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.
Technically, 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.