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A non-compete clause (often NCC), or covenant not to compete (CNC), is a term used in contract law under which one party (usually an employee) agrees not to enter into or start a similar profession or trade in competition against another party (usually the employer). As a contract provision, a CNC is bound by traditional contract requirements including the consideration doctrine. The use of such clauses is premised on the possibility that upon their termination or resignation, an employee might begin working for a competitor or starting a business, and gain competitive advantage by exploiting confidential information about their former employer's operations or trade secrets, or sensitive information such as customer/client lists, business practices, upcoming products, and marketing plans.
However, an over-broad CNC may prevent an employee from working elsewhere at all. English common law originally held any such constraint to be unenforceable as a matter of public policy. Contemporary case law permits exceptions, but generally will only enforce CNCs to the extent necessary to protect the employer. Most jurisdictions in which such contracts have been examined by the courts have deemed CNCs to be legally binding so long as the clause contains reasonable limitations as to the geographical area and time period in which an employee of a company may not compete.
The extent to which non-compete clauses are legally allowed varies per jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions, such as the state of California in the US, invalidate non-compete-clauses for all but equity stakeholders in businesses.
As far back as 1415, English common law had already been "old and settled" that restraints on trade were unenforceable. That ban remained unchanged until 1621, when a restriction that was limited to a specific geographic location was found to be an enforceable exception to the previously absolute rule. Almost a hundred years later, the exception became the rule with the 1711 watershed case of Mitchel v. Reynolds which established the modern framework for the analysis of the enforceability of non-compete agreements.
The majority of U.S. states recognize and enforce various forms of non-compete agreements. A few states, such as California, totally ban or prohibit non-compete agreements except in limited circumstances. For this reason, non-compete agreements have been popular among companies with employees working in states where they are allowed. They are very common among commercial radio stations and television stations, especially for radio personalities and television personalities working for media conglomerates. For example, if a radio or television personality quits, is laid off or fired from one station in the market they work in, they cannot work for another competing station in the same market until their contract expires with their former employing station.
In Virginia, the enforceability of covenants not to compete is governed by common law principles. As restrictions on trade, CNCs are not favored by Virginia courts, which will enforce only narrowly drafted CNCs that do not offend public policy.
In Virginia, a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the covenant is reasonable in the sense that it is: (1) no greater than necessary to protect its legitimate business interests, such as a trade secret; (2) not unduly harsh or oppressive in restricting the employee's ability to earn a living; and (3) not against public policy. Paramount Termite Control Co., Inc v. Rector, 380 S.E.2d 922, 924 (Va. 1989).
In Virginia, courts weigh the (1) function, (2) geographic scope and (3) duration of the CNC against the employer's legitimate business interests to determine their reasonableness. Additionally, CNCs are only reasonable if they prevent the employee from entering into direct competition with the employer and must not encompass any activity in which the employer is not engaged.
Second, to enforce the CNC, a Plaintiff must show that it is not unduly harsh or oppressive in restricting the employee's ability to earn a living. In Virginia, a CNC is not unduly harsh or oppressive if balancing its function, geographic scope and duration the employee is not precluded from (1) working in a capacity not in competition with the employer within the restricted area or (2) providing similar services outside the restricted area.
Third, to enforce a CNC, a Plaintiff must show the CNC is reasonable from the standpoint of a sound public policy. Virginia does not favor restrictions on employment and therefore CNCs are generally held against public policy unless they are narrowly drafted as enumerated above. In Virginia, a CNC does not violate public policy if the restrictions it imposes do not create a monopoly for the services offered by the employer or create a shortage of the skills provided by the employee.
The enforceability of non-compete agreements in the state of Florida is quite common. Some law firms build their law practice around these agreements and represent employees, employers and potential new employers of an employee currently bound by a non-compete agreement. The agreement is not allowed to be overly broad and generally difficult to enforce if it is for more than two years. Also if the agreement is part of a general employment contract then there is the possibility of a Pre-Breach by an employer. This may cause the non-compete clause of the contract to become unenforceable.
Non-compete agreements are automatically void as a matter of law in California, except for a small set of specific situations expressly authorized by statute. They were outlawed by the original California Civil Code in 1872.
