Non-competition agreements (also known as “non-competes”) are contracts, or clauses within contracts, that prevent an employee from working for a competitor after leaving their current employer. Employers sometimes require new employees to sign a non-compete as a condition of hiring, or after a period of employment in exchange for new perks like stock options. Non-compete agreements protect employers from things like dissemination of trade secrets or the loss of clients who might follow a departed employee to a new company in the same geographic area, but they can also severely impact an employee’s ability to earn a living.
Traditionally, non-competes were found in fields like technology or sales, where trade secrets are closely held and specialized skills are often required. But now, non-competes are so common that you might be required to sign one to work as a factory manager, camp counselor, yoga instructor, or even a summer intern.
Just because an employer requires an employee to sign a con-compete agreement, it does not necessarily mean that it is valid and can be used against the employee. These clauses are treated differently by the courts than most other contract terms. In general, in order to be valid, a non-compete agreement must (1) protect a legitimate business interest of the employer, (2) be supported by consideration, and (3) be reasonable in the geographical area it covers and the length of time it is in effect.
In New Jersey, non-compete agreements are viewed unfavorably as restraints of trade. To be arguably enforceable, such an agreement must protect the legitimate interests of the employer, not impose an undue hardship on the employee, and not be injurious to the public. See, e.g., Solari Industries, Inc. v. Malady. The type of industry may affect what is considered a legitimate interest for the employer to protect. For example, in the medical context, there is no legitimate interest in preventing competition as such, but there is a legitimate interest in protecting the employer’s relationship with current patients utilizing the practice. See, e.g., Karlin v. Weinberg. Hardship on an employee can be undue when termination of employment “occurs because of a breach of the employment contract by the employer.” Id. at 423.
“It’s one thing to have a bump in the road and be in between jobs for a little while; it’s another thing to be prevented from doing the only thing you know how to do,” said a Pennsylvania tree-trimmer to the New York Times, after his employer threatened legal action against him for leaving to work for a competing tree service.
Did you sign a non-compete when you started with your employer? Have you been asked to sign one after you’ve been working for your employer for some time? Contact this office and we can help you determine whether it affects your ability to get a new job in your field.