Earlier this week, I wrote an article on our firm’s website about some recent developments regarding partial enforcement of restrictive covenants: New York Employers Could Soon Have More Difficulty Enforcing Restrictive Covenants. The article was primarily based upon a Fourth Department case of Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Johnson, a case that was recently argued at the New York Court of Appeals. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals decided the case. You can read the decision here.
This weekend, I will write a more extensive update about the case on our firms’ website, but there are still a few interesting takeaways to note.
Although partial enforcement under New York law was one of the issues under review, the threshold issue addressed by the Court of Appeals was whether or not to apply a Florida choice-of-law provision. The Appellate Division held that New York law should apply, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that part of the ruling. After an extensive review, comparing the laws of the two states on this issue, the Court held:
Considering Florida’s nearly-exclusive focus on the employer’s interests, prohibition against narrowly construing restrictive covenants, and refusal to consider the harm to the employee–in contrast with New York’s requirements that courts strictly construe restrictive covenants and balance the interests of the employer, employee and general public–defendants met their “‘heavy burden’ of proving that application of Florida law [to the non-solicitation provision of the parties’ agreement] would be offensive to a fundamental public policy of this State.”
There have been a number of occasions where I have reviewed non-compete agreements containing choice-of-law provisions from Florida or other more “employer-friendly” states. From now on, it seems very unlikely that such a provision would be enforced absent some significant distinguishing set of circumstances. Employers wishing to enforce restrictive covenants in New York should narrowly tailor them to meet the requirements for enforceability under New York law.
On the issue of partial enforcement, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Appellate Division. But, the Court did so because it believed there were issues of fact that raised questions about whether the employer engaged in overreaching or used coercive dominant bargaining power to obtain the restrictive covenant at issue. That issue was remanded back to the lower courts for further proceedings. Partial enforcement is not assured, and employers should be concerned about the apparent trend by courts to decline to partially enforce over-broad restrictive covenants.
I’ve never eaten at Jimmy John’s, but they must have some incredible sandwiches, made with either top secret ingredients or through a confidential process (or both!). It turns out that this sandwich chain requires its hourly workers to sign non-compete agreements, prohibiting its employees from working for a competitor for two years(!) after leaving Jimmy John’s. I don’t know how I missed that, but it was apparently widely reported back in October, in Business Insider and the New York Times, among other publications.
According to the New York Times article, this isn’t really all that uncommon, as more and more employers are requiring low- and moderate-wage workers to sign these agreements. But, it seems to me very unlikely that these agreements would be enforceable in New York. Plus, given the expense of enforcement, it is doubtful that any employer would truly think it worth the cost of litigating these agreements. But, a low-wage under threat of litigation and unable to afford a lawyer to defend them in such an action may not know that, and feel trapped in their current job.
In New York, these agreements are more common among professionals, executives, and higher-paid salespersons with access to confidential business-related information. And, even in those situations enforcement is not a sure thing. Restrictive covenants in employment—also referred to as non-compete clauses—are generally not favored, and will be enforced by the courts only to the extent they are reasonable and necessary to protect legitimate business interests, such as the protection of an employer’s trade secrets or confidential customer lists, or protection from an employee whose services are unique or extraordinary. Courts have also held that employers have a legitimate interest in preventing former employees from exploiting the goodwill of a client or customer, which had been created and maintained at the employer’s expense, to the employer’s competitive detriment. What legitimate interest would a sandwich chain have to justify preventing one of its sandwich-makers from leaving and working for a competitor?
This may all be moot if Congress passes the Mobility and Opportunity for Vulnerable Employees (MOVE) Act (not to be confused with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act). According to the press release issued by one of the sponsors, the legislation:
will enable low-wage workers to seek higher-paying jobs without fearing legal action from their current employer. The MOVE Act will ban the use of non-compete agreements for employees making less than $15 an hour, $31,200 per year, or the minimum wage in the employee’s municipality, and will require employers to notify prospective employees that they may be asked to sign a non-compete agreement.
According to the press release, it is estimated that 8-15% of low-wage workers are asked to sign non-compete agreements in an effort to dissuade those workers from seeking better, higher-paying jobs within the same industry. Although such agreements in these contexts may ultimately prove to be unenforceable in many jurisdictions, passage of the MOVE Act would remove any doubt with respect to these employees.
For more information about restrictive covenants and some recent developments in New York law, I invite you to read the latest posting on our firm’s website: New York Employers Could Soon Have More Difficulty Enforcing Restrictive Covenants.