Post-Employment Restrictions

Featured on Employment Law This Week: An employer cannot waive its own non-compete agreement to avoid payment, unless the agreement specifically grants it the right to do so.

An employee of a financial services firm in Illinois signed an agreement that required a six-month post-employment non-competition period in exchange for $1 million from his employer. When the worker resigned, the employer sent a notice waiving the agreement and telling the employee that it would not pay him the $1 million. After waiting out the six months, the employee filed suit against his former employer. The Illinois Court of Appeals found that there was no provision in the agreement that allowed the employer to change the terms without consent from the worker, and because the employee upheld his end of the contract, the employer must pay him what is due.

Watch the segment below and see our previous post on this topic.

In Reed v. Getco, LLC, the Illinois Court of Appeals was recently faced with an interesting situation: under a contractual non-compete agreement, the employer was obligated to pay the employee $1 million during a six month, post-employment non-competition period.  This was, in effect, a form of paid “garden leave” —  where the employee was to be paid $1 million to sit out for six months – perhaps to finally correct his golf slice or even learn the fine art of surfing.  It was a win-win situation that seemingly would be blessed by most courts; it was for a reasonable length of time, and the employee was set to be paid very handsomely for sitting out.  Accordingly, it is doubtful that most judges would have had an issue with it.

Yet here, the employer apparently had second thoughts – and just over a week after the employee resigned, the employer notified the employee that it was waiving the six month non-compete, allowing him to work anywhere, and therefore not paying him any portion of the promised $1 million.

Some non-compete agreements have express clauses allowing an employer to do just this – to shorten the non-compete and thereby avoid contractual non-compete payments — but the Court’s opinion makes mention of no such a clause here.

According to the Court, the employer attempted to justify the non-payment on several grounds.

First, the employer argued that because the non-compete itself was to the employer’s benefit, it was free to waive the non-compete period and not make the accompanying $1 million payment. But the Court effectively said, “whoa, not so fast,” noting that the non-compete agreement also had a clause stating that there could be no waiver of any contractual provision unless “signed by the party against whom the waiver or modification is enforced.” Here, the waiver was being enforced against the employee, but the employee signed no such written waiver and therefore the purported waiver was ineffective.  Moreover, the Court found that there was no language in the agreement indicating that actual enforcement of the non-compete provision was a condition precedent to the $1 million payment.

Second, the employer argued that because there was a provision in the non-compete agreement which allowed the employer to waive the restriction if requested by the employee, the employer had the discretion to modify all of the noncompete restrictions, including the $1 million payment obligation.  Again, the Court found that this interpretation was not supported by the plain and unambiguous language of the provision, which only applied to a situation where the employee requested a waiver.

Finally, the employer argued that the employee had a duty to mitigate, and could not simply spend six months doing as he chose while collecting $1 million from his former employer. The Court held that when an employer breaches an employment contract, the employee generally has a duty to reasonably mitigate damages. However, here the promise was that the employee would not engage in competitive activities for six months and, in exchange, the employee would be paid the promised sum.  The employee abided by his non-compete obligation and sat out for six months, so the Court held that the payment was due.

What should employers take from this decision? Because provisions obligating payment during non-compete periods can impose significant costs on the employer, employers must realistically assess what they are willing to pay. One option to control such costs is to make explicit in the agreement that the employer has the right to shorten any non-compete or garden leave period, and that the employer also has an accompanying right to proportionately reduce or eliminate any accompanying payment obligation. The absence of such an express contractual authorization was the death knell for Getco in this case.

David Clark, contributor to this blog and Senior Counsel at Epstein Becker Green, is featured on Employment Law This Week, discussing the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA).

Under the DTSA, employers can now sue in federal court for trade secret misappropriation. Though there is some overlap with the Uniform Trade Secrets Act—adopted in some version by 48 states—the DTSA marks a notable change in how these cases are litigated, creating a federal civil cause of action. The new law contains broad whistleblower protections and new requirements for employers to give notice of these protections.

View the episode below and a Thomson Reuters Practical Law Q&A co-authored by Mr. Clark with Peter Steinmeyer.

Peter Steinmeyer, co-editor of this blog, is featured in the top story on Employment Law This Week.

As the story explains, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has upheld a ruling that a group of workers at a fastener company used confidential drawings from the company to design, manufacture, and sell competing parts for their new business venture. On appeal, the former workers argued that they were “filling a gap” for customers, not competing with the original company. But the Sixth Circuit found that this argument ignored undisputed evidence in the case.

Mr. Steinmeyer discusses steps that employers should take to protect their trade secrets.

View the episode, below.

 

James P. Flynn
James P. Flynn

The State of Utah recently enacted Utah Code Annotated 34-51-101 et seq., the so-called Post-Employment Restrictions Amendments, which limit restrictive covenants entered into on or after May 10, 2016 to a one-year time period from termination. Although this could curtail certain employers’ plans, the amendments enacted provide some important exceptions and are in fact much more favorable to employers than those first proposed, which would have precluded virtually all post-employment restrictions in Utah. The statute and the exceptions and limitations are discussed below.

The statute as written declares a non-conforming “post-employment restrictive covenant” is “void.” Because Utah courts have not specifically adopted the “blue-pencil approach,” and any approach to reformation is unclear from case law or unresolved, the implications of the statute are unclear. Will voiding the “post-employment restrictive covenant” void the entire agreement of which it is a part, or just the post employment restrictions? Such questions remain to be answered.

The new law does have several important exceptions. It does not apply to (1) a “reasonable severance agreement,” (2) any restrictive covenants stemming from the sale of a business, (3) non-solicitation agreements, (4) nondisclosure agreements, and (5) confidentiality agreements. Perhaps most importantly, it is not retroactive. Of course, whether or not the statute will apply to an amendment to a pre-existing non-compete with a restricted period greater than one year remains to be seen.

Additionally, the statute’s exceptions must themselves be examined and applied with care. For example with respect to severance agreements, the statute will only allow enforceable post-employment restrictions “mutually and freely agreed upon in good faith at or after the time of termination.” Thus, employees may argue that the very use of a form restriction weighs against enforceability. Utah employers will need to carefully consider how to approach these issues, and to make any updates or changes to existing agreements before May 10, 2016.

Finally, and perhaps of most practical importance, Section 34-51-301 of the statute allows employees to recover attorneys’ fees where a post-employment restriction is found unenforceable:

If an employer seeks to enforce a post-employment restrictive covenant through arbitration or by filing a civil action and it is determined that the post-employment restrictive covenant is unenforceable, the employer is liable for the employee’s:
(1) costs associated with arbitration;
(2) attorney fees and court costs; and
(3) actual damages.

This provision could have a practical impact on the risk calculus associated with pursuing enforcement of restrictive covenants. Just another consideration among the many that are occasioned by this new statute.