The Test for Reasonableness/Enforceability of a Non-Compete

The application of basic contract principles is just one step in the process of enforcement of a covenant not to compete. Once the court has determined that the parties properly executed a non-compete agreement, it must analyze the enforceability of the agreement’s provisions. Connecticut has developed a five-prong test to assess the enforceability of a restrictive covenant. It examines the reasonableness of the restrictions to determine how enforcement would impact the relevant parties: the employer, the employee, and the public at large. When determining the enforceability of a Connecticut non-compete agreement, the court will look to:

  1. The reasonableness of the time restriction,
  2. The reasonableness of the geographical restriction,
  3. The degree of protection afforded to the employer,
  4. Whether it unnecessarily restricts the employee’s ability to pursue his career, and lastly
  5. The degree to which it interferes with the interests of the public.
Applying the Five-Prong Reasonableness Test

This five-prong test used by Connecticut courts is disjunctive rather than conjunctive, meaning that a non-compete agreement can be deemed unenforceable and invalidated if it negatively impacts even a single factor. A non-compete agreement is analyzed in its entirety when a court is determining its enforceability, but a single unreasonable provision can be sufficient to invalidate the entire agreement and preclude enforcement. While certain factors may assume greater importance, the legal analysis of non-compete agreements in Connecticut shows that each factor is essentially on equal footing and of equal weight when deciding the enforceability of a restrictive covenant.

The factors used in the application of the five-prong reasonableness test can be divided into two categories: enumerated restrictions and subsequent consequences of the express restrictions. Time and geographical restrictions (factors #1 and #2) generally constitute crucial provisions in the non-compete and establish the parameters for what post-termination activities are and are not permissible for the employee. Analysis of the remaining factors involves an assessment of the consequences of the enumerated restrictions and how they impact the parties and the public.

A. Temporal Limitation

The pertinent time/duration will prohibit an employee from engaging in certain enumerated activities for a specific period of time. The reasonableness of a particular time restriction will vary from case to case and will depend heavily on the particular facts of the case and the specific characteristics of the position and industry. A fifteen-year restriction may be appropriate and enforceable in one case while it would be excessive and unreasonable in another.

The nature of the industry/profession that is the subject of a non-compete agreement is critical to determining whether a contractual time restriction is reasonable and enforceable. For example, restrictive covenants in the funeral services industry can be longer due to the familial return rate and referral characteristics while courts have held that restrictive covenants in the software industry must be shorter because of the constant and “rapid changes in the software industry.”

Reasonableness of Restrictions

The reasonableness and enforceability of the time restriction can also be a function of the enumerated geographical restriction. The interrelationship between these two aspects of a covenant not to compete can be very important in determining its overall enforceability. A time restriction that on its face seems unreasonable may in fact be completely reasonable when you take into account the geographical restriction.

A lengthy time restriction on competing activities can be reasonable under circumstances where it is paired with a narrow geographical restriction. A seemingly unreasonable time restriction may be deemed reasonable under the circumstances when “read in conjunction [with] the narrow geographic restriction” contained in the agreement.

B. Geographic Limitation

For many employees, the geographical restriction can be more problematic and of greater concern than the time restriction. The courts in this state have repeatedly asserted that “the general rule is that the application of a restrictive covenant will be confined to a geographic area which is reasonable in view of the particular situation.”

The court analyzes the geographic restriction in the same manner as it evaluates the time restriction- the geographic terms are analyzed in the context of the specific facts of the situation and the particular industry in which the employer and employee are engaged. Non-compete agreements executed under Connecticut law can be invalidated when a geographic restriction is so broad that it severely limits or prevents a former employee “from carrying on his usual vocation and earning a livelihood, thus working undue hardship.”

Valid vs. Invalid Restrictions

A valid restrictive covenant will clearly define the geographic restriction prohibiting the employee upon termination from engaging in competing business activities within a specific area. The total lack of specified geographical restriction creates an unintended consequence in the form of a global restriction on competition, an effect that the courts consider “patently and grossly unreasonable.”

Courts are likely to invalidate a non-compete agreement for lack of a defined geographic restriction regardless of whether that characteristic of the agreement was intentional or purely by mistake. If intentional, a global restriction on competition is unconscionable and unenforceable under Connecticut law. Courts will also refuse enforcement of such a non-compete if the lack of geographical restriction was a mistake or error in drafting and execution. Employers should not be allowed the benefit of enforcing the agreement merely because of an unintended, ambiguous clause that was the product of sloppy drafting of the agreement.

Weighing Respective Consequences

A crucial component in analyzing the enforceability of a geographical restriction is the potential consequences for the employer and the employee. Employers have the right to protect themselves but not by seeking to impose excessive and unreasonable restrictions that needlessly harm or unduly restrict former employees. A court may deny enforcement when the restrictive covenant goes beyond protecting the employer’s legitimate interest in existing customer relationships and seeks to exclude all competition in a very large territory where the employer conducts or could possibly conduct business.

Geographical restrictions, regardless of duration, that go beyond what is required for fair protection of the employer are unenforceable on the grounds that they are unreasonable restraints of trade in direct contravention of Connecticut law. The availability of future employment for the former employee is a major factor in a court’s determination of the enforceability of a geographical restriction. A restriction will be upheld when the circumstances demonstrate that there is ample opportunity for the employee to obtain new employment outside of the contractually prohibited area without causing undue hardship(s).

