As this blog has discussed, non-compete agreements have become increasingly prevalent in recent years. However, they have also grown in severity in some companies, such that they frequently impose undue hardship on an employee’s search for future employment. As a result, courts in some states have grown increasingly unfavorable towards non-compete agreements. California courts, for example, are hard pressed to enforce any non-compete agreements.
If an employee breaches a non-compete agreement, the former employer can take the employee to court for breach of contract, but these lawsuits can be long and costly. While employees often rely on the allegation that the non-compete agreement imposed undue hardship, many courts rely on a three-pronged system to determine the validity of a non-compete agreement, of which undue hardship is only one consideration.
Completing the test of validity therefore requires the court to consider all the facts of the case. This can lead to very lengthy discovery, making the lawsuit even more costly. After all that, there is never a guarantee that a court will rule in the company’s favor, and even if they do, a customer lost is unlikely to come back.
For these reasons, alternatives to non-compete agreements have been proposed, although they still have yet to achieve the same popularity in American businesses. The first alternative is garden leave contracts. In these agreements, the employee agrees to give the employer notice of a certain amount of time before leaving the company. This is what is known as the garden leave period, but the employer continues the pay the employee a salary during this period. Garden leave contracts have two advantages over non-compete agreements:
1) If an employee fails to abide by the agreement it would not only prove breach of contract but also break the common law of duty of loyalty. In this case, an employer would not only be able to collect on salary paid during this period, but might be able to recover punitive damages as well.
2) It undercuts one of the main defenses that employees use when they breach their non-compete agreements: undue hardship. When an employee is still receiving a salary, undue hardship becomes significantly more difficult to prove.
As with non-compete agreements, the length of the garden leave period must be reasonable. Also, while it might be tempting for employers to reduce garden leave pay to a percentage of the employee’s normal salary, such a reduction risks inviting a court to apply higher scrutiny to the clause, which leads to the possibility of the court dismissing the agreement as invalid.
Another option is to replace the non-compete agreement with a safety net payment. Safety net payments are similar to garden leave agreements with the main difference of applying after the employee and employer have broken off all relations with one another. Once payment is made, the employee agrees to refrain from certain competitive actions, such as contacting specified customers. In this case, the safety net payment does the same thing as the garden leave payment does as far as ensuring that an employee cannot claim that the contract imposes undue hardship in their search for new employment.
Some companies have chosen to make payments like this staggered over a certain period of time, such as six months or one year. If the employee breaches the contract, the employer can then stop future installments of the safety net pay. However, employers must be careful to specify in the contract that a breach on the part of the employee will result in termination of all future payments. Otherwise, the cessation of installments could result in the employer getting taken to court for breach of contract.
The third and final alternative to non-compete agreements is client purchase agreements. These agreements do not expressly prohibit competition, but they do enact punishment in the event that the competition happens. In these arrangements, an employee agrees to pay the employer if she chooses to participate in certain competitive behaviors, such as by working with specified customers.