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Hidden Pitfalls of Old Non-Compete Provisions

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Companies and employers aroundJames-Kachmar-08_web the country seek to protect their intellectual property by, among other things, using non-compete provisions in employment agreements. Generally, these provisions are intended to prevent an employee from soliciting or doing business with a former employer’s customer/clients over a set period of time and/or in regard to a set geographical area. Under California law, and specifically Business and Professions Code section 16600, such provisions are unenforceable unless they fall within one of the statutory exceptions, i.e., primarily in connection with the sale of a business interest. For years, although California state courts would refuse to enforce such provisions under section 16600, federal courts in California sometimes applied a narrow court-created exception and allow such provisions to be enforced provided that they were narrowly tailored as to time and geographical area. In 2008, the California Supreme Court unequivocally ruled that such provisions were unenforceable under section 16600 and rejected the “narrowly restricted” exception used by federal courts. (See Edwards v. Arthur Andersen, LP, 44 Cal.4th 937 (2008).)

In response to the Edwards decision, many California companies and employers began to omit such provisions from their new employment agreements or re-write them with specific language restricting an employee from using trade secret information to unfairly compete. However, other companies and employers left their old agreements untouched and in place thinking merely that they would not enforce them should the need arise. A recent court decision, Couch v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. (E.D. Cal. Aug. 7, 2015), reveals the risk an employer or company faces in failing to update their older employment agreements to remove or revise such provisions.

In Couch, plaintiff was employed as a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney from September 2007 until January 2013. At the time of his hire in 2007, he signed an employment agreement that included a provision that he would not solicit customers of Morgan Stanley for one year following the termination of his employment. Although the employment agreement was signed in 2007, Morgan Stanley never updated this particular agreement with plaintiff following the California Supreme Court’s decision in the Edwards case in 2008.

During his employment, plaintiff held and ran for various elected offices. In 2012, he ran for and was elected to a seat on the Kern County Board of Supervisors. Given the time commitments such a position entailed, Morgan Stanley asked plaintiff to choose between serving on the Board or continuing as a financial adviser with the firm. After plaintiff indicated his unwillingness to resign his supervisor seat, Morgan Stanley terminated his employment.

In January 2014, plaintiff filed suit against Morgan Stanley and alleged various claims relating to his termination as well as two claims for interference with prospective economic relations. Plaintiff claimed, among other things, that the inclusion of the non-compete provision in his employment agreement by Morgan Stanley disrupted his potential economic relations with customers following the termination of his employment.

Morgan Stanley moved for summary judgment as to these intentional interference claims and raised a number of arguments. Morgan Stanley argued that plaintiff’s intentional interference claims should fail because: (1) the non-compete provision in the employment agreement was legal under then existing law in 2007; and (2) given that it had never sought to enforce the provision, it had not engaged in any conduct to interfere with plaintiff’s prospective economic relations. The district court rejected both of these contentions.

First, the Court recognized that while the non-compete provision may have been legal under pre-2007 Ninth Circuit case law, Morgan Stanley did not dispute that such provisions had become unlawful after the California Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards. The Court recognized that the California Supreme Court in Edwards specifically ruled that the Ninth Circuit’s “narrow restraint exception” was rejected and that any non-compete was unlawful unless it fell within one of the narrow statutory exceptions to section 16600. The Court continued by noting that neither it nor Morgan Stanley could find any legal authority for the proposition that a non-compete provision entered into before the Edwards decision “remains lawful even though it is unlawful post-Edwards.”

Next, the Court turned to Morgan Stanley’s argument that it had never sought to enforce the non-compete provision. The Court concluded that whether or not Morgan Stanley had ever sought to enforce its provisions was irrelevant. The Court reasoned that California state court cases had repeatedly held (especially post-Edwards) that non-compete provisions are “void and unenforceable under section 16600 and … their use violates section 17200 [of the Business and Professions Code].” Thus, the Court noted that the mere use of an unlawful non-compete provision in an employment agreement constitutes an unfair business practice under section 17200 and could supply the “wrongful act” requirement for an interference claim.

Luckily for Morgan Stanley, the Court granted judgment in its favor after finding that plaintiff could not establish that the inclusion of the non-compete provision in his employment agreement had caused him any damage. It therefore dismissed these claims against Morgan Stanley. Nevertheless, the Court’s reasoning concerning the “use” of such provisions should give companies and employers in California pause. To the extent employers and companies have elected not to revisit their older employment agreements to either delete or revise non-compete provisions, they are at risk of facing unfair business practices claims as well as other potential claims such as interference with prospective economic relations. Companies and employers in California are encouraged to review their older employment agreements to ensure they comply with current California law.