Noncompetition Agreement Legislation Appears No Closer to Passage in Massachusetts

The effort to regulate the use of noncompetition agreements continues to languish in a legislative committee, where most of several competing proposals were referred early in 2017. Alongside them – or, as it were, within the same proposed bills – sits the uniform trade secrets act, a law aimed at protecting the advantage businesses enjoy from confidential trade information.

No fewer than six bills are now being considered by the Massachusetts Legislature’s joint committee on labor and workforce development. One proposed law would void restrictions on post-employment competition contained in written employment agreements while permitting limitations on solicitation of customers or employees in those same contracts to be enforced. Another would permit noncompetition agreements under specifically prescribed conditions, including 10-day advance notice for employees, opportunities to consult with counsel, and payment of wages during any restricted period of time. Some versions of the proposed law would ban noncompetes for lower level workers and limit them to time periods of between three and 12 months. Two bills require renewal of noncompetition agreements at regular intervals, and some permit enforcement of them only in the county where an employee resides.

It’s unclear whether or when the state Senate and House of Representatives will agree on and pass a version of noncompetition legislation or, if they ever do, whether the governor will sign it into law. Given the long history of failed efforts to ban these contracts, it seems most likely that, if any legislation is ever to become law, it will impose conditions on noncompetition agreements while permitting businesses to continue to enforce them where they are essential. Such enforcement might very well require that employers pay at least a portion of the wages their former workers will lose as a consequence of a noncompetition restriction.

New Year Brings Renewed Efforts to Pass Non-compete Legislation in Massachusetts

Proponents in the Massachusetts Legislature may have lost several battles, but they have not given up the war. Early in the current legislative session, no fewer than six proposed laws to regulate noncompetition agreements were introduced. All were referred to one committee or another, where each is now under review. Given the past history of legislative failure and the varied approaches sponsors are taking in 2017, it’s hard to say whether a law on noncompetition agreements will ever be reported to the House or Senate floor for an up or down vote. If one is, it will likely contain several of the following limitations, each of which appears in one proposed law or another.

  • A requirement that noncompetition agreements be written between employers and employees only, and that workers receive them at least 10 business days before beginning a job.
  • If a non-compete is signed after employment begins, payment to the employee of something more than continued work.
  • Expiration of agreements that are not reviewed and renewed at least every three or five years.
  • A limit on restrictive periods to anywhere from 3 months to one year, with exceptions, perhaps, for bad actors that could extend restrictive terms to two years.
  • A requirement of formal written notice to employees of an intent to enforce a covenant no later than 10 days after employment ends.
  • Limits on classes of workers against which noncompetition agreements can be enforced.
  • Rules requiring that employees be paid during any noncompetition period.

One proposal is an outlier and would ban noncompetition agreements altogether. It would not, however, restrict employers from enforcing covenants that restrict solicitation of employees or customers. Neither would it limit non-disclosure agreements, forfeiture agreements, or non-competes that are formed in connection with the sale of a business.

Legislators Work to Revive Noncompetition Law

Recent reports suggest that Massachusetts legislators are continuing to work on a compromise noncompetition law that will garner enough support to become law. Earlier this year, both the House and Senate passed versions of a proposed statute that would have imposed rules on noncompetition agreements, which are currently governed by judges without direction from a formal statute. Because the House and Senate could not reach a compromise over differences in the bills each passed, the proposed statute died with the end of the legislative session on July 31, 2016.

Indications are that, this and other failures notwithstanding, Massachusetts will soon enact a law to govern the uses of noncompetition agreements. Among the provisions now being discussed are ones that would require advance notice to employees, limit the duration and applicability of restrictive covenants, and require employers to continue to pay some portion of a former employee’s salary as a condition to enforcement. If no deal is reached informally this month, legislation will almost certainly be reintroduced when the House and Senate reconvene in January 2017. Any bill they pass must, of course, be signed by the governor.

MA Legislature Again Fails to Pass Noncompetition Law

Though it was closer this time, there’s no solace for those hoping to finally see noncompetition legislation in Massachusetts. Despite passing two bills that would have brought clear rules to this area of law, hopes were dashed this week when the House and Senate were unable to bridge differences in their versions of the proposed law. Because they could not reach a compromise by July 31, the legislation will need to be introduced anew and start the legal process over again in 2017.

