As we previously reported, the Massachusetts House and Senate passed contrasting versions of non-compete reform bills in 2016 but were unable to come to an agreement by the end of the legislative session. Efforts began anew last month as Senator William Brownsberger and Representative Lori Ehrlich filed a new non-compete bill on January 20: An Act relative to the judicial enforcement of noncompetition agreements (Bill SD.1578). The bill builds on previous versions of legislation introduced in Massachusetts and would make significant changes to the landscape of both non-competes and trade secrets in the state.
This week, the Obama Administration continued its ongoing efforts to curb what it considers to be the “gross overuse” of non-compete agreements. In a “State Call to Action,” the White House encourages legislatures to adopt certain recommendations for non-compete reform. Tuesday’s announcement follows the Obama Administration’s May 2016 report, “Non-Compete Agreements: Analysis of the Usage, Potential Issues, and State Responses” discussed in an earlier blog post, which highlighted the variety of ways workers may be disadvantaged by non-competes.
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.
Once again, the Massachusetts legislature took on non-compete reform, and once again, came up empty-handed. On July 31, 2016, the legislature adjourned without reaching a compromise to alter the state’s non-compete landscape. Earlier this summer, both the House and the Senate passed contrasting versions of non-compete reform bills, but ultimately could not come to agreement on several important provisions. Their inability to reach a compromise reveals once again that this is a complex issue with many stakeholders, and not one susceptible to end-of-the-session compromise.
In the first half of 2016, we have already seen significant changes to a number of state non-compete laws. In this post, we provide a compilation of recently enacted legislation in Alabama, Connecticut, Idaho, Oregon, and Utah, as well as several important developments at the federal level.
Last week, the Illinois Attorney General filed suit against Jimmy John’s, alleging that the company’s non-competes violate state law. These non-competes prohibit all employees, including sandwich makers, from working during their employment and for two years afterward at businesses within several miles of any Jimmy John’s nationwide that earn more than 10% of their revenue from submarine or similar sandwiches. The complaint alleges that the non-competes do not protect a legitimate business interest such as trade secrets or customer relationships, and it seeks a declaratory judgment that the agreements are unenforceable.
As states continue to struggle with the pros and cons of non-competes, the White House has recently weighed in, siding largely with critics of non-competes. In Non-Compete Agreements: Analysis of the Usage, Potential Issues, and State Responses, the Obama Administration draws on a recent report from the U.S. Treasury Office of Economic Policy to provide an overview of research on the effects of non-competes as well as states’ efforts to limit their negative effects.
The White House Report acknowledges that non-competes have economically and socially beneficial uses such as protecting trade secrets and incentivizing investment in worker training. However, the Report notes that these agreements also may have detrimental effects by limiting worker mobility and inhibiting innovation. Specifically, the Report highlights ways in which workers may be disadvantaged by non-competes, including:
- Low-wage workers and others unlikely to possess trade secrets may be forced to sign non-competes;
- Workers may be asked to sign a non-compete only after accepting a job offer, when their bargaining power is reduced;
- The implications and enforceability of non-competes are often unclear to workers;
- Employers requiring non-competes often do not provide consideration beyond continued employment; and
- Non-competes may be enforceable even against workers fired without cause.
The Report concludes that although non-competes may play an important role in protecting businesses and encouraging innovation and investment in employees, they can also impose significant costs on workers, consumers, and the economy.
The Report marks the Obama Administration’s second recent foray into the realm of non-competes and trade secrets. The President recently signed into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA), which provides for the first time a federal civil remedy for the misappropriation of trade secrets, as discussed in detail by our IP colleagues. Although state legislators primarily hold the power to adopt non-compete reform, the Report indicates that the Obama Administration plans to continue to offer guidance in this area.
In Meschino v. Frazier Industrial Co., Civil No. 15-10327-RGS, 2015 WL 7295463 (D. Mass. Nov. 18, 2015), Judge Stearns held that an employment agreement superseded an earlier employment agreement and a separate earlier confidentiality and non-compete agreement. A 2005 employment agreement provided that the employee would be required to execute a separate confidentiality and non-compete agreement. The employee executed both agreements in 2005. Notably, the separate confidentiality and non-compete agreement was not expressly incorporated into the 2005 employment agreement, and the employment agreement did not contain an integration clause indicating that it was the final and complete agreement regarding the terms of employment.
Judge Janet L. Sanders of the Superior Court’s Business Litigation Session has continued the trend of Massachusetts courts refusing to recognize the inevitable disclosure doctrine.
In The Gillette Company v. Craig Provost et al, Civ. Action No. 15-0149 (Mass. Sup. Dec. 22, 2015), Gillette moved for a preliminary injunction to prevent its former counsel and ShaveLogic’s current general counsel, Chester Cekala, from providing any legal advice regarding Gillette’s patents, not only with respect to patent validity but also on infringement and scope. Although Cekala’s non-compete agreement with Gillette had long expired, Gillette contended that Cekala’s legal advice inevitably disclosed Gillette’s trade secrets to its competitor given his experience with the company.
In American Well Corporation v. Obourn, Civil No. 15-12265-LTS, 2015 WL 7737328 (D. Mass. Dec. 1, 2015), Judge Sorokin of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts upheld a non-compete entered into seven months after the employee’s start date. The Court explained that as to whether continued employment constitutes sufficient consideration for a non-compete:
“[T]he SJC has squarely addressed this question. Decades ago, it held that a non-competition agreement signed during employment was not void for lack of consideration because it contained a promise by the plaintiff thereafter to employ the defendant and by the defendant to work for the plaintiff.”
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.