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Blue Pencil

In what may be a trend, several courts around the country this year have embraced strict interpretations of non-compete agreements, refusing to blue pencil or equitably reform overbroad or unreasonable clauses in non-compete agreements. Traditionally, courts have exercised the doctrine of equitable reformation to re-write provisions to render them reasonable, or at the very least, strike unreasonable provisions to save those that are reasonable.

Consistency-is-keyA recent decision from a Wisconsin state court serves as a cautionary tale for employers that do not routinely impose or enforce non-compete restrictions consistent with the employee’s role and potential to harm the business.

In Kohl’s Department Stores Inc. v. Janet Schalk, 2015CV001465 (Wis. Cir. Ct. Aug. 11, 2015), Judge Robert Mawdsley denied Kohl’s request for an injunction preventing its Chief Information Officer, Janet Schalk, from joining Hudson’s Bay Company partly on the grounds that Schalk’s non-compete was overly restrictive in light of Schalk’s role in comparison with the non-competes of other employees.  Kohl’s, relying upon its non-compete contract with Schalk barring her from working in a similar position with a competitive retailer for one year, argued that Schalk should be barred from joining Hudson’s Bay, a Canadian department store company, because Schalk “has the playbook, the crown jewels, our entire strategy in her hands.” Schalk argued that the non-compete was too broad and that Hudson’s Bay was not a competitor given its high-end retailing–featuring Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor–compared to Kohl’s mid-tier status. Schalk also contended that Kohl’s overstated her role and knowledge of the company’s strategy.

Detail of exterior of courthouse

In Pegasystems Inc. v. Appian Corp., Judge Mitchell Kaplan of the Massachusetts Business Litigation Session enjoined a sales employee from working for a competitor for three months. This recent opinion highlights some common issues in Massachusetts non-compete law and illustrates judges’ broad discretion to fashion relief.

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Massachusetts employers and employees have enough to contend with trying to keep abreast of the judicial and legislative fits and starts of non-compete reform within the state, let alone developments in other states. It is important to remember that non-compete law varies widely from state to state, and these variations may come into play if employees are in different states or if a former employee is moving to a new state. Below you will find just a few of the many variances in state non-compete law.

In the rapidly changing business world, protecting a company's human capital and proprietary information is critical to maintaining a competitive edge. On this blog, Nutter's experienced Business Litigation and Labor, Employment & Benefits attorneys offer news and insights on all aspects of restrictive covenants and trade secrets—from analyzing a rapidly evolving body of case law, to summarizing new legislation and legislative efforts, to providing other need-to-know updates and more.

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