Monday, May 19, 2014

Supreme Court of Wisconsin to Address Key Consideration Issue

The Court of Appeals of Wisconsin certified an important question to the state Supreme Court concerning restrictive covenant law:

Is consideration in addition to continued employment required to support a covenant not to compete entered into by an at-will employee?

The case is Runzheimer Int'l Ltd. v. Friedlin, 2014 Wisc. App. LEXIS 342 (Ct. App. Apr. 15, 2014). The question, to be sure, is a recurring one across the states. This is for a few reasons.

The policy rationales for and against a consideration rule lie in tension with one another. On the enforcement side, employers say that because they can terminate at-will employees without liability, there's no true distinction between a covenant signed at the start of employment and those signed mid-stream (or, as an afterthought). Conversely, employees legitimately can argue they face a disparity in bargaining power and feel serious economic pressure to sign a contract just to keep their job.

Wisconsin courts haven't really addressed this issue head-on, which is surprising given that state's volume of non-compete disputes and its well-known pro-employee bent. The few cases - none directly on point - push courts in opposite directions, which is reflective of the policy tension I just discussed. Decisions from other states aren't helpful, because there's no uniform rule. The pro-employee cases make just as much sense as the pro-employer cases. (Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeals did not discuss the analysis from Illinois' much-maligned Fifield decision, probably since there is no analysis in that case to rely on.)

From my perspective, it's a bit myopic to say no consideration is required simply because the at-will relationship is fluid and starts anew each day. This is a theoretical argument and ignores a couple of realities.

First, it assumes freely terminate people when they view them as valuable. There's no empirical support for this. I am not aware of employers firing employees en masse only to rehire them with a non-compete. Not only would such a practice impair goodwill, but it actually would raise the specter of liability for unemployment costs. The pro-employer theory neglects to consider marketplace realities and the intangible harm to reputation that could arise.

Second, an employee may accept a job with Company X in reliance on the fact X never asked him to sign a restrictive covenant. Presumably, that impacted his decision to forego other jobs. Those lost (irretrievably) opportunities should be accounted for at least to the same degree as the theoretical "fire-rehire" justification.

In the final analysis, I'm not a huge fan of "continued employment" as a consideration theory. It seems wishy to me, and employers ought to come up with something better - a promotion, a new commission opportunity, a bonus - to justify binding an employee to a significant work restriction.

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