New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Non-Compete Agreements

Published on:

bigstock-Man-filling-out-an-employment--16555166.jpgLast week, the United States Supreme Court overturned a state court’s ruling that a non-compete agreement is invalid because it violates state law. The Supreme Court ruled that since the non-competition agreement included a valid arbitration clause, an arbitrator has to decide whether the non-compete agreement is legally enforceable.

The case originated in Oklahoma, a state which has a statute that limits when non-competition agreements are enforceable. Eddie Lee Howard and Shane D. Schneider filed a lawsuit against their former employer, Nitro-Lift Technologies, in which they sought a ruling that the confidentiality and non-compete agreements they entered into with Nitro-Lift were unenforceable because they violated Oklahoma law. The case went up to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which ruled that the non-compete agreements were null and void under Oklahoma law. However, Nitro-Lift argued that the state Supreme Court should not have decided whether the non-compete agreement was enforceable since there were provisions in the non-compete agreements which required all disputes to be decided through private arbitration.

The United States Supreme Court agreed with Nitro-Lift. In Nitro-Lift Technologies, LLC v. Howard, it ruled that once a court determines there is a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement, decisions about the enforceability of anything else in the contract must be decided by an arbitrator. As a result, the Oklahoma Supreme Court should not have decided whether the non-compete agreement itself is enforceable.

Nitro-Lift is part of a series of cases in which the United States Supreme Court has recognized how difficult it is to get around arbitration agreements. This is extremely important, since when you sign an arbitration agreement you are giving up your right to a jury trial, and arbitration is typically considered much more favorable to employers than employees.

Continue reading

Published on:

In a sluggish economy employers tend to use non-compete agreements more frequently to protect their interests. At the same time employees struggling to find a job in difficult job market are more likely to question and challenge the limitations set by their non-compete agreements. As a result, we frequently receive inquiries from employees about whether their non-compete agreements are enforceable under New Jersey law. For example, an employee recently asked if her employer could sue her for violating a non-compete agreement even though the employer fired her only a few weeks after she started the job.

bigstock-Businesswoman-Signing-Paper-8001846.jpgTechnically, an employer is not required to give an employee anything more than his or her job, even for a short time, in exchange for signing a non-compete agreement. However, non-compete agreements are disfavored by New Jersey courts and have to meet a few different requirements to be enforceable. Thus, it is impossible to give a short or definitive answer to this client, especially without carefully reviewing her agreement. I can explain, however, the factors New Jersey courts consider when deciding whether to uphold a non-compete clause in an employment agreement.

A non-compete agreement will be enforced in New Jersey only if it protects the legitimate interests of the employer, does not impose an undue hardship on the employee, and is not unduly harmful to the general public.

Legitimate interests of the employer can include protecting trade secrets, proprietary or confidential information, and customer relations. Courts generally will not uphold a non-compete agreement or another form of restrictive covenant if the employer is merely trying to prevent fair competition.

In determining if a non-compete agreement places an “undue burden” on the employee, courts analyze whether the employee is likely to get reemployed in his field somewhere else despite the restrictions of the agreement. The reason why the employee was separated from the job can also be an important factor. For example, courts are much more likely to find an undue hardship on the employee if the employee was laid off or fired without cause, like the client I mentioned above. However, unlike how New York treats non-compete agreements, New Jersey does not have a rule that they are automatically invalid if an employee lost his job involuntarily.

New Jersey courts also have struck down non-compete agreements that limit the public’s right to have access to receive professional advice and services. For example, New Jersey does not permit non-compete agreements to be enforced against attorneys. Although there is no similar prohibition for physicians, accountants, or other licensed professionals, courts will consider whether a non-compete agreement harms the public by restricting its access to professionals in a particular geographic area.

A non-compete agreement only is enforceable if it is reasonable in terms of its duration and geographic scope. What is reasonable depends on all facts in the case, and there are hardly any bright line rules. Non-compete restrictions lasting up to two year are typically enforceable, but longer restrictions can be enforceable depending on the circumstances. The geographic scope can legitimately be limited to any area where the company actually does business, or is seeking or planning to do business. If a court finds the restrictions are overly board, it can rewrite the agreement to make the restrictions reasonable. However, if a court finds the company intentionally made the restrictions unreasonably broad, it can throw out the entire agreement.

Continue reading

Published on:

Under New York law, non-compete agreements and other restrictive covenants in employment contracts are disfavored, and are enforceable only in limited circumstances. New York courts enforce non-competes only if all three of the following conditions are met:

1. The non-compete is reasonably limited in scope and duration;

2. The restrictions are no greater than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interests;

3. The non-compete is not harmful to the general public;

4. The non-compete is not unreasonably burdensome to the employee.

Even when those four requirements are met, an employer seeking to enforce a non-compete agreement has to prove it is not merely seeking to use the non-compete agreement to prevent competition. Instead, it has to show the non-compete is necessary to protect its legitimate interests, such as to prevent the employee from using or disclosing its trade secrets or confidential information, to protect the company’s goodwill, or to prevent special harm due to the unique nature of the employee’s job.

Thumbnail image for Employment Agreement Non-Compete Provision.jpgThere are few bright line rules regarding when a non-compete agreement is reasonable. In deciding whether a restrictive covenant is reasonable, courts consider a number of factors and balance the right of the employee to work and earn a living against the importance of the restrictions to protect the employer’s business. In terms of duration, covenants not to compete for 6 months or less are generally reasonable. New York courts have approved non-competes lasting up to two years when the restrictions are otherwise reasonable and not too burdensome for the employee.

If an employee is receiving compensation from her former employer during the period when she is supposed to refrain from competition, such as severance pay or garden leave pay, the non-compete is more likely to be upheld.

Even when a non-compete agreement is reasonable, it is still unenforceable if the employer fired the employee without good cause. Likewise, a reasonable covenant not to compete is unenforceable if the employer breached the employee’s employment contract.

Attorneys, as well as stock brokers and other registered representatives under Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), should be aware that special rules apply to their non-compete agreements in New York. For example, agreements that restrict attorneys from practicing law are unenforceable, except as a condition for receiving retirement benefits. Likewise, contracts that prohibit customers from continuing to use the services of their registered representative are not enforceable.

Continue reading

Contact Information