Those following the Massachusetts legislature’s efforts to improve Massachusetts noncompete law will recall that in 2008, then-Representative, now Senator, Will Brownsberger and Representative Lori Erhlich each separately introduced their own noncompete bills. Brownsberger’s bill took the approach in California, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, banning noncompetes in the employee context. Ehrlich’s bill took a moderated approach, focusing on procedural and other limits.
In the spring of 2009, Rep. Brownsberger and Rep. Ehrlich decided to work together toward modifications acceptable to both. After extensive input from many different interests, they arrived at a “compromise bill” designed to codify, clarify, and modernize Massachusetts noncompete law. The compromise bill was revised over time and developed quite a bit of steam during the 2008–2009 legislative session, but ultimately died. Then, a revised version of the bill was introduced in 2010, though it too ultimately died.
This session, Senator Brownsberger and Representative Erhlich have tried an entirely new, streamlined approach. (As readers of this blog will know, I was involved with the bills from the very beginning, including this new bill, and have been the principal draftsperson; I view my role, however, as purely advisory and that of scrivener. I give my opinions on the pros and cons of the various possible approaches and language, but take no position on the policy.)
The new bill – called the “Noncompete Agreement Duration Act” – leaves most noncompete law in tact, and, as its name suggests, focuses on the duration of noncompetes (in the employer/employee context). As before, the bill does not affect the law of trade secrets, nondisclosure agreements, nonsolicitation agreements, no raid/no hire agreements, noncompetes in connection with the sale of business (if the restricted person owns at least a 10 percent interest and received substantial consideration) or outside the employment context, forfeiture agreements, or agreements not to reapply for a job.
The bill starts with, and is premised on, the following two findings:
- “[T]he Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a significant interest in its economic competitiveness and the protection of its employers, and a strong public policy favoring the mobility of its workforce” and
- “[T]he Commonwealth of Massachusetts has determined that an employee noncompetition agreement restricting an employee’s mobility for longer than six months is a restraint on trade and harms the economy.”
The bill then creates a presumption that a noncompete that lasts up to six months is presumed reasonable in duration. The bill also creates the opposite presumption: a noncompete that lasts more than six months is presumed unreasonable in duration. The presumptions are not absolute; they can be overcome. If a court determines that the duration is unreasonable, however, the noncompete will be unenforceable in its entirety.
There are three instances in which a noncompete that is unreasonable in duration can still be enforced (though the court will shorten the duration to the length of time determined to be appropriate). Those three instances are as follows:
- “the employee has breached his or her fiduciary duty to the employer”;
- “the employee unlawfully taken, physically or electronically, property belonging to the employer”; or
- “the employee has, at any time, received annualized taxable compensation from the employer of $250,000 or more.”