Without the protection of a non-competition agreement, most courts are reluctant to prevent a former employee from working for a competitor. However, even when a company has a non-compete agreement with an employee, it may be unenforceable if it is not drafted in accordance with the laws of the state in which the company seeks to enforce it, says Stephen C. Goldblum, a member at Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC.
“There’s a perception that Pennsylvania courts do not enforce non-compete agreements, but that’s incorrect,” says Goldblum. “Covenants not to compete are routinely enforced by Pennsylvania courts to the extent they are reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate business interests of the employer.”
Smart Business spoke with Goldblum about the importance of having properly drafted non-compete agreements in order to best ensure that they will be enforced by a court.
Why are non-compete agreements important?
In conjunction with other restrictive covenants such as a non-solicitation of customers and employees, confidentiality and inventions clauses, non-compete agreements are the best way a company can protect itself from the harm it can potentially suffer in the event an employee leaves the company and then solicits the company’s customers on behalf of a competitor. Although non-compete agreements are fairly common for executives and managers, they are not utilized as frequently as they should be for salespeople and other employees that regularly communicate with a company’s customers.
How does Pennsylvania law differ from other states regarding non-compete agreements?
Many states are less inclined to enforce non-compete agreements than Pennsylvania. For example, California has a statute that prohibits non-compete agreements except in very limited circumstances. Generally, Pennsylvania courts will enforce a non-compete agreement as long as the agreement is narrowly drawn and the company seeking to enforce the non-compete agreement can meet the threshold requirement of having a legitimate, protectable business interest such as customers and customer goodwill, confidential information, specialized training or trade secrets. Pennsylvania courts will not enforce covenants aimed at repressing or eliminating competition to gain an unfair economic advantage.
What should employers know when entering into non-compete agreements with employees?
In Pennsylvania, the offer of employment is sufficient consideration for a non-compete agreement entered into between a company and an employee at the outset of employment. In Pennsylvania, there are four requirements for an enforceable non-compete agreement. The non-compete agreement must be:
- Ancillary to an employment relationship.
- Supported by adequate consideration.
- Reasonably necessary to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer.
- Reasonably limited in duration and geographic scope.
There is no precise formula for what makes a covenant not to compete reasonable. A court will evaluate the circumstances and make a factual determination as to whether it will enforce a non-compete agreement on a case-by-case basis.
If an employer has employees in multiple states, it can include a provision that ensures Pennsylvania law will govern the interpretation and enforcement of the non-compete agreement.
What common mistakes do employers make when entering into non-compete agreements with existing employees?
The most common mistake is to fail to give additional consideration and simply demand the employee sign the noncompete agreement. Continued employment alone is insufficient consideration for a non-compete agreement entered into subsequent to the commencement of the employment relationship.
If the company seeks to enter into a non-compete agreement with an existing employee, it must give additional consideration, which could include many different items such as a promotion, an increase in salary or benefits or a monetary payment.
How can employers determine when and how to enforce non-compete agreements?
When an employee resigns or is terminated, the company should remind the employee of his or her non-competition obligations and provide the employee with a copy of the signed non-compete agreement. If it is subsequently determined a former employee is in violation of the agreement, the company has the right to proceed against the employee in court. The company may seek preliminary injunctive relief to prevent employment in violation of the non-compete and file a breach of contract action against the former employee and seek permanent injunctive relief and monetary damages. Typically, a case against a former employee also includes the new employer for interfering with the company’s contractual relationship with its former employee.
When hiring, a company should always inquire whether potential employees are bound by agreements that could restrict them from accepting employment or limit the performance of their duties. Otherwise, the company could be inviting a lawsuit if it hires an employee who is contractually bound not to compete with a former employer.
How often should an employer review its non-compete agreements?
Noncompete agreements should be reviewed no less frequently than every two years because the laws that govern their interpretation and enforceability change. Legal counsel that is up to date on the ever-changing landscape of employment law in Pennsylvania should review non-compete agreements to determine their compliance with existing law, which will best ensure their enforceability.
Stephen C. Goldblum is a member at Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC. Reach him at (215) 887-5961 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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