After years of trying (8, to be precise – the first bills were filed, virtually simultaneously as it turned out, by Representative Lori Ehrlich and then-Representative (now Senator) Will Brownsberger for the legislative session starting January 2009), a new noncompete bill was filed on Friday, January 20: An Act relative to the judicial enforcement of noncompetition agreements (Senate Docket No. 1578).
The new bill – covering both noncompetes and the related issue of trade secrets – picks up where the House and Senate left off last legislative session, albeit with a few tweaks and clean-ups. (Please contact me if you would like a redline.)
From a big picture standpoint, the bill:
- Limits noncompetes (generally) to 12 months.
- Requires advance notice.
- Requires consideration beyond continued employment for post-hire noncompetes.
- Includes express legislative authorization for a springing noncompete.
- Requires the red pencil approach to an overly-broad noncompete, although it tempers that approach by permitting reformation if the agreement is written to comply with the safe-harbors set out in the statute.
- In substance, tracks the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, with tweaks previously submitted by Steve Chow on behalf of the Uniform Law Commissioners and a handful of changes that I had made a few years ago as well as for this latest version. Most substantively, this latest version clarifies that the “threatened misappropriation” that can be enjoined “upon principles of equity” is intended to reflect the inevitable disclosure doctrine. (There has been a significant amount of discussion around when the inevitable disclosure doctrine would apply; general consensus is that the doctrine is a very narrow one, intended to prevent wrongful conduct, rather than mere innocent misappropriation.)
Other important aspects of the noncompete section of the bill (in the order they appear in the bill):
- It applies only to employee noncompetes. It does not apply to other types restrictive covenants, including, most significantly, nonsolicitation agreements, anti-piracy/no-raid agreements, noncompetes made in connection with the sale of business, confidentiality agreements, or noncompetes that are part of a severance agreement provided that the employee “is expressly given 7 business days to remind acceptance . . . .”
- The agreement must be in writing, signed by both parties.
- The agreement must “expressly state that the employee has the right to consult with counsel prior to signing.”
- The advance notice requirement (for noncompetes entered into in connection with the commencement of employment) is “the earlier of a formal written offer of employment or two weeks before the commencement of the employee’s employment; provided, however, that an employee may waive this two-week requirement if the employer and the employee plan for the employee to commence employment in less than two weeks from the date of the formal written offer of employment and the waiver is expressly stated in the noncompetition agreement.”
- For noncompetes entered into after the commencement of employment, notice must be given at least 10 days before the agreement becomes effective and the noncompete must “be supported by consideration independent from the continuation of employment . . . .”
- The employer must review the noncompete with the employee at least once every three years.
- Legitimate business interests are the employer’s: (i) trade secrets; (ii) confidential information; and (iii) goodwill. (This is not a change from existing common law, except insofar as existing law may permit other interests to be protected.)
- A noncompete “may be presumed necessary where” other restrictive covenants are insufficient, including “because the employee breached” one of those agreements. It may also be presumed necessary where the employee took property of the employer or breached a fiduciary duty to the employer.
- Noncompetes are limited to (and presumptively reasonable if they are no more than) 12 months – unless the employee has breached his or her fiduciary duties or has taken property, in which case, the term is limited to two years.
- The noncompete must be reasonable in geographic scope. (This is the same as existing common law.) If the geographic reach is limited to only the “areas in which the employee, during any time within the last 2 years of employment, provided services or had a material presence or influence” it will be presumptively reasonable.
- The agreement must “be reasonable in the scope of proscribed activities in relation to the interests protected. (This is the same as existing common law.) A restriction on activities that protects a legitimate business interest and is limited to only the specific types of services provided by the employee at any time during the last 2 years of employment is presumptively reasonable.”
- The employer has 10 days following the end of the employee’s employment to notify the employee in writing by certified mail that the employer intends to enforce the noncompetition agreement. This requirement does not apply if the employee has unlawfully taken property or already breached the noncompete, a nonsolicit, an anti-piracy/no-raid covenant, a confidentiality agreement, or a fiduciary duty.
- The agreement must be consonant with public policy. (This is the same as existing common law.)
- The agreement will not apply to:
- employees who are not exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. sections 201-209;
- undergraduate or graduate students engaged in short-term employment;
- employees terminated without cause or laid off;
- employees who are 18 or under; and
- non-employees who perform services for less than one year.
- An overly-broad noncompete is subject to invalidation under the red pencil approach (which applies only to the noncompete, not the rest of any agreement that may include the noncompete). However, if the agreement is written to comply with the safe-harbors set out in the statute, a court may reform the agreement. (That concept is to force companies to draft noncompetes narrowly, while not imposing the same penalty on a company that attempted to draft narrowly. This modified red-pencil approach was dubbed the “purple pencil” by former Senator Wolf.)
- The court may impose a noncompete as a remedy for the violation of another restrictive covenant or a statutory or common law duty. (This is called a “springing noncompete” – it was an idea that I created for some clients who preferred to not use noncompetes except when an employee has acted unlawfully; accordingly, it imposes less restrictions on the employee unless and until the employee engages in unlawful behavior, thus demonstrating that the employee cannot be trusted to comply with the less onerous restrictions.)
- Massachusetts law will apply if the employee is a resident of, or has been working in, Massachusetts for at least 30 days.
- Jurisdiction lies in the county of the employee’s residence or Suffolk county (if the agreement so provides).
What should you be doing now to prepare? Nothing. Changes are still a long way off. However, you do need to understand the changes when they happen, and will need to be prepared to help you consider changes to your agreements.