Let the Buyer Beware
By Alexander Marsh and Jeremy Saint Laurent, Esq.
Historically, non-competition agreements have been a useful tool for employers to protect their businesses, financials, and proprietary information when a departing employee leaves the company to work for a competitor. Over the past decade, the ways in which non-competition agreements can be used has been restricted.
Indeed, Massachusetts has significantly limited the functionality of non-competes, and California has barred them altogether. Recently, the federal government, vis-a-vis the Federal Trade Commission, has limited their use in corporate mergers and acquisitions.
“In October 2018, Massachusetts practically banned non-competes through the creation of very specific and strict requirements. As a threshold matter, non-competes in Massachusetts cannot be freely used and, rather, must protect a legitimate business interest.”
Just four years ago, in October 2018, Massachusetts practically banned non-competes through the creation of very specific and strict requirements. As a threshold matter, non-competes in Massachusetts cannot be freely used and, rather, must protect a legitimate business interest. The definition of legitimate business interest is limited to trade secrets, confidential information of the employer that otherwise does not qualify as a trade secret, or the employer’s good will.
Other alternative restrictive covenant, such as non-solicitation, non-disclosure, and/or confidentiality agreements, must be explored prior to resorting to a non-compete.
Massachusetts further tightened up the ability to implement non-competes by creating a litany of other requirements. The non-compete must:
• Be in writing;
• Be signed by both the employer and the employee and state that the employee has a right to consult a lawyer before signing the agreement;
• Provide notice of the agreement to the employee (the notice requirements change depending on when the employee is asked to sign the agreement); and
• Occur at the beginning of employment or provide notice of the agreement no less than 10 business days before the agreement would become effective and provide additional compensation.
The conduct the agreement seeks to prevent must not violate the public interest. Generally, public policy favors an employee’s ability to move from one job to another without restriction. Only a narrowly tailored agreement to protect a legitimate business interest will fit within public policy.
It is against public policy in Massachusetts to allow for non-compete agreements in certain professions. Non-competes signed by nurses, physicians, psychologists, social workers, and certain employees of broadcasting companies are considered void in Massachusetts. This is to protect public health and the free flow of information and ideas. A non-compete agreement in any of these areas is unenforceable as a matter of law.
Additionally, a non-compete agreement is not valid against a low-wage employee. The law states that employees who are classified as ‘non-exempt’ (typically, employees eligible for overtime pay and hourly wages) under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act may not be required to sign a non-compete agreement.
Non-competes are also prohibited or unenforceable when an employee is terminated without cause or laid off. These workers are not bound by the terms of any non-compete agreement that they have already signed with their employer.
Now, on the federal side, non-competition agreements are coming under scrutiny through corporate mergers and acquisitions. The primary rationale for restricting them is public-policy concerns.
Traditionally, non-compete agreements as part of a corporate merger or acquisition were quite broad in scope and geography. The reason for their broad coverage makes sense: the sale of a business is primarily based upon good will. Buyers understandably would require broad non-competition coverage so, post-sale, they are not competing against a seller who may start or work for a competitor company. In other words, in a business sale, to protect its interest in the business, the buyer would want to restrict the seller’s ability to compete against it.
However, the Federal Trade Commission recently restricted the ability of a buyer to require broad, sweeping language in non-competes. Rather, they must be limited to what is specifically needed to protect portions of the business.
What does all of this mean for companies? Knowing how to properly craft a valid, legally enforceable non-competition agreement is paramount. As with other restrictive covenants, non-competition agreements should be used sparingly and tailored as narrowly as possible to adequately protect your client’s legitimate business interests without being overly restrictive to the employee.
Generally, a one-year duration is considered to be reasonable. Depending on the circumstances, it may be possible to protect your client with a non-compete that has a shorter enforcement period. Again, as a rule of thumb, the shorter the length of restriction, the more likely the non-compete will be enforceable. It may also make sense to explicitly prohibit competition during employment.
Jeremy Saint Laurent, Esq. is a litigation attorney who specializes in labor and employment law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288. Alexander Marsh is a legal assistant at the Royal Law Firm LLP.