As noted in previous posts on Virginia Business Law Update, this blog is running a six-part series on Virginia business litigation claims. This week, the featured Virginia business litigation claim is breach of non-compete agreements.
In this age of intense competition, businesses have a legitimate interest in preventing former employees from gaining a competitive advantage by using the relationships, information or skills acquired during their employment with the company. Non-compete and non-solicitation agreements are an effective means to protect the business’s confidential information and investment into its employees.
As an attorney practicing in this area, it is apparent that the use of such agreements has been on the rise over the past decade. Their use is practically in every industry – from technology, government contractors, service and retail companies, to entertainment. As most of you have heard, Conan O’Brien recently ended his non-compete “fracas” with NBC. It is apparent from news reports that O’Brien had restrictions in his contract regarding his on-the-air television appearances after leaving the network. Each state’s laws are somewhat different in this area, and we focus on Virginia courts’ analysis of these types of restrictive covenants in this post.
What is a non-compete agreement?
A non-compete agreement prevents a former employee from pursuing a similar position in competition with the company. Since the agreement is a contract, it is bound by all the traditional contract requirements including consideration. Typically, covenants not to compete are executed at the time of hire, and the offer of employment will be sufficient consideration to enforce the agreement. Non-solicitation agreements are sometimes generally described as a covenant not to compete as well, but the obligations for the employee are different for this type of covenant. Non-solicitations restrict former employees from soliciting employees or customers of a business, and by their nature are more precise regarding the terms of the prohibition.
How do Virginia courts analyze the enforceability of non-compete agreements?
In Virginia, courts have scrutinized non-compete agreements in three areas to determine their reasonableness: (1) duration of the restriction; (2) geographic scope of the restriction; and (3) the scope of the restricted activities. An overall consideration is that the restriction must be no greater than necessary to protect the company’s legitimate business interests, such as safeguarding its proprietary information or trade secrets.
In structuring a non-compete agreement, the restriction must not encompass any activity in which the employer is not engaged or which the employee did not perform while employed by employer. If the court determines that the non-compete agreement is too broad a restriction, then it will not be enforced. However, an agreement that is reasonable and consistent with public interest will likely be enforced. In this instance, not only may an employer obtain an immediate injunction preventing the former employee from violating the agreement, but the company may also obtain monetary damages for the employee’s breach.
Many factors must be considered in drafting a non-compete in order to withstand court scrutiny. Thus, companies should not rely on standard form non-compete clauses but should exercise great care and caution in determining the appropriate restrictions and terms for such an agreement.
As with misappropriation of trade secret cases, it is important to note that it is common for the former employee’s new employer to be brought into a non-compete dispute. The business alleging breach of the non-compete may bring a tortious interference with contractual relations claim against the new employer. In doing so, the former employer alleges that the competitor disrupted the ability of the employee from performing his/her obligations under the contract. To protect your business against such potential liability, it is imperative to require new employees disclose any restrictions related to their employment with the company.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the Virginia business litigation claims series, which will focus on breach of fiduciary duty.