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Employment Noncompete Agreements

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

A second common restraint-of-trade issue arises with regard tononcompete agreements in employment contracts. As a condition of employment by the research division of a market research firm, Bruce, a product analyst, is required to sign an agreement in which he promises, for a period of one year after leaving the company, not to “engage, directly or indirectly, in any business competing with the company and located within fifty miles of the company’s main offices.” The principal reason recited in the agreement for this covenant not to compete is that by virtue of the employment, Bruce will come to learn a variety of internal secrets, including client lists, trade or business secrets, reports, confidential business discussions, ongoing research, publications, computer programs, and related papers. Is this agreement a lawful restraint of trade?

Here both the property interest of the employer and the extent of the restraint are issues. Certainly an employer has an important competitive interest in seeing that company information not walk out the door with former employees. Nevertheless, a promise by an employee not to compete with his or her former employer is scrutinized carefully by the courts, and an injunction (an order directing a person to stop doing what he or she should not do) will be issued cautiously, partly because the prospective employee is usually confronted with a contract of adhesion (take it or leave it) and is in a weak bargaining position compared to the employer, and partly because an injunction might cause the employee’s unemployment. Many courts are not enthusiastic about employment noncompete agreements. The California Business and Professions Code provides that “every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.” 1 As a result of the statute, and to promote entrepreneurial robustness, California courts typically interpret the statute broadly and refuse to enforce noncompete agreements. Other states are less stingy, and employers have attempted to avoid the strictures of no-enforcement state rulings by providing that their employment contracts will be interpreted according to the law of a state where noncompetes are favorably viewed.

If a covenant not to compete is ruled unlawful, the courts can pursue one of three courses by way of remedy. A court can refuse to enforce the entire covenant, freeing the employee to compete thenceforth. The court could delete from the agreement only that part that is unreasonable and enforce the remainder (the “blue pencil” rule). In some states, the courts have moved away from this rule and have actually taken to rewriting the objectionable clause themselves. Since the parties intended that there be some form of restriction on competition, a reasonable modification would achieve a more just result. 2