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.

A Florida trial court should not have entered a temporary injunction enforcing a non-compete agreement against a former employee on an ex parte basis, i.e., without notice to the employee, according to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals in a recent decision, Bookall v. Sunbelt Rentals, Case No. 08-26291 (Fla. 4th DCA, December 3, 2008).

The employer, a company that rents construction equipment, employed the former employee until February 7, 2008, under a written agreement containing a non-compete and non-solicitation provision. Shortly after the employee resigned, he began to work at a competing company. Upon discovering this, the employer sent the former employee a letter advising him of the breach of the agreement. The former employee’s counsel responded that the employee understood and would comply with his obligations under the agreement.

Upon learning that the former employee continued to work for the competitor, the employer filed a verified complaint with supporting affidavits and an ex parte emergency motion for temporary injunction. The motion sought a temporary injunction against the former employee and the competitor based on the noncompete and non-solicitation provisions of the employment agreement. The duty judge assigned to the case entered the temporary injunction.

In its opinion, the Fourth DCA noted that under the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, a temporary injunction “may be granted without written or oral notice to the adverse party only if: (A) it appears from the specific facts shown by affidavit or verified pleading that immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage will result to the movant before the adverse party can be heard in opposition; and (B) the movant’s attorney certifies in writing any efforts that have been made to give notice and the reasons why notice should not be required.” Furthermore, “[e]very temporary injunction granted without notice . . . shall define the injury, state findings by the court why the injury may be irreparable, and give the reasons why the order was granted without notice if notice was not given.” See Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.610(a).

According to the Fourth DCA, the injunction suffered from a “fatal defect”: it failed to give the reasons why the order was granted without notice. The court noted that “[t]his deficiency could have been cured if the employer articulated in its complaint or motion reasons why notice should be dispensed with….Unfortunately for the employer, neither the complaint nor the motion cured the deficiency in this case.”

One lesson from the Bookall decision is clear: follow the civil procedure rules carefully. The rules are just that – rules – not guidelines or suggestions. The employer’s and the court’s failure to articulate why the order was granted without notice required a reversal of the injunction order under a plain reading of Rule 1.610(a).

One might surmise that there was no good reason why notice was not given to the former employee. After all, the opinion notes that the former employee was represented by counsel. How hard is it to fax, email and/or call opposing counsel before a hearing, even on an emergency motion?

But perhaps the former employee’s counsel was on vacation or otherwise unavailable to receive notice of the hearing. In that case, an ex parte injunction may have been appropriate, and the employer’s and the court’s failure to state why the order was granted without notice a mere oversight.

However, even where an ex parte injunction is appropriate, employers and their counsel should be aware that it may be short-lived. Under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.610(d), “[a] party against whom a temporary injunction has been granted may move to dissolve or modify it at any time. If a party moves to dissolve or modify, the motion shall be heard within 5 days after the movant applies for a hearing on the motion.” Thus, if a court enters a temporary injunction on an ex parte basis, the employer’s counsel should clear his calendar for the next week. The employee is entitled to a file a motion to dissolve and obtain an expedited hearing, and he may stand a good chance of getting the injunction modified or dissolved entirely once he tells his side of the story.