Wisconsin generally is known as a pro-employee state when it comes to enforcement of non-compete agreements. However, last week it gave employers a fairly significant victory in Runzheimer Int'l, Ltd. v. Friedlen, when the state supreme court held that an employer's election to refrain from firing an existing at-will employee constitutes lawful consideration for signing a non-compete agreement.
The Supreme Court of Wisconsin correctly noted that this issue has divided courts across the country, with a minority taking the opposite approach. Pennsylvania happens to be considering a similar question right now. Illinois courts are a mess when it comes to determining the adequacy of consideration for non-competes in the at-will context. In the past, Wisconsin courts had sent mixed signals and had not definitively reached the issue presented. The Court's decision - confusing in its rationale, to be sure - at least provides much-needed clarity for employers and employees moving forward.
The issue that percolates beneath the surface in cases like this is the employer's ability to fire the employee. So the reasoning goes, an employer can "trick" an employee into signing a non-compete, secure that commitment, and then fire the employee without any liability (for at-will employment is a relatively risk-free relationship). According to the Court, it's not correct to view the forbearance from firing as "illusory consideration." Rather, other contract defenses (like fraudulent inducement) provide a legitimate check against such trickery.
The other, less formal, check is that an employer which engages in these kinds of tactics will be less attractive to potential new hires. Further, when it comes time to enforcement, an employer will have a separate issue to confront wholly apart from the consideration question: whether enforcement after involuntary discharge is reasonable. Part of the reasonableness test will examine whether enforcement will present an undue hardship on the employee.
In the past, I have been an advocate for looking at this hardship factor when the employment ends at the behest of the employer, rather than the employee. It is an issue separate from the four corners of the contract, but it still relates to the reasonableness of enforcement. Courts will view attempts to enforce non-competes against terminated employees with much greater suspicion than those who leave of their own volition.
As Runzheimer suggests, we can view this issue wholly apart from the element of consideration. It may be another contract defense. It may be within the overall reasonableness inquiry. But it clearly is something, and employers always will need to factor in the equities when enforcing non-competes.
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