Trade Secrets & Noncompete Blog

Trade Secrets & Noncompete Blog

News & Updates On Developments in the Law of Restrictive Covenants, Unfair Competition & Trade Secrets

White House Issues Call to Action on Non-Competes – Employment Law This Week

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The top story on Employment Law This Week:  The White House is calling on states to combat what it describes as the “gross overuse of non-compete clauses today.”

The call to action recommends legislation banning non-competes for certain categories of workers and prohibiting courts from narrowing overly broad agreements. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman answered the call immediately, announcing that he would introduce relevant legislation in 2017. Our colleague Zachary Jackson, from Epstein Becker Green, comments.

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

Webinar, Nov. 30: Year in Review – Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Developments

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Many businesses progressively fear that their trade secrets and valued business relationships are at risk of attack by competitors – and even by their own employees. Do you know what it takes to protect those critical assets in the ever-changing world of trade secret and non-compete law?

Join Epstein Becker Green attorneys Anthony J. Laura,  Robert D. Goldstein, and Peter A. Steinmeyer on Wednesday, November 30, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. EST for a complimentary, 75-minute webinar hosted by Practical Law.  This webinar offers insights into recent developments and expected trends in the evolving legal landscape of trade secrets and non-competition agreements. This webinar will focus on how to navigate this developing area and effectively protect client relationships and proprietary information. Topics will include:

  • The Defend Trade Secrets (DTSA), including the new federal remedies available to employers and the steps they need to take to fully benefit from them.
  • Newly passed state statutes addressing restrictive covenants, including who can enter into them, industry restrictions, and temporal restrictions.
  • Recent decisions regarding what constitutes adequate consideration for a non-compete.
  • Interesting developments determining choice of law issues, including a new California statute restricting choice of law provisions.
  • Administrative agency developments, including agency enforcement actions cracking down on non-competes.

A short Q&A session will follow.

To register for this webinar, click here.

Moderator: Barbara J. Harris, Senior Legal Editor, Practical Law Labor & Employment

CLE credit is available in multiple states. Please submit inquires to: webinars.practicallaw@thomsonreuters.com.

DOJ and FTC Release Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals – Employment Law This Week

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The top story on Employment Law This Week: The DOJ intends to investigate anti-competitive trade practices.

The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission released joint guidance for HR professionals on how antitrust laws apply to employment. The guidance explains that agreements among employers not to recruit certain employees—or not to compete on terms of compensation—are illegal. Notably, the DOJ announced that they plan to criminally investigate “naked no-poaching or wage fixing agreements” that are unrelated to legitimate collaboration between businesses. In the past, both agencies have pursued civil enforcement. Peter Altieri, co-editor of this blog and a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, is interviewed.

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

White House Call to Action Could Spur More States, Including New York, to Act Against Non-Competes

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Political winds disfavoring non-compete agreements for low wage and rank-and-file workers continue to blow, and appear to be picking up speed.

On October 25, 2016, the White House took the unusual step of issuing a “Call to Action” to states regarding non-compete agreements, as part of the President’s initiative to stoke competition across the economy.  Calling non-competes an “institutional factor that has the potential to hold back wages and entrepreneurship,” the Call to Action seeks to reduce the misuse of non-compete agreements nationwide.

President Obama called on state policymakers to join in pursuing best-practice policy objectives, including:

  1. Banning non-compete clauses for categories of workers (such as low wage workers or workers laid off or terminated without cause);
  2. Improving transparency and fairness of non-compete agreements; and
  3. Incentivizing employers to write enforceable contracts (i.e., discouraging overreaching provisions) by, for example, promoting the “red pencil doctrine” which renders contracts with unenforceable provisions void in their entirety.

Immediately answering the White House’s Call to Action, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced on October 25, 2016 that he would introduce legislation in New York’s state legislature in 2017 “to curb the rampant misuse of non-compete agreements, which depress wages and limit economic mobility.”

Among other things, the proposed New York bill would prohibit the use of non-competes for any employee below the salary threshold set by Labor Law Section 190(7) (currently $900 per week); would require non-competes to be provided to individuals before a job offer is extended; and would require employers to pay employees additional consideration if they sign non-competes.

