Non-Competes: Useful Or Futile?
Originally Published on Forbes.com here.
Bound by a Non-Compete?
At least half of the founders who contact me are contractually bound by some sort of covenant not to compete with a current or former employer. A covenant not to compete is a contract between an employer and employee or contractor in which the employee or contractor agrees not to work for competitors of the employer for a specific amount of time after the employee or contractor completes their service to the employer. Whether you are an employee, contractor or employer, there are three basic issues to think about when analyzing your non-compete: purpose, restrictions and enforceability.
Non-compete agreements protect proprietary information and restrict where an employee or contractor may work during the contract — and sometimes after they complete their service to an employer.
The first purpose of a non-compete is tantamount to a non-disclosure agreement, as its goal is to keep a current or former employee or contractor from disclosing proprietary information to a third party. Proprietary information includes more than just intellectual property and can be anything from financial plans to marketing strategies and data.
The second purpose is a work restriction on the current or former employee or contractor. Work restrictions contractually limit a current or former employee or contractor from working for a competitor in the same market or geographical area for a set amount of time.
Non-competes are a severe restriction on commerce and an individual’s ability to make a living. Because of this, the prevailing trend is to limit or bar the enforceability of non-competes. This enforceability, however, varies greatly by state.
In states like California, non-competes are unenforceable as a matter of law if they restrict an employee or contractor’s activities after the term of the contract. There is a common misconception that non-compete clauses are still enforceable against California contractors (they are not). The relevant provision of CA’s Business and Professions Code Section 16600 states: “16600. Except as provided in this chapter, every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.”
Other states like Georgia provide employers specific guidelines for the enforceability of restrictive covenants Ga. Code Ann. § 13-8-53 (May 11, 2011).
When reviewing your non-compete, you should have an attorney check the laws of the state where both the employer and the employee/contractor are located for restrictions.
For a covenant not to compete to be enforceable, there must be some form of consideration. Consideration may come in the form of payment with something of value or money. If an agreement containing a non-compete is signed at the outset of an employee or contractor’s employment, most courts will find that continuing employment is adequate consideration for the non-compete. However, if an employer tenders a non-compete to a current or former employee or contractor without consideration, then most courts will find that non-compete invalid for want of consideration.
Because a non-compete may severely restrict an individual’s ability to make a living, the restrictions must be reasonable in scope. I recently had a software engineer present me with an independent contractor agreement that would have restricted him from performing any services as an engineer, whether indirectly or directly competitive with his employer, for five calendar years post-employment and without a geographic limitation. If enforceable, this agreement would have prevented the contractor from working as a software engineer in any capacity for five years.
While proprietary information protected by a non-compete may be broadly interpreted and include more than just intellectual property, work restrictions must be reasonable in duration and geographic location. Generally speaking, a covenant not to compete should only last for one to two years maximum. The geographic limitation should also be reasonable in light of the circumstances. While a software engineer might be restricted from working in a certain market, it is probably not fair to ask a fast food worker not to work for a competitor globally.
In many states, the employer bears the burden of showing that restrictions are both reasonable and necessary to protect against unfair competition. While some states might enforce this agreement, a state’s courts often are allowed to “blue pencil” non-compete provisions to those aspects that are absolutely necessary to prevent a competitor from gaining an unfair advantage.
Restrictive covenants like non-competes can be unenforceable as a matter of law or cause all involved significant hardship in the future. I highly encourage employers, contractors and employees to avoid using form or stock agreements that contain non-competes without a licensed attorney’s review. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.