The legislative failure leaves noncompetition law a matter of judicial discretion. Under current rules, employers can enforce reasonable restrictive covenants that are part of valid written agreements. They can only do so, however, if they have legitimate business interests to protect. The most common enforcement strategy is to commence litigation seeking an injunction that bars former employees from violating contractual terms. The fact-specific nature of such litigation means that suits are normally argued in court and outcomes are uncertain. The result, of course, is often expensive litigation.

The House and Senate bills sought to bring clarity to noncompetition issues. For details on their specific terms, see the July 8 and July 20 posts on this page.

Senate Action on Noncompetition Bill May Lead to its Failure in MA Legislature

The Massachusetts Senate recently followed the lead of the House of Representatives by passing a comprehensive bill to regulate noncompetition agreements. While this seems to be progress toward a final re-writing of laws that govern these often troublesome employment agreements, the Senate version of the bill varies significantly from the one unanimously passed last month by the House. That means, of course, that the two legislative bodies must huddle together and work out their differences. If they can do so and garner approvals of any agreed form in both the Senate and House, a noncompetition bill would be presented to the Governor for his signature. Because the current session ends July 31, the Senate and House need to move quickly.

Massachusetts House Passes Noncompetition Bill with Substantial Limits — Unanimously

The Massachusetts House of Representatives recently passed a bill that imposes rules for noncompetition agreements. While the bill has yet to become law – it is now being considered by the Senate, which will have to pass it before it can become law, an event that will also require the governor’s signature or, in the alternative, further legislative action – it certainly represents progress on an issue that has long been considered in Massachusetts.

In what may be an indicator of the ultimate passage of the bill into law, it passed unanimously, 150-0. Rules on noncompetition agreements imposed by the bill include the following:

  1. All agreements must be written and signed by employer and employee. Employers must provide them to prospective employees at least 10 days before work begins, and noncompetition forms must inform employees of their right to consult counsel before signing;
  2. Noncompetition agreements for existing employees must meet the same criteria. In addition, employees must receive some form of consideration – money or other material benefit – in addition to continuing employment;
  3. Noncompetition agreements must be narrowly tailored to protect an employer’s trade secrets, confidential information, and/or customer goodwill – that is, a business’s positive relationships with its customers or its positive reputation;
  4. The maximum restricted period is 12 months in most cases, and geographical reach must be reasonable; and
  5. Compensation to affected employees must be provided in the form of pay equal to at least half their highest annual base salary during the two years that precedes employment termination, unless employer and employee agree to compensation in some other form.

The bill would also bar enforcement of noncompetition agreements against employees who are not exempt from federal overtime pay requirements; those under 18; and employees fired without cause or laid off. It includes a provision for enactment of the Uniform Trade Practices Act.

Enforcing Noncompetition Agreements Requires Advance Planning, Strong Evidence

In a case that points up the difficulties employers often have enforcing noncompetition agreements while simultaneously highlighting how potentially damaging the restrictions can be to employees, a superior court judge recently denied an attempt by a hair salon to block two of its employees from moving to a competitor. It’s not the first time Massachusetts courts have refused to apply noncompetition agreements to hair stylists, whose work involves personal customer relationships that employers have difficulty penetrating even if otherwise valid restrictive covenants are in place.

In Elizabeth Grady Face First, Inc. v. Garabedian, et. al., the Middlesex Superior Court refused to block the employees’ use of the so-called ‘Elizabeth Grady Way’ for competitor Sofia E. Day Spa. It found that the plaintiff did not meet its noncompetition burden of submitting evidence that its way of doing business was proprietary or confidential. On the contrary, the court found, Elizabeth Grady trains both employees and non-employees at its schools, and the latter are free to take what they learn and compete in the marketplace. The court concluded that enforcing a noncompetition agreement against employees with only this sort of job knowledge would stretch the reach of restrictive covenants beyond what’s permitted by Massachusetts law. Notably, the court found, there was no allegation that the employees improperly solicited Elizabeth Grady’s customers. The contractual restriction against the employees working for a competition within 25 miles of their former employer was thus not likely to succeed.

The case is instructive to employers and employees alike. For businesses, it points up the need to amass a full and complete record when seeking to enforce noncompetition agreements. It is the employer’s burden in all such cases to demonstrate that their former workers are acting unfairly – cheating, if you will. The failure to do so is among the most common reasons that restrictions against competitive employment are denied by courts in Massachusetts, and employers should remember that simply having a valid contract with specific work restrictions is not enough to justify enforcement. For employees, the Elizabeth Grady case sends an equally important message: be wary what you sign. Regardless of the outcome in this and other cases, the defense of even a failed effort to enforce a noncompetition agreement is costly, time-consuming and stressful. It almost always drains valuable resources that are better spent elsewhere. Whenever possible, employees should decline to sign noncompetition forms or, if that’s not possible, seek to modify them in reasonable ways.

