I recently authored an article on planning reductions-in-force, a topic unfortunately on the minds of many businesses in these difficult economic times. (The article is available here.)The last of my “tips” urges companies to remind employees affected by layoffs of the continued applicability of nondisclosure obligations and other restrictive covenants. This raises a question: will a noncompete or other restrictive covenant be enforceable against employees who are let go as part of a layoff? As is often the case in this area, the short answer is: maybe.
As drafted, noncompetition and nonsolicitation restrictions typically will apply for a specified duration following a termination for any reason, including an involuntary termination such as a layoff. Generally, under Massachusetts law, the fact that an employee was terminated in a layoff (as opposed to leaving voluntarily or being terminated for cause) is not by itself a basis for refusing to enforce a noncompete. (Note that some other states’ laws are different. For example, in New York, while the issue is not entirely settled, most courts will not enforce an otherwise valid noncompete if the employee has been involuntarily terminated without cause.)
Nevertheless, a Massachusetts judge is less likely to enforce a noncompete where the employee was laid off. In considering requests for temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions to enforce noncompetes, judges are required to engage in a balancing of the equities, which involves consideration of basic fairness: would it be fair to enjoin the individual from competing with a former employer under the particular circumstances of the case? In a difficult economic environment, with companies laying off workers and unemployment rising, many Massachusetts judges will not want to enforce a noncompete against a laid off worker and will look for ways to avoid or scale back enforcement.
So, an employer seeking to enforce a noncompete following a lay off needs to stack the deck as much as possible with factors that would favor enforcement. As a starting point, noncompetes should be clear, understandable to employees, and narrowly drafted to protect the company’s legitimate interests in confidential information and/or good will. If the relevant document is vague or overbroad, employers should consider correcting those defects as part of the employee’s departure (for example, in a separation agreement). Relatedly, laid off employees should be reminded of continuing post-termination obligations and should be provided copies of the relevant agreements. Perhaps most importantly, employers should consider paying the laid off employee for some or all of the noncompete period. All other things being equal, Massachusetts judges will be more willing to enforce a noncompete against an individual who has been provided a generous severance package than against an employee who desperately is trying to provide for his or her family.
Finally, employers that wish to be able to enforce a noncompete following a layoff should gather and preserve any evidence of “bad acts” by the former employee. An injunction will be more likely where the employer isn’t merely worried about future harm but can point to evidence of, for example, inappropriate transmission, downloading or retention of confidential information; solicitation of customers or employees; or refusal to return company property. Companies that are consistently vigilant about discovering misuse of their information will improve their chances of stopping inappropriate competition.