Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Justice Thomas and Questions About Severability

A lot can be said about Justice Clarence Thomas. Some of it bad, but much of it quite good. For those who assert he is one of the worst Supreme Court justices of all time, take that for what it is good. Toxic political commentary and sheer uninformed drivel.

The best of Justice Thomas comes out in the now-familiar lone-wolf opinion, whether concurring or dissenting. His unique views span a wide range of the legal landscape, from the Eighth Amendment to the collateral-order doctrine to qualified immunity. Whether you agree with those views or not, they spark discussion and offer an idiosyncratic viewpoint that often makes a great deal of sense.

He expressed another one of these views again last week in Murphy v. NCCA on the issue of severability, which comes up in the Court's constitutional jurisprudence from time to time.

Put simply, the severability doctrine arises when the Court strikes at least part of a statute as unconstitutional. The question then becomes whether the Court should "sever and excise" the offending parts while saving the remainder.

Justice Thomas would like to reexamine that doctrine and has doubts that it is an appropriate part of constitutional analysis for two reasons: (1) it does not follow statutory interpretation principles, because by definition it requires courts to determine what a legislature would have done had the unconstitutional parts of the statute never been enacted at all; and (2) it requires courts to render an advisory opinion on issues the parties aren't fighting over.


You may be asking: what the hell does this have to do with non-compete agreements, which is after all sort of the point of this blog.

The connection, however loose or attenuated, is that non-compete law has its own severability principle and it's not all that dissimilar from what Justice Thomas discussed.

In Illinois, the general rule on contract severability is this: a court may enforce the valid parts of an agreement "in favor of a party who did not engage in serious misconduct if the performance as to which the agreement is unenforceable is not an essential part of the agreed exchange." That framework generally parrots the Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 184. And to further clarify the rule, whether an unenforceable term is an "essential part" of the contract depends on the relative importance of the term in light of the entire agreement between the parties.

The black-letter formulation of this rule thus invokes some of the concerns Justice Thomas outlined in his Murphy concurrence. Assume the following very realistic hypothetical scenario:

  • Employee signs agreement containing broad non-compete clause and narrow non-solicitation of customers clause.
  • Employer focuses its case on customer solicitation, but appears to agree that employee can work for competitor despite the nominal presence of the non-compete in the contract.
  • Employer is generally successful in showing actual solicitation and that the circumstances render the non-solicitation enforceable.
  • Employee proves that the facts make the non-compete gratuitously overbroad.
In such a circumstance, what do we make of the severability rule? It is clear in my hypothetical that part of the agreement is unenforceable, but does that doom the non-solicitation covenant? Under Illinois law, the employee may have a winning argument if circumstances show that the non-compete was integral to the overall contract formation. For instance, she could show the following:

  • Employer insisted that it be included, despite the employee's objections to the broader non-compete.
  • The contract recitals suggest all provisions of the agreement work in unison, are all needed to protect confidential information, or are each integral to the contract.
  • The Employer threatened to enforce the non-compete in an early cease-and-desist letter.
At least if we apply Justice Thomas' reasoning, the severability principle may be a big distraction if the employer isn't attempting to enforce it in court. In other words, the defendant would be addressing a counterfactual: yes, your Honor, but if Employer did try to enforce it, it would lose. Depending on the facts, though, Justice Thomas' stated concerns over an advisory opinion may be overstated. 

The prevailing law on severability then diverges a bit from Justice Thomas' analysis and focuses less on whether the employer would have entered into the agreement with the employee if it had known the non-compete wouldn't have been enforceable and instead more on whether the offending non-compete covenant was an essential part of contract formation. On this score, the analysis does not seem to raise the judicial power concerns Justice Thomas discusses in Murphy and rather focuses on the circumstances at signing. 

The arguments for and against severability are not easy to resolve. Justice Thomas' opinion, though, clarifies in a very straightforward way the tension surrounding them.