United States: Will The Massachusetts Legislature Finally Be Able To Keep Its New Year's Resolution To Pass Non-Compete Reform?

Last Friday, on January 20, 2017, the Massachusetts Legislature began its annual tradition of attempting to promulgate non-compete and trade secret reform in the Commonwealth. A new bill has been filed by the same legislators who began this process back in 2009, Senator William Brownsberger and Representative Lori Ehrlich, which brings many of the past proposals to the table with some new additions as well. As we reported in July and November, the House and the Senate were unable to bridge their differences and agree on a compromise bill in 2016.

The bill seeks to adopt much of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. In addition, it would formally recognize the inevitable disclosure doctrine, providing that "threatened misappropriation may be enjoined upon principles of equity, including, but not limited to, consideration of party conduct before or after commencement of litigation and circumstances of potential use, upon a showing that information qualifying as a trade secret has been, or inevitably will be, misappropriated."

On the non-compete side, the bill notably limits non-competes (with some exceptions) to a duration of one year from the date of termination, requires that the employee receive the non-compete prior to a formal offer of employment or two weeks prior the commencement of the his or her employment, and requires consideration beyond continued employment for post-hire non-competes. The bill also requires courts to apply the bright-line "red pencil" approach if the non-compete agreement fails to satisfy any of bill's requirements, but grants courts the discretion to reform or otherwise revise an agreement to comply with certain safe harbors set forth in the bill.

Other provisions of the proposed legislation may cause some consternation for businesses or, at the very least, may require those businesses to change their practices. For example:

  • An agreement must expressly state that the employee has the right to consult with counsel prior to signing;
  • Employers must review all non-competes with their employees at least once every three years for them to remain valid and enforceable;
  • For post-hire non-competes, notice must be given at least ten days before the agreement becomes effective;
  • If the employee has breached his or her fiduciary duties, or taken property of the employer, the duration of the non-compete may be extended to two years;
  • A geographic reach of any non-compete is that is limited to "areas in which the employee, during any time within the last 2 years of employment, provided services or had a material presence or influence is presumptively reasonable";
  • A restriction that "protects legitimate business interest and is limited to only the specific types of services provided by the employee at any time during the last 2 years of employment is presumptively reasonable";
  • Employers have ten days after the termination of employment to "notify the employee in writing by certified mail of the employer's intent to enforce the noncompetition agreement." If the employer fails to do so, the non-compete is deemed waived by the employer. That being said, this requirement does not apply if the employee has unlawfully taken the employer's property or already breached the non-compete, a non-solicit, an anti-piracy/no-raid covenant, a confidentiality agreement, or a fiduciary duty;
  • Non-compete agreements would not be enforceable against (1) employees who are not exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-209, (2) undergraduate or graduate students engaged in short-term employment, (3) employees terminated without cause or laid off, (4) employees who are 18 or under, and (5) non-employees who perform services for less than one year; and
  • If the employee is a resident of, or has been working in, Massachusetts for at least thirty days immediately prior to the termination, Massachusetts law will apply, rending any out-of-state choice of law provision unenforceable.

Notably absent from the bill is the inclusion of a provision requiring "garden leave," forcing employers to pay former employees bound by non-compete agreements fifty percent of their highest annualized salary over the last two years of employment for the restricted period. Such a provision has appeared in many of the proposed bills in the past few years.

We will continue to monitor these developments and report back with any updates. Perhaps 2017 is the finally year for non-compete and trade secret reform in Massachusetts after all. Readers of this blog know all too well, however, that this may just be another New Year's resolution that the Massachusetts Legislature is not able to keep.

A special thanks to our friend Russell Beck for his thoughtful analysis of, and input into, the latest proposed legislation.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Erik W. Weibust
 
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