Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Reading List (2017, No. 28): Non-Compete Legislation Proposed in New Jersey and More Non-Compete Nonsense in Florida

Non-Compete and Trade Secrets News for the week ended November 24, 2017


New Jersey Proposes Non-Compete Reform

New Jersey historically has been a strong non-compete enforcement state. In his terrific article Fifty Ways to Leave Your Employer: Relative Enforcement of Covenants Not to Compete, Trends, and Implications for Employee Mobility Policy, Norm Bishara concluded that New Jersey was the 7th strongest enforcement state.

As Russell Beck breaks down, though, pending legislation would alter New Jersey's place in the overall non-compete landscape. Russell runs through the particular changes that Senate Bill 3518 would make, comparing it to the annual non-compete debate in Massachusetts. I encourage you to jump to Russell's site and review the proposed list of changes.

Florida Court of Appeal Invalidates Non-Compete Injunction

Speaking of pro-enforcement states, Florida sits firmly atop the rankings. But employees are not without hope.

Last week, the Florida Second District court of Appeal in Salazar v. Hometeam Pest Defense, Inc., No. 2D16-4123 invalidated a non-compete injunction imposed on a "pest control technician." The employee's agreement prohibited him from engaging in "pest control, exterminating, fumigating, or termite control business" in five Florida counties after his termination. Salazar, it turns out, was fired. An apparently responsible, enterprising adult, he formed his own business after being tossed out of a job.

His employer sued and obtained an injunction in Florida state court. But the Court of Appeal vacated that injunction because the order failed to comply with clear procedural requirements for awarding this type of relief. It contained no findings at all. Whatever occurred in the trial court appears to be totally inexcusable. Leave aside the merits of this. If you represent an employer and seek injunctive relief, you must understand what the injunction order needs to say. I have had cases similar to Salazar. And it is shocking that this continues to occur.

On remand, I'd be interested to see how Hometeam Pest Defense articulates its legitimate business interest in preventing Salazar from working in his industry. The source of a potential client list for those in need of home pest control seems rather obvious...

You can link to the Salazar opinion by clicking here.

Confidentiality Agreements

Every day, we're witness to the unmasking of sexual harassment and misconduct charges leveled at media figures, politicians, and industry leaders. And the sad reality is that many claims are settled on the condition that the victim is muzzled by a confidentiality clause.

Elizabeth Tippett writes in the San Francisco Chronicle about the two principal uses of confidentiality agreements: ones signed at the start of employment and those signed as part of a settlement. And she rightfully questions how non-disclosure agreements (or NDAs) should not muzzle victims of abuse. I suspect we've reached the tipping point where these NDAs may face legislative scrutiny, at least when they relate to a public figure or use of public funds.

That subject matter is outside the scope of my expertise, but it's certainly an interesting and important one to follow as events unfold in near real time. I do think, however, there may be a spillover effect on the less newsworthy type of confidentiality agreement, the kind I tend to write about.

I have been writing for years that employment-based NDAs can operate like stealth non-competes. The general problem is three-fold:

  1. The clauses contain open-ended, malleable terms that do less to define "Confidential Information" and more to reserve discretion for the company to label something confidential without repercussion.
  2. Employees may have no way to monitor what information remains confidential and potentially protected once they are gone from a business.
  3. The breadth of these clauses (including the lack of a durational limit) may enable an employer to state a colorable claim when competition arises and may open the door to expensive discovery.
Let me be clear: I am not subverting the current debate on sexual harassment-related NDAs in favor of this one. Both are important, but the use of NDAs in settlement agreements is far more troubling and deserves far more scrutiny. All I am saying is that practitioners should not just assume blindly that employment-based NDAs are perfectly legit. In many cases, they serve just as punitive of a restraint on fair competition as more overtly stated non-competes.

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