Tag Archives: non-competition

Massachusetts House of Representatives Passes Non-Compete Reform

By on June 30, 2016

     On June 29, 2016, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed House bill 4434, An Act Relative to the Enforcement of Noncompetition Agreements. Non-compete reform has been brewing in the Massachusetts legislature for several years, but the reform sought by many may finally be here, if the bill is enacted.  This bill contains two key provisions: an adoption of a version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, and substantial reform of Massachusetts non-competition law, which thus far has been only addressed by the courts.  The Uniform Trade Secrets Act section provides for injunctive relief and reasonable attorney’s fees to protect trade secrets, and supersedes any conflicting laws providing for civil remedies for trade secret misappropriation.

     The non-compete reform represents significant changes to existing law. The bill provides that a non-compete agreement must comply with seven criteria to be valid and enforceable: (i) if entered into in connection with the commencement of employment, it must be in writing and signed by employer and employee, and state that employees have the right to consult with a lawyer; (ii) if entered into after commencement of employment, it must be supported by fair consideration independent from continued employment; (iii) it must be no broader than necessary to protect trade secrets, other confidential information, or the employer’s goodwill; (iv) it may not exceed a duration of 12 months unless the employee has misappropriated employee property, in which case it may be extended to 2 years; (v) it must be reasonable in geographic scope, defined as where the employee provided services or had a material presence; (vi) it must be reasonable in scope of proscribed activities in relation to the interests it protects; and (vii) it must be supported by a “garden leave clause” or something similar, defined as a payment from the employer to the employee during the restricted period.

     Finally, the bill provides that non-competition agreements shall not be enforceable against certain categories of employees, including those classified as nonexempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and those terminated without cause or laid off.

     While the Uniform Trade Secrets Act provision of the bill is unlikely to draw controversy, as it is generally consistent with current law in the Commonwealth, the House bill 4434 contains significant changes to non-competition law. Should this bill be enacted into law, employers will need to update their non-competition agreements to ensure enforceability. 

An Overview of Massachusetts Non-Solicitation Agreements

By on May 18, 2016

Non-competition agreements (“non-competes”) often contain clauses referred to as “non-solicitations.” These provisions are sometimes viewed as synonymous to a non-competition clause but there are important distinctions between the two. Massachusetts courts use a similar analysis on the two types of provisions, non-solicitation provisions serve a different function. The usual purpose of a non-solicitation is to prevent a former employee from stealing clients, prospective clients or other employees from their former employer.  As such a non-solicitation contrasts with a non-compete which ordinarily intends to bar a former employee from directly competing with the former employer in subsequent employment.

The basic non-solicitation clause is simple, usually stating that the employee agrees not to solicit certain categories of individuals for some period of time.  As with non-competes, non-solicitations will be enforced when they are supported by valid consideration and are generally reasonable to protect a legitimate business interest.  Protecting employer good will towards employees and/or customers qualifies as a legitimate business interest. Businesses have an interest in protecting the customer relationships developed by employees during employment, which also relates to an employer’s legitimate interest in protecting customer good will.  While non-competes require a narrowly tailored provision to be enforceable, Massachusetts courts will often enforce non-solicitations for longer periods than non-competes, as a non-solicitation is less of a burden on an employee who is still otherwise able to work. 

Standard non-solicitation language is relatively straightforward.  It can be surprisingly difficult, however, to determine when a solicitation has occurred, and Massachusetts courts have not yet worked out all of the details.   For instance, if a former employee subject to a non-solicitation is directly contacted by a client of the former employer, has the employee breached the non-solicitation merely by receiving the business? As with many legal questions, the short answer is that it depends.

Massachusetts courts have observed that the line between solicitation and acceptance of business is a hazy one. Thus far, the courts have not drawn a bright line legal distinction between circumstances when the client makes first contact with the former employee, and when the employee makes first contact with the client. Instead, courts look to the facts of the case to determine whether the former employee made an improper solicitation. Further complicating the analysis, while a former employee may be barred from soliciting, the employee’s new employer is under no such restriction and neither are the customers in question because those parties are not subject to the non-solicitation agreement entered into by the employee and former employer.  Nevertheless, the employee and new employer should tread carefully to ensure that the employee and new employer’s actions do not yield other causes of action for the aggrieved former employer, such as an unfair business practice claim for behavior that may not strictly run afoul of the non-solicitation provision.

Judicial analysis of non-solicitations recognizes that the context of the particular industry is important. When the individual subject to a non-solicitation is selling fungible, off-the-shelf goods, initial contact with prohibited parties is likely quite important, as there is probably little to differentiate the sellers.  Where a complex transaction is involved and products are highly customized, prohibited contact may be less important to securing a sale. Further distinction can be drawn between an overt direct solicitation, and a more subtle indirect solicitation. Directly inviting an employee or customer to engage with a new company would clearly breach a non-solicitation, but more subtle “nudge-nudge wink-wink” approaches can be equally damaging.   The courts will look at the overall context of the business relationship and the agreement at issue to resolve whether particular conduct breaches the non-solicitation agreement.  Given the fact specific nature of the inquiry, it can be a difficult question to determine in any particular instance whether contact with a client is prohibited by the non-solicitation.  

Non-solicitation agreements are another powerful tool for employers to protect legitimate business interests.  Like non-competes, non-solicitations must be drafted and implemented carefully to be enforceable and useful. Massachusetts courts will engage in a fact-intensive analysis to determine whether a non-solicitation is valid and under what circumstances the provision has been breached. Both employers and employees should consult with an experienced Massachusetts employment attorney to determine their rights and obligations with respect to any particular non-solicitation provision.