Can a Noncompete be Unwritten?

It is possible — at least theoretically — to have a purely oral noncompete agreement.  A covenant not to compete is, most fundamentally, a contract, and a valid and legally enforceable contract can be formed through purely verbal communications (with some exceptions not relevant here). Nevertheless, given the heightened scrutiny that noncompetes are subjected to under Massachusetts law, any employer wishing to be able to enforce a non-competition restriction in court would want the agreement to be in writing.

This point is driven home by a decision recently issued by Judge Richard T. Tucker of the Massachusetts Superior Court.  At least from a reading of the decision, one is forced to wonder why the case was brought at all.  The plaintiff, Steelcraft, sought a preliminary injunction to stop its former employee, Hensel, from competing through his new company, Mobi Medical. It did so despite the facts that Hensel did not sign a written covenant not to compete and that there was a dispute regarding the existence of an oral noncompete. Judge Tucker observed that even if Steelcraft could show that there was in fact an oral noncompete, that the noncompete protected a legitimate business interest, and that it was supported by consideration (such as Hensel’s hiring), Steelcraft still could not show that the noncompete was enforceable, because it did not allege that the covenant contained any time limit or was limited to a reasonable geographic area. The court next disposed of Steelcraft’s claim that Hensel had used trade secrets and confidential information to advance his own business, by finding that Steelcraft had not shown that the information was in fact confidential. Judge Tucker noted that if trade secrets and confidential business information were truly at stake, Steelcraft would have taken measures to safeguard it, such as by requiring Hensel to execute a written confidentiality or noncompete agreement. The court disposed of Steelcraft’s claim that it would be irreparably harmed absent an injunction by contrasting Steelcraft’s fear of losing business — which could be compensated by money damages at the end of the case — with the fact that Hensel had taken out a loan to start up his new business and without the income of his continued work, would face a sever hardship in repaying the loan. Finally, although the court did not focus on this issue, Steelcraft’s cause could not have been aided by the fact that it brought the case more than a year after Hensel left and started competing.

The lesson is a basic one: noncompetition agreements are difficult to enforce. Any business wishing to be able to restrain an employee from engaging in competitive activity after the employment relationship ends should do so through a written document that is drafted with careful consideration of the limitations imposed by applicable law.

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