Monday, November 19, 2018

California Choice-of-Law Rulings Strike Sensible Balance

Choice-of-law and -forum clauses are not only some of the most important issues in non-compete agreements, but they also are some of the most complex.

To step back, the clauses are just what they sound like. If you have a restrictive covenant agreement, look to the back and you'll find what many normal people call "boilerplate" terms. A choice-of-law clause says what State's law will govern the agreement. And a choice-of-forum clause will tell you where the case can, or even must, be heard.

These clauses take on added importance for employees who work for larger enterprises, because often the employee's place of citizenship will differ from the corporate nerve center. A valued sales employee may have selling responsibility only on the west coast, but her company may be situated in New York or Florida. This is extremely common, and employees often don't quite know what to do when their place of residence is different than the law governing their agreements.

Red-flag States, such as California and Oklahoma, pose special problems because of clear public policy concerns that deal with non-compete law. In those States (and others), many restrictive covenants enforceable in States like Texas or Florida won't be reasonable at all. What to do, then, when a citizen of one of these States has an agreement governed by a State's law that embraces non-competes?

Let's walk through how to assess this.

Step 1: Determine the employee's place of citizenship. This should be easy, but we've seen cases where employees move in order to take a new job in a State that is somewhat hostile to non-competes. Can this move aid the employee, or is it irrelevant?

Step 2: Find out if the employee's home State poses special enforcement problems. Those States are California, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Wisconsin. There may be others, too, but for certain an employee's citizenship in one of these States should cause counsel to engage in a deep enforceability analysis.

Step 3: Ascertain whether suit in State or Federal court is likely. If there is a possibility of a suit in Federal court, then the Supreme Court's case of Atlantic Marine in 2013 will be important to consider. But, that is only if the contract contains a choice-of-forum clause.

Step 4: Review State choice-of-law rules. Most States adopt the analysis from Section 187 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws. If the parties select a State's law to apply, it will be given effect unless one of two conditions is met: (a) the selected State has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction; or (b) application of the chosen State's law would be contrary to the public policy of a State that has a materially greater interest and whose law would apply absent the choice-of-law clause.

Step 5: Apply the choice-of-law rules. Often, the first exception noted above won't apply, unless you encounter the totally bonkers situation where an employer gratuitously picks the most authoritarian State even though that State has nothing to do with the employment relationship. Or, perhaps, the employer picks Delaware when the only connection to Delaware is that the company chose to be incorporated there. That may fall within exception (a).

More likely, you'll need to do a deep dive on exception (b), which often applies when an employee has little connection to the forum State. Again, consider my example where an employee sells only in Oklahoma and has no job responsibilities in New York where the company home is. Very common fact pattern.

Step 6: Assuming you have a scenario involving exception (b), consider the nature of the public-policy at stake. Do you have a California problem, where non-competes are totally off-limits? Or do you have a State with marginal deviations to the general rule of reason, like a Nebraska which does not allow overbroad non-competes to be enforced? Sometimes these small deviations can be outcome-determinative in a particular dispute, but is that enough to qualify as a "public policy"? Debatable, to be sure.

Step 7: See if some other limiting condition applies. That is, does a State have a particular rule about choice-of-law or -forum clauses that applies to employees? Some States do by statute.

There are a few recent illustrations that involve some or all of these steps. The first comes from the redundantly-named Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in a case called Oxford Global Resources, LLC v. Hernandez, in which the SJC held that a Massachusetts court would not enforce choice-of-law and -forum clauses that both selected Massachusetts against a former employee residing in California. Of particular note, that employee had job responsibilities only in California. The deciding factor was California's strong public policy that I have discussed often, which bars non-competes for employees.

Conversely, the Delaware Court of Chancery addressed a slightly different question in NuVasive, Inc. v. Miles. There, an employee in California entered into an employment contract that specified Delaware law and venue. But that agreement was entered into after California amended its Labor Code, Section 925. That section was generally intended to deepen the public policy interest against non-competes by preventing circumvention of California law through choice-of-law clauses. But Section 925 also carved out contracts where the employee's counsel negotiates the choice-of-law provision. As the Delaware court found, that carve-out balanced an overriding public policy interest in favor of free competition with a countervailing interest in the freedom to contract. As such, the choice-of-law clause was valid.

These issues are extremely important, and sometimes the case law can be confusing. That is more so with venue clauses than with choice-of-law provisions. But an employee and counsel must be attuned to the importance of both when it appears they can have an impact on the agreement.

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