Employers thus should review their non-competes to ensure that they are narrowly drafted and should re-evaluate the categories of employees asked to sign them, so as to confirm that only those who truly pose a competitive threat are asked to sign a non-compete.

Also, the Call to Action falls in line with Guidelines recently issued by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, which outline an aggressive policy to investigate and punish employers and individual human resources employees who enter into unlawful agreements concerning employee recruitment or retention.

Aggressive New Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals Threatens Criminal Prosecution for Certain Unlawful Wage Fixing and No Poaching Agreements

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Following up on a string of civil enforcement actions and employee antitrust suits, regarding no-poaching agreements in the technology industry, on October 20, 2016 the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued Antitrust Guidance for Human Resources Professionals (the “Guidance”). The Guidance outlines an aggressive policy to investigate and punish employers, and individual human resources employees who enter into unlawful agreements concerning employee recruitment or retention.

The Guidance focuses on three types of antitrust violations:

  • Wage fixing agreements: agreements among employers to fix employee compensation or other terms or conditions of employment at either a specific level or within a range;
  • No poaching agreements: certain agreements among employers not to solicit or hire one another’s employees not ancillary to an overarching pro-competitive collaboration; and
  • Unlawful information exchanges: exchanges of competitively sensitive information which facilitate wage matching among market participants.

“Naked wage-fixing or no-poaching agreements among employers, whether entered into directly or through a third-party intermediary, are per se illegal under the antitrust laws. That means that if the agreement is separate from or not reasonably necessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers, the agreement is deemed illegal without any inquiry into its competitive effects.” The Guidance goes on to warn that “going forward, the DOJ intends to proceed criminally against naked wage fixing or no poaching agreements. These types of agreements eliminate competition in the same irredeemable way as agreements to fix product prices or allocate customers, which have traditionally been investigated and prosecuted as hardcore cartel conduct.”

“Even if an individual does not agree explicitly to fix compensation or other terms of employment, exchanging competitively sensitive information could serve as evidence of an implicit illegal agreement.” Information sharing agreements which have anticompetitive effects are subject to civil antitrust liability, including treble damages (a monetary penalty of three times the amount of the actual damages suffered). The FTC has taken the position that “merely inviting a competitor to enter into an illegal agreement may be an antitrust violation—even if the invitation does not result in an agreement to fix wages or otherwise limit competition.”

Antitrust Red Flags

In addition to the Guidance, the FTC and DOJ issued a list of Antitrust Red Flags for Employment Practices that human resources professionals should look out for in the employment setting. Red flags include:

  • Agreements with another company about employee salary or other terms of compensation either at a specific level or within a range;
  • Agreements with another company to refuse to solicit or hire that other company’s employees;
  • Agreements with another company about employee benefits;
  • Agreements with another company on other terms of employment;
  • Expressing to competitors that they should not compete too aggressively for employees;
  • Exchanging company-specific information about employee compensation or terms of employment with another company;
  • Participating in a meeting, including a trade association meeting, where the above topics are discussed;
  • Discussing the above topics with colleagues at other companies, including during social events or in other non-professional settings; and
  • Receiving documents that contain another company’s internal data about employee compensation or benefits.

The above conduct is not necessarily unlawful in all circumstances. However, best practice is to consult counsel prior to engaging in this conduct to avoid antitrust law violations and if possible, restructure the agreement or information exchange to accomplish its intended legal purpose.

Employer Must Abide by Non-Compete Payment – Employment Law This Week

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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.

Employer’s Waiver Of Non-Compete Period In Order To Avoid $1 Million Payment Held Ineffective

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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.

Employers Under the Microscope: Is Change on the Horizon? – Attend Our Annual Briefing (NYC, Oct. 18)

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Employers Under the Microscope: Is Change on the Horizon?

