In the current economic environment, understanding your obligations under a non-compete agreement could be essential to finding new employment. In uncertain times, an employee may not understand that not all non-compete agreements are enforceable. Here are seven (7) important things to know about non-compete agreements.
(1) Courts do not view all non-compete agreements equally:
Courts view non-compete agreements ancillary to the sale of a business or between partners differently than they view non-compete agreements between an employee and employer. “When an employee agrees to be subjected to future work restrictions, he or she does so in order to obtain employment and ordinarily gets nothing in return for giving up this important freedom. Thus the employee is at a great bargaining disadvantage.” CT Cellar Doors, LLC v. Stephen Palamar, 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3247, J.D. of Waterbury, Docket No. UWY-CV-10-5016075-S (2010). Therefore, the courts will view such a non-compete with great scrutiny.
(2) Reasonableness requirement:
By definition, a non-compete is a restrictive covenant that prevents employees from competing with their former employers after termination, thereby creating a restraint on the free market. Given this, Connecticut courts may find that these covenants are against public policy. Consequently, non-compete agreements are only enforceable if the restraint imposed is reasonable.
(3) Courts consider multiple factors in evaluating the reasonableness of a non-compete:
In deciding whether a particular non-compete agreement is reasonable, the court will look to the following factors: “(1) the length of time the restriction operates; (2) the geographical area covered; (3) the fairness of the protection afforded to the employer; (4) the extent of the restraint on the employee’s opportunity to pursue his occupation; and (5) the extent of interference with the public’s interests.” Robert S. Weiss and Associates, Inc. v. Wiederlight, 208 Conn. 525 (1988). The Connecticut Appellate Court has instructed that “the five pronged test is disjunctive; a finding of unreasonableness in any one of the criteria is enough to render the covenant unenforceable.” New Haven Tobacco Co., Inv. v. Perrelli, 18 Conn. App. 531 (1989).
(4) Involuntarily termination not required:
A prevalent feeling among employees is that if “let go,” a non-compete should not apply. However, this is not the law. When reviewing a non-compete agreement for reasonableness, the Court will not look to whether the employee left his position voluntarily or involuntarily.
“The general rule is that the application of a restrictive covenant will be confined to a geographical area which is reasonable in view of the particular situation.” Scott v. General Iron, 171 Conn. 132 (1976) (upheld statewide restriction). Geographic restrictions should be “narrowly tailored to the plaintiff’s business situation.” Robert S. Weiss & Associates, Inc. v. Wiederlight, supra, 208 Conn. at 531. In CT Cellar Doors, LLC v. Stephen Palamar, supra, the Court held that a three-year restriction that covered the entire State of Connecticut was unenforceable, unfair and an unreasonable restraint of trade and was contrary to public policy.
Compare that to Robert S. Weiss and Associates, Inc. v. Wiederlight, supra, where the Supreme Court held that a two-year restriction that covered a 10-mile radius of Stamford, was narrowly tailored and therefore reasonable. See also, Access America, LLC v. Mazzotta, 2005 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2597, J.D. of Middlesex, Docket No. CV-O5-4003389 (2005)(15-mile restriction upheld); compare, Trans-Clean Corp. v. Terrell, 1998 Conn. Super. LEXIS 717, J.D. of Fairfield, Docket No. CV-97-0348039-S (1998) (60-mile restriction held unreasonable).
Connecticut courts have frequently enforced non-compete periods of a year or more. However, the courts have stated that the reasonableness of time and geographic restrictions in non-compete agreements are intertwined and “that broad geographic restrictions may be reasonable if the duration of the covenant is short, and longer periods may be reasonable if the geographic area is small.” Van Dyck Printing Company v. DiNicola, 43 Conn. Supp. 191 (1993), affirmed per curiam 231 Conn. 272 (1994) (one year); Robert S. Weiss & Assoc. v. Wiederlight, supra (two years); Hart Nininger & Campbell Assoc. v. Rogers, 16 Conn. App. 619 (1988) (two years); Scott v. General Iron & Welding Co., 171 Conn. 132 (1976) (five years); Torrington Creamery, Inc. v. Davenport, 126 Conn. 515 (1940) (two years).
(7) Forfeiture Clauses:
Forfeiture clauses differ from non-compete agreements in that the employee does not make an express promise not to compete, but rather agrees to a forfeiture of benefits if the employee engages in competition with its former employer. Despite this difference, the Connecticut Supreme Court has held that “a covenant not to compete and a forfeiture upon competing are but alternative approaches to accomplish the same practical result.” Deming v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 279 Conn. 745 (2006). Consequently, forfeiture clauses are subject to the reasonable requirement of non-compete agreements.
Before signing a non-compete agreement, speak to an attorney who is well versed in the law surrounding restrictive covenants and employment contracts. If you have already signed the non-compete agreement, contact an attorney before pursuing a course of conduct that might violate a non-compete clause. A violation of a non-compete may result in legal action brought against you by your former employer, whether or not such agreement is enforceable. Situations involving non-compete agreements are very fact specific, requiring case-by-case analysis.
If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com