Businesses entrust a considerable amount of information, along with the value represented by that information, to their employees. Employers have an interest in protecting their intellectual property, trade secrets, and other proprietary information. Employment laws in New Jersey and New York allow restrictive covenants in employment contracts that reasonably limit certain activities by former employees. From an employee’s point of view, the overzealous enforcement of restrictive covenants imposes an undue burden on their ability to make a living in their chosen field. Courts often give close scrutiny to employers’ efforts to enforce restrictive covenants. Last summer, a Manhattan federal court refused to enforce several non-compete clauses against a group of former employees in a New York employment dispute. In re Document Technologies Litigation (“DTL”), No. 17-cv-2405, op. (S.D.N