A few years ago, I represented the prevailing defendants in Tradesman Int'l v. Black, 724 F.3d 1004 (7th Cir. 2013). Judge David Hamilton's concurring opinion in that case illustrates the importance of choice-of-law clauses and how predictability over which state's law applies is essential to litigation strategy. It is an extremely thoughtful and interesting opinion, and my post discussing it can be found here.
There are a number of red-flag states where choice-of-law issues are bound to come up. Certainly, if California has any kind of a nexus to the proceedings, then choice of law will be front and center. Other states, like Wisconsin, also pay particular attention to clauses that select another state's law. And Florida, by virtue of its pro-enforcement stance, is a third example.
On this score, Illinois courts will not enforce Florida choice-of-law clauses because they are contrary to our state's public policy. Recently, New York courts have followed this lead and have held that a Florida choice-of-law provision in an employment non-solicitation covenant is unenforceable and contrary to New York public policy.
The case is Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Johnson. The Court of Appeals of New York set forth the standard for invalidating a contractual choice-of-law clause: the foreign law must be "truly obnoxious." Now, that's a standard.
So what's the problem with Florida law, and why do some courts view its stance on non-competes as contrary to public policy. The New York court identified the following:
- The employee largely bears the burden of proof to show that enforcement is not necessary to protect an asserted business interest.
- Courts many not consider hardship to the employee from the covenant's enforcement.
- Courts may not use rules of contract construction that would require a court to construe a vague or unclear contract against the employer.
Overall, the New York court - like the courts in Illinois before it - were concerned with "Florida's nearly-exclusive focus on the employer's interests" in contrast with the traditional balancing test that governs enforcement.
Going back to my post from two years ago when I analyzed Judge Hamilton's concurring opinion in Tradesman, there still is no clear test that I can find to determine when a state's law contravenes another state's public policy. I raised three possibilities:
- The legislature has spoken on the issue and declared the state's public policy, much like California has done.
- A state's case law reflects a clear, uniform rule applicable without regard to the specific facts of the case. An example would be a court's refusal to partially enforce an overbroad agreement.
- The difference between the chosen state and the forum state would be outcome-determinative.
After reading Brown & Brown, I might add a fourth possibility: the chosen state's rules disproportionately favor the employer and undermine the foundation of the rule-of-reason analysis.