I receive a lot of inquiries from clients about the enforceability of non-compete agreements. For reasons that have never been clear to me, there seems to be a common belief that such agreements are “not worth the paper they are printed on.”
A non-compete agreement is a contract between an employer and one of its employees, stating that the employee will not work for a competing employer for a period of time – most commonly a year – after their employment with the contracting employer ends. These agreements often will also contain provisions against soliciting the employer’s customers (“non-solicitation”) and using the employer’s confidential information or trade secrets (“confidentiality”).
Historically, non-compete agreements were disfavored in the law as a restraint of trade. And some states – such as California – today have sharp restrictions against them.
In Ohio and many other states, however, non-compete agreements are alive and well, and are enforced in courts with regularity. Ohio has even held that a non-compete agreement may be enforceable when the employee doesn’t receive anything from the employer in exchange for signing it – what the law calls “consideration.” The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that an employee’s continued employment alone can be sufficient consideration for an employee’s promise not to compete.
Many clients will point out that their former employer has not enforced non-compete agreements signed by other employees, and ask whether that doesn’t prevent the employer from trying to enforce one against them? The answer is “no.” Just because an employer chose not to bother enforcing a similar agreement against another employee does not prohibit it from enforcing it against you.
The law does recognize some defenses to non-compete agreements, and does impose certain limitations on them. Employers who want to protect their customers from former employees should seek competent legal counsel to draft enforceable agreements. And employees facing claims by former employers that they are in violation of such agreements should do the same.
Most importantly, employers and employees should get counsel about these agreements BEFORE the employee leaves the job. Employers: Make sure your agreements are enforceable BEFORE you present them to your key employees. Employees: Talk to a lawyer when you are PRESENTED with one of these agreements – don’t wait until after you’ve already signed it, or after you’ve left your current employer for a competitor.