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 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 Nov. 18, 2015), Judge Stearns held that an employment agreement superseded an earlier employment agreement and a separate earlier confidentiality and non-compete agreement.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.”
The states have a rich tradition of passing legislation forbidding or limiting the use of non-compete agreements with identified classes of employees. As you might expect, a number of states forbid or limit the use of non-compete agreements with:
- Physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers and other medical professionals
- Individuals working in broadcasting
A 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.
A recent decision from the Business Litigation Session of the Massachusetts Superior Court has broad implications for non-compete cases involving arbitration clauses. In TIBCO Software, Inc. v. Zephyr Health, Inc. and Kevin Willoe, the court denied an employer’s motion for a temporary restraining order enforcing a non-compete, finding the employer’s own arbitration provision required it to pursue its restrictive covenant claims before the American Arbitration Association (AAA) in California.
Although last year’s legislative efforts to ban—or limit further—non-competes in Massachusetts failed, proponents have vowed to revive the issue again in 2015-2016. Excluded from those proposed measures, however, has always been any restriction on employers’ use of customer non-solicitation clauses. Should the Legislature ever pass restrictions on non-competes, employers that have not already done so will flock in droves to the use of customer non-solicits, particularly with respect to sales-related employees. This makes the courts’ ongoing struggle to define customer “solicitation” in the digital age of paramount importance.
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.