Can My Employer Enforce a Covenant Not to Compete?
Many employers require their employees to sign agreements which contain covenants not to compete with the company. The enforceability of these restrictive provisions varies from state-to-state and depends on a variety of factors. A former employee who violates an enforceable non-compete agreement may be ordered to cease competitive activity and pay damages to the former employer. In other covenants, the restrictions may be deemed too restrictive and an undue restraint of trade.
A covenant not to compete is a promise by an employee that he or she will not compete with his or her employer for a specified period of time and/or within a particular geographic location. It may be contained within an employment agreement, or may be a separate contract. Agreements which prevent employees from competing with the employer while employed are enforceable in every jurisdiction. However, agreements which affect an employee’s conduct after employment termination are subject to stricter requirements regarding “reasonableness,” and are generally disallowed in some states, such as California which has enacted statutes against such agreements except in very narrow circumstances.
Even in states where such covenants are enforceable, courts generally disfavor them because they are anti-competitive. Nevertheless, such agreements will be enforced if the former employer can demonstrate the following:
- The employee received consideration at the time the agreement was signed;
- The agreement protects the employers legitimate business interest; and
- The agreement is reasonable to protect the employer, but not unduly burdensome to the employee who has a right to make a living.
Consideration - Under the principles of contract law, all agreements must be supported by consideration in order to be enforceable. The employee signing the covenant not to compete must receive something of value in exchange for making the promise. If the agreement is signed prior to employment, the employment itself constitutes consideration. If, however, the agreement is signed after employment commences, the employee must receive something else of value in exchange for the agreement to be enforceable.
Legitimate Business Interest - Legitimate business interests can include protecting and preserving confidential information (trade secrets) and customer relationships. Most states recognize an employer’s right to prevent an employee from taking advantage of information acquired or relationships developed as a result of the employment arrangement, in order to later compete against the employer.
Reasonableness - Based on the circumstances, a covenant must be reasonably necessary. If the covenant is overly broad, or unduly burdensome on the employee, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement. Therefore, the covenant must be reasonable in both duration and scope. If a covenant is overly broad, the court may narrow its scope or duration and enforce it accordingly. But if a covenant is so broad that is clearly was designed to prevent lawful competition, as opposed to protecting legitimate business interests, the court may strike down the agreement in its entirety.
To enforce a covenant not to compete, the employer can file a court action seeking an injunction against the employee’s continued violations of the agreement. The company can also seek monetary damages to cover losses resulting from the employee's breach.