement is to be effective;
  3. The non-compete agreement must be signed by both the employer and the employee and expressly state that the employee has a right to consult with counsel;
  4. The non-compete shall not be broader than necessary to protect the legitimate business interests of the employer, including the employer’s trade secrets or other confidential information, such as sales information, business plans, and customer or pricing information;
  5. The time period of the non-compete must not exceed 1 year following the date of termination of employment;
  6. The non-compete must be reasonable in geographic scope, meaning that it must be limited to the geographic area in which the employee provided services or had a material presence during the two years preceding the date of termination, and the non-compete may not restrict the employee from seeking employment in other states;
  7. The non-compete shall be reasonable in the scope of the proscribed activities and limited to only the specific types of services provided by the employee at any time during the employee’s last two years of employment;
  8. The agreement must state that the employee will not be penalized for challenging the enforceability of the non-compete;
  9. The agreement should not contain a choice of law provision that would have the effect of avoiding the requirements of the legislation;
  10. The agreement shall not waive the employee’s substantive, procedural, or remedial rights provided under the legislation or any other law, or under the common law;
  11. The non-compete shall not restrict the employee from providing a service to a customer of the employer if the employee does not initiate or solicit the customer; and
  12. The agreement shall not be unduly burdensome on the employee, injurious to the public, or inconsistent with public policy.

The bill broadly defines “[r]estrictive covenant” as any agreement between an employer and an employee under which the employee “agrees not to engage in certain specified activities competitive with the employee’s employer after the employment relationship has ended.” It is unclear whether the bill intends to apply only to traditional non-compete agreements or whether it is also intended to apply to other forms of restrictive covenants, such as non-solicit and/or anti-raiding provisions. It appears, however, that the bill is intended to apply only to non-competes as the proposed legislation contains a provision stating that a restrictive covenant may be presumed necessary where the legitimate business interest cannot be adequately protected through an alternative agreement, such as “an agreement not to solicit or hire employees of the employer; an agreement not to solicit or transact business with customers, clients, referral sources, or vendors of the employer; or a nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement.”

Moreover, the bill provides that any non-compete shall be unenforceable against all non-exempt employees, as well as other types of short-term or low-wage employees.

An employer who seeks to enforce the non-compete would be required to notify the employee in writing within 10 days after the termination of the employment relationship of the employer’s intent to enforce the non-compete. Failure to provide such notice shall void the agreement; however, notice need not be given in the event the employee was terminated due to misconduct.

Unless the employee was terminated for misconduct, the bill would also require employers who enforce a non-compete to pay the employee during the restricted period 100 percent of the pay that the employee would have been entitled and make whatever benefit contributions would be required in order to maintain the fringe benefits to which the employee would have been entitled.

If enacted, the legislation would allow employees to bring a cause of action against any employer or person alleged to have violated the act. In addition to injunctive relief, employees would be permitted to recover liquidated damages, compensatory damages, and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

As with many other New Jersey employment laws, the bill would require employers to post a copy of the act or summary in a prominent place in the work area.

While the act would go into effect immediately upon enactment, it would not apply to any agreement in effect on or before the date of enactment.

If enacted, Assembly Bill A1769 would severely curb the use of non-competes in New Jersey. Employers should be aware of the multitude of requirements they would have to establish in order to enforce a non-compete, including the requirement to pay employees 100 percent of their salary during the time the non-compete is in effect. Thus, in the event the bill is signed into law, employers should now begin to consider implementing other types of agreements aimed at protecting their legitimate business interests, such as confidentiality agreements and non-solicit agreements in lieu of non-competition agreements.

Nevada employers be advised: on June 3, 2017, Governor Brian Sandoval signed into law Assembly Bill 276, which amends Chapter 613 of the Nevada Revised Statutes and sets forth a new framework in which noncompetes are evaluated. The amended law includes the following four changes:

  1. A noncompete is void and unenforceable unless the noncompete:
    1. Is supported by valuable consideration;
    2. Does not impose any restraint that is greater than is required for the protection of the employer for whose benefit the restraint is imposed;
    3. Does not impose any undue hardship on the employee; and
    4. Imposes restrictions that are appropriate in relation to the valuable consideration supporting the noncompete.
  2. A noncompete may not restrict a former employee of an employer from providing service to a former customer or client if:
    1. The former employee did not solicit the former customer or client;
    2. The customer or client voluntarily chose to leave and seek services from the former employee; and
    3. The former employee is otherwise complying with the limitations in the noncompete as to time, geographical area and scope of activity to be restrained, other than any limitation on providing services to a former customer or client who seeks the services of the former employee without any contact instigated by the former employee.
  3. When an employee is terminated as the result of a reduction of force, reorganization or similar restructure of the employer, a noncompete is only enforceable during the period in which the employer is paying the employee’s salary, benefits or equivalent compensation (including severance pay).
  4. If an employer brings an action to enforce a noncompete and the court finds that it is supported by valuable consideration but (a) contains limitations as to time, geographical area or scope of activity to be restrained that are not reasonable, (b) imposes a greater restraint than is necessary for the protection of the employer and (c) imposes undue hardship on the employee, then the court must revise or “blue pencil” the noncompete to the extent necessary and enforce it as revised. Such revisions must render the limitations reasonable and no greater than is necessary for the protection of the employer.

Key Takeaways

The legislation does not clarify the meaning of the term “valuable consideration.” Such guidance will likely come from the courts as Nevada employees and employers litigate what is meant by the term, although it appears that an at-will employee’s continued employment in and of itself will not be considered sufficiently “valuable” under the law. In the meantime, without the benefit of legislative or judicial guidance, Nevada employers should assess whether an employee subject to a noncompete has received adequate consideration, particularly in relation to the restriction that is being imposed in the noncompete.