The preeminent court decision discussing the conflict between California law and the laws of other states is the 1998 decision Application Group, Inc. v. Hunter Group, Inc.  In Hunter, a Maryland company required that its Maryland based employee agree to a one-year non-compete agreement. The contract stated that it was governed by and to be construed according to Maryland law. A Maryland employee then left to work for a competitor in California. When the new California employer sued in California state court to invalidate the covenant not to compete, the California court agreed and ruled that the non-compete provision was invalid and not enforceable in California. Business and Professions Code Section 16600 reflects a "strong public policy of the State of California" and the state has a strong interest in applying its law and protecting its businesses so that they can hire the employees of their choosing. California law is thus applicable to non-California employees seeking employment in California.
Whether California courts are required by the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution to enforce equitable judgments from courts of other states, having personal jurisdiction over the defendant, that enjoin competition or are contrary to important public interests in California is an issue that has not yet been decided.
There are limited situations where a reasonable non-compete agreement may be valid in California.
By 1837, Massachusetts had indisputably adopted the analysis established in Mitchel. In 1922, the Supreme Judicial Court eliminated any doubt that restrictive covenants in the employment context would be enforced when reasonable.
The basic proposition enunciated long ago continues to apply: “A covenant not to compete is enforceable only if it is necessary to protect a legitimate business interest, reasonably limited in time and space, and consonant with the public interest.” 
Reasonableness is the touchstone of the analysis and is highly fact-dependent. The context in which the CNC arises (such as employment relationship, contractual relationship) is a critical factor in the analysis. A CNC that is unreasonable because it is too broad, will be scaled back if it is in fact capable of being narrowed.
Even when a CNC is limited in duration, geographic reach, and scope, it will be enforced “only to the extent . . . necessary to protect the legitimate business interests of the employer.”  Recognized legitimate business interests are generally identified as the protection of trade secrets, confidential information, and goodwill.
An otherwise valid CNC must still, like other contracts, be supported by consideration. Accordingly, the Supreme Judicial Court has held that a CNC must be “ancillary . . . to an existing employment or contract of employment” or some other “permissible transaction . . . .”  However, consideration can exist regardless of whether the CNC is entered into at the beginning of the employment relationship, during the term of employment, or even at the end of an employment relationship.
According to Racine v. Bender, CNCs will be enforced by courts if they are validly formed and reasonable. There are exceptions, like in Labriola v. Pollard Group, Inc., where the Washington Supreme Court invalidated a CNC not supported by independent consideration by strictly enforcing the pre-existing duty rule.
Under Texas law "a covenant not to compete is enforceable if it is ancillary to or part of an otherwise enforceable agreement at the time the agreement is made to the extent that it contains limitations as to time, geographical area, and scope of activity to be restrained that are reasonable and do not impose a greater restraint than is necessary to protect the goodwill or other business interest of the promisee." Specific rules apply to physicians, notably that a physician cannot be prohibited "from providing continuing care and treatment to a specific patient or patients during the course of an acute illness even after the contract or employment has been terminated."
However, Texas courts will not enforce a covenant not to compete if the court determines that such a covenant "is against public policy and therefore substantively unconscionable."
Canadian courts will enforce non-competition and non-solicitation agreements, however, the agreement must be limited in time frame, business scope, and geographic scope to what is reasonably required to protect the company's proprietary rights, such as confidential marketing information or client relations and the scope of the agreement must be unambiguously defined. The 2009 Supreme Court of Canada case Shafron v. KRG Insurance Brokers (Western) Inc. held a non-compete agreement to be invalid due to the term "Metropolitan City of Vancouver" not being legally defined.
The 2000 Ontario Court of Appeals case Lyons v. Multary established a general preference towards non-solicitation over non-competition agreements, regarding the latter as "much more drastic weapons" and held a non-competition agreement to be invalid when a non-solicitation agreement would have been sufficient to protect the company's interests.
Generally, CNCs are allowable in Europe only if the employer can show a reasonable business interest in having a CNC.
While CNCs are one of the most common types of restrictive covenants, there are many others. Each serves a specific purpose and provides specific rights and remedies. The most common types of restrictive covenants are as follows:
The enforceability of these agreements depends on the law of the particular state. As a general rule, however, with the exception of invention assignment agreements, they are subject to the same analysis as other CNCs.
Alger v. Thacher, 36 Mass. 51, 52 (1837).