Enforcing Small vs. Large Geographical Restrictions

Smaller geographical restrictions are generally easier to assess and enforce but this is not to say that a court will automatically deny enforcement of a restriction that on its face establishes a large prohibited area. Courts have enforced non-compete agreements containing a large geographical restriction clause when there are other clauses that narrow the actual prohibited area. One such case involved a restrictive covenant that prohibited competing activities for one year following termination within the area described as the “Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas of [the] Eastern Seabord,” an area that includes metropolitan areas from Portland, Maine to Miami, Florida, and home to roughly 36% of the country’s population.

This area, at face value, is excessive and would normally be unconscionable to enforce, but the court ultimately held that the geographical restriction clause was valid and enforceable because subsequent clauses placed restrictions on the area and severely limited its impact on the employee by stating that the restriction pertained only to the employer’s clients within the six months prior to termination and on who’s account the former employee had personally worked. This was sufficient to limit the effect of the stated geographical restriction and render it enforceable in light of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the case.

Challenging the Enforceability of Geographical or Time Restrictions

When contesting the enforceability of geographical or time restrictions, the employee ultimately bears the burden of proving that a restriction is “too broad”, “unreasonable,” or “excessive.” Under Connecticut law, the challenging party bears the burden of demonstrating that the non-compete is unenforceable. The employer generally has the benefit of a rebuttable presumption that the employee must overcome to show that a restriction is unreasonable and therefore unenforceable.

C. Fair Protection to the Employer

The third prong in the test for reasonableness and enforceability of a non-compete agreement is an analysis of the fair degree of protection afforded to the employer. The courts in Connecticut have a long-standing policy of enforcing non-competes in order to protect an employer’s interests and have long recognized that a restrictive covenant is a valuable business asset that is entitled to protection.

While the employer’s interests are a valid concern, their protection cannot come at a cost of occupational ruin of former employees. The general rule with regard to analyzing the fair degree of protection for the employer is that contracts in restraint of trade “should afford only a fair protection to the interest of the party in whose favor it is made, and must not be so large in its operation as to interfere with the interests of the public [and the former employee].”

The court balances the equities for the parties involved in the legal action. Only after a court has identified and weighed the competing equities of the parties can it conclude that “although some hardship would result to the individual defendants [former employees] as a consequence of this injunction, it would not be greatly disproportionate to the plaintiff’s [employer’s] injury.” A court’s ruling will inevitably favor one party over the other, but this prong ensures that the unsuccessful party does not experience extreme and unduly harsh consequences.

D. The Ability to Secure Future Employment

The fourth prong in the test to ascertain the enforceability of a non-compete agreement is ensuring that the contractual provisions do not unnecessarily restrict the employee’s ability to pursue his or her career through securing appropriate employment upon termination. The general rule is that employers are legally permitted to protect themselves in a reasonably limited market area but may not overreach to the degree that the restriction prevents the former employee from practicing his or her trade in order to make a living.

Connecticut courts believe the interests of the employee should also be protected and that terms of a restrictive covenant become unenforceable when they block him from “pursuing his occupation and [is] thus prevented from supporting himself and his family.” This restraint of trade is a clear violation of Connecticut law and public policy that militates against unreasonable restrictive covenants.

Courts should narrowly read and interpret non-compete agreements and the clauses contained therein because “sound public policy considerations strongly militate against sanctioning the loss of a person’s livelihood.” Despite this general policy, employees remain free to covenant to refrain from competing activities in exchange for an employment benefit, a promise that is enforceable if the courts conclude that the agreement is reasonable.

E. The Public Interest

The final prong of the enforceability test is determining whether the agreement and its provisions interfere with the interests of the public. In order to be valid and enforceable, a non-compete agreement must not have a widespread detrimental effect on the public, particularly with respect to consumers. It is a fundamental tenant of Connecticut public and legal policy that agreements and specific contractual clauses cannot deny the public access to important goods or services. Therefore, the extent of the agreement’s effect on the public must be taken into account when determining whether to enforce a restrictive covenant.

Courts will examine the provisions of the agreement, keeping in mind that “the determinant is not whether the public’s freedom to trade has been restricted in any sense, but rather whether that freedom has been restricted unreasonably.” Thus, a non-compete agreement may be invalidated and enforcement denied on the grounds of the public’s interests only if interference with those interests is so significant as to be classified by the adjudicating court as “unreasonable.”

One of the chief concerns with this prong of the enforceability test is preventing monopolistic activities within certain public segments of the economy. The courts have the authority to examine the scope and severity of a non-compete agreement’s effect(s) on the public as well as the “probability of the restrictions creating a monopoly in the [relevant] area of trade.” Upon examination of the facts and the possible consequences of the restrictive covenant, Connecticut courts may deny enforcement where the agreement runs contrary to public policy and the contractual restraints are unreasonable.

The Purpose of this Enforceability Test

This enforceability test, as articulated in and enforced under Connecticut case law, is designed to protect the legitimate interests of both the employee and the employer. It is utilized in a manner that ensures that the consequences of a restrictive covenant are reasonable, appropriate for the specific circumstances, and not punitive. The enforceability test attempts to control and limit the detriments incurred by a party to the action and protect it from oppressive restrictions. In establishing enforceability, the core principle is the notion that a party should not be subject to excessive and unreasonable restrictions that were “not [designed] to protect legitimate business interests, but rather to prevent [the employee] from working for competitors.”

Our employment law firm in Westport Connecticut serves clients with discrimination, non-compete, and general labor law issues from all over the state including the towns of Bethel, Bridgeport, Brookfield, Danbury, Darien, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Monroe, New Canaan, New Fairfield, Newton, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Shelton, Sherman, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Weston, Westport, and Wilton. We have the best employment and labor law attorneys in CT on staff that can help with your Connecticut or New York education issues today.

If you have questions regarding non-compete agreements or any employment matter, contact Attorney Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.