State Legislators to Renew Effort to Enact a Noncompetition Law

Though they’ve failed in several tries to reach a compromise on legislation to regulate the use of noncompetition agreements, the Massachusetts legislature is poised to try again. This time, House Speaker  Robert DeLeo seems willing to lead an effort that will include several specific components.

Mr. DeLeo said as much on March 2, according to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, when speaking with local business people. He reportedly highlighted three major components that might be part of 2016 noncompetition legislation:

  1. A limit on restrictive covenants to a maximum of 12 months after employment ends;
  2. A requirement that employees get advance notice of noncompetition agreement requirements before they accept a new job; and
  3. A restriction against using non-competes for workers in low wage jobs.

Time will tell whether these ideas or others can become reality in Massachusetts. The notion of noncompetition legislation has been around for some time but has never gained traction in the legislature. Prior to his departure as governor, Deval Patrick made several pushes to enact a bill with varying terms. Because no law on the topic exists, judges are left to decide on a case-by-case basis when restrictions on work are enforceable and to what extent they are valid. That approach commonly leads to expensive litigation as employers fight with their former employees about what they can and cannot do at their new jobs and, sometimes, whether they can work at them at all.

Maintaining Enforceable Noncompetition Agreements Requires Diligent Effort

Enforcing noncompetition agreements and other restrictions on post-employment activities is always a challenge in Massachusetts courts. Among the various issues employers must consider before attempting to do so is one that is often overlooked – the question whether a valid and enforceable contract even exists.

The general rule has long been that older contracts are eviscerated  by new ones covering the same subject matter. This is true in noncompetition situations as elsewhere and can become an issue when an employee is promoted or otherwise enters a new employment agreement. Unless a previously signed restrictive covenant is expressly referenced or restated in the new contract, it may be null and void. This principle was recently restated in a U.S. District Court case, where a  2005 noncompetition agreement was nullified by a 2012 employment contract.

Best practices in the noncompetition area demand diligence on this and related issues. Whether or not a  new writing is created for an employee – remember, even oral contracts can be enforced in this area if real job changes occur – companies that may wish to enforce restrictive covenants against former employees should institute a regular review program. Each time an employee is promoted or gets substantive new duties, a new noncompetition form should be executed. The same makes sense after the simple passage of time, which can bring smaller, incremental changes that might threaten an employer’s ability to enforce older covenants.

Moving Jobs in Face of Noncompetition Agreements takes Advance Planning

Moving jobs can be stressful, even when motivated by promises of better pay, a chance to move up the business ladder, or a more pleasant work experience. When a new job is in the same industry as the old, as is frequently the case, the stress that naturally comes with new job challenges can be compounded by a former employer’s concerns over uses of its business information. In some cases, those concerns are documented by writings that include substantial penalties for disclosing or misusing confidential data. Employees commonly sign such agreements without giving them much thought, until, that is, it’s time to move jobs. It’s at that point that many discover they may be restricted from competing at all with their former employers.

Navigating issues like these takes some planning. Here are a few steps employees should consider taking before signing on with a new company or resigning from a current one.

  1. Make sure you are familiar with all the documents you signed with your current company. If you need to, ask to see the contents of your personnel file. It is not uncommon for employees to discover restrictive agreements that they don’t recall signing. If you don’t understand your agreement, seek legal help.
  2. Consider what access you’ve had to internal documents and how, if at all, any information that may be contained in them could be used with a new employer. The answer to this question normally turns on the nature of an employee’s job.
  3. Be sure your prospective new employer is aware of any restrictive covenants you may have signed with your current one. Most now require new employees to affirm that they have no restrictions that affect performance in a new job. Failing to disclose relevant information can lead to big trouble down the road.
  4. Don’t keep copies of any of your current employer’s documents, whether in paper or electronic form, regardless of content. It is best to err on the side or returning documents that are not confidential than to keep any that even arguably are. Be sure that key materials or customer information is not stored on a personal phone or laptop. If it is, consider the potential for future disputes.
  5. If you signed a noncompetition or non-solicitation agreement, carefully coordinate your conduct in a new job with your prospective employer. Consider the reaction your current company will have to your job move and how you can minimize the risks that may be associated with that reaction. Carefully plan and execute your departure from your current employer.