The legislation is also notable in that it reverses a prohibition on judicial blue penciling that was established by the Nevada Supreme Court in a 2016 decision, Golden Road Motor Inn, Inc. d/b/a Atlantis Casino Resort v. Islam and Grand Sierra Resort, 376 P.3d 151 (Nev. 2016). Nevada courts are now required to modify or “blue pencil” overbroad noncompetes to the extent necessary to render them enforceable. Although Nevada employers with an overbroad noncompete can take comfort knowing that the noncompete will not simply be discarded, they should nevertheless revise their noncompetes so that they impose restrictions in terms of time, geographical area and scope of activity that are reasonable.

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.

In non-compete matters, it is often said that trial judges dislike enjoining individuals and will go out of their way to avoid doing so. A recent decision by the Florida Court of Appeals, Allied Universal Corporation v. Jeffrey B. Given, may be a good example of such a situation – as well as an example of an employer that took an immediate appeal and got the relief it wanted.

In Allied Universal, the trial court denied a motion for a preliminary injunction to enforce the terms of a non-compete with a former employee, even though the employee failed to rebut evidence that his non-compete was supported by legitimate business interests and that his former employer would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction.  Here, the legitimate business interests at issue were substantial relationships with specific prospective or existing customers and various types of proprietary information and pricing strategies.

Rather than presenting rebuttal evidence, the employee argued that because he had not yet begun to actively compete, he had not yet breached his non-compete.  Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction, “finding only that Allied failed to show irreparable harm or absence of an adequate remedy at law.”

In contrast, based on the unrebutted evidentiary record, the appellate court held that the burden shifted to the employee to establish the absence of irreparable harm, and that because the employee failed to provide such evidence, the trial court’s denial of an injunction was an abuse of discretion.

While it is impossible to say what degree human empathy played in the trial court’s denial of the preliminary injunction, prudent practitioners in non-compete cases should never lose sight of that reality. They should also not forget that denials of requests for injunctive relief are immediately appealable, and if a request is justified under the facts and the law, an immediate appeal may be in order.

The top story on Employment Law This Week:  The White House is calling on states to combat what it describes as the “gross overuse of non-compete clauses today.”

The call to action recommends legislation banning non-competes for certain categories of workers and prohibiting courts from narrowing overly broad agreements. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman answered the call immediately, announcing that he would introduce relevant legislation in 2017. Our colleague Zachary Jackson, from Epstein Becker Green, comments.

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

Matthew Savage Aibel
Matthew Aibel
Anthony J. Laura
Anthony Laura

With remote access technology becoming standard across industries, companies readily engage a multi-state workforce, with many employees residing outside of the employer’s home state.  While an expanded access to talent may be beneficial, one drawback is the ability to enforce restrictive covenants with out of state employees in a consistent manner and in the employer’s home state.  The case of Numeric Analytics, LLC v. McCabe, et al., offers insight into that issue. 2:16-cv-00051-GAM (E.D. Pa. 2/9/16).

Background

Numeric Analytics, a web analytics and marketing consulting company based in Pennsylvania, engaged employees working remotely in various states across the country.  Its President left the company to start a competing business and in the process, recruited four other employees to join her.  All the employees worked remotely in other states and had signed offer letters that included Non-Solicitation Agreements.  Those agreements provided that Pennsylvania law controlled, but lacked any forum-selection provision.  Numeric brought suit in Pennsylvania against its former employees seeking to enforce the Non-Solicitation Agreements and alleging various tort claims as well.

Jurisdiction Analysis

After noting that it did not have general jurisdiction over the non-resident defendants, the court proceeded with a specific jurisdiction analysis.  Numeric alleged that the employees directed their activities to Pennsylvania because they “signed employment contracts with a Pennsylvania company, continuously communicated with a Pennsylvania company about their employment, ran all invoices for the work they performed through Pennsylvania, and were paid by their Pennsylvania employer.” (Id. at 6-7).  Additionally, Numeric presented evidence that the employees needed to contact the Pennsylvania office to resolve payroll, benefits, or other problems throughout the course of their employment; that medical coverage, medical benefits, and retirement plans were administered from Pennsylvania; that each employee’s timekeeping, billing of customers, and email were managed by the Pennsylvania office; and that Numeric paid Defendants’ salaries using a Pennsylvania bank. (Id. at 7).

The court held that all of those factors “are characteristic of a traditional employer-employee relationship, except for location.” (Id.).  The court decided that the claim for breach of the restrictive covenant arose out of and related to the Defendants’ contract, and that exercising specific jurisdiction over them with respect to that claim was fair and reasonable given the circumstances.  The court remarked, however, that the lack of a forum selection clause in the contract made this a much more difficult issue, and that such a clause “would be the preferred method of resolving such ambiguity.” (Id. at 8).  The court declined to exercise specific jurisdiction with respect to all of the tort claims (except for the fiduciary duty and tortious interference claims against the former president), finding that the tortious conduct on those claims was not directed at the forum nor caused sufficient injury in the forum in a manner sufficient to support specific jurisdiction.

Takeaways

As the court sums up: “[I]n a business with its operations and personnel widely distributed across state or even national boundaries, questions of jurisdiction can become significantly more complicated.” (Id. at 2).  One obvious solution to this problem is to have a forum selection clause in all employment agreements, especially those with out-of-state employees.  Such a provision will usually control the analysis and enable a company to seek to enforce the agreements in its preferred locale.   This case should serve as a cautionary tale for employers with remote employees and should remind all legal and human resource departments to check on the contracts they currently have with remote employees to ensure they contain forum selection clauses.

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.