When: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Latest Developments from the NLRB
  • Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce
  • ADA Website Compliance
  • Trade Secrets and Non-Competes
  • Managing and Administering Leave Policies
  • New Overtime Rules
  • Workplace Violence and Active-Shooter Situations
  • Recordings in the Workplace
  • Instilling Corporate Ethics

This year, we welcome Marc Freedman and Jim Plunkett from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc and Jim will speak at the first plenary session on the latest developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide.

We are also excited to have Dr. David Weil, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, serve as the guest speaker at the second plenary session. David will discuss the areas on which the Wage and Hour Division is focusing, including the new overtime rules.

In addition to workshop sessions led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! – we are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Former New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton.

View the full briefing agenda here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

Non-Solicitation Violation Leads to $6.9M in Damages – Employment Law This Week

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Featured in the top story on Employment Law This Week:  Former employees turned competitors in Pennsylvania are hit with $4.5 million in punitive damages.

An insurance brokerage firm sued a group of employees, claiming that they violated their non-solicitation agreements by luring away employees and clients to launch a new office for a competitor. A lower court awarded the firm nearly $2.4 million in compensatory damages and $4.5 million in punitive damages because of the defendants’ outrageous conduct. On appeal, the appellate court agreed and upheld all damages.

See the segment below and read our recent blog post on this topic.

Appeals Court Divided On Bad Faith Under Illinois Trade Secrets Act

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In a question of first impression, the Illinois Appellate Court recently addressed what constitutes “bad faith” for purposes of awarding attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party under §5 of the Illinois Trade Secret Act (ITSA). That section provides, in pertinent part, that if “a claim of [trade secret] misappropriation is made in bad faith” or “a motion to terminate an injunction is made or resisted in bad faith,” “the court may award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.” The Illinois Appellate Court delivered a split decision on the legal standards for assessing whether a “bad faith” fee award is warranted under the statute.

Specifically at issue before the court in Conxall Corp. v. ICONN Systems, LLC, et al., 2016 IL App (1st) 10158 (Sep. 2, 2016), was “whether the trial court had applied the correct legal standard in determining whether Conxall’s claims were brought in ‘bad faith,’ as that term is used and understood in the Act.”  The sharply divided court proposed divergent standards for analyzing this question, despite reaching the same conclusion that the issue should be remanded to the lower court for consideration anew.

One of the three Justices adopted the California Court of Appeal’s approach, which found that “bad faith” under California’s version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act consists of two components: “(1) objective speciousness and (2) subjective bad faith.” Attentive to the goal of deterring such “bad faith” claims, the resultant standard embraces “speciousness [as a] looser standard” which accomplishes that goal, paired with a finding of “subjective bad faith.”

The other two Justices criticized this two-pronged test (which they noted appears to have taken hold among a number of federal courts), and instead held that the guidepost for an award of attorneys’ fees under ITSA should be “the preexisting definition of ‘bad faith’ in this state.”  While no Illinois court has had the opportunity to define “bad faith” specifically in the context of ITSA prior to ICONN, a “bad faith” test had already been articulated by the Illinois Supreme Court in Kratsack v. Anderson, 223 Ill. 2d 541 (2006) in the context of Illinois’ Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.  Construing the Kratsack opinion, the ICONN majority held that Illinois state courts should resolve the “bad faith” issue by asking “whether the pleadings, motions and other papers which were filed by the party violated Illinois Court Rule 137” or if “the party’s other conduct during the course of the litigation ran afoul of the underlying purpose of Rule 137, which is to prevent abuse of the judicial process.” Rule 137, Illinois’ frivolous pleading rule, allows for attorneys’ fees when a party interposes its pleading or motion with “any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation.” Kratsack, 223 Ill. 2d at 561-62.

There are several take-aways from the ICONN Court’s debate and ultimate finding.

Ask: Has your jurisdiction already made a decision to follow California and the federal court approach to determining “bad faith” under your state’s trade secrets act? If not, has your jurisdiction defined “bad faith” under any other statute?

Whatever the answer to these questions – and regardless of picking the “fed/Cal” or “state” side of the debate as to which legal standard should apply – any such motion for “bad faith” attorneys’ fees under your trade secrets act needs to clearly articulate the applicable standard for “bad faith” and consider the facts of the case in light of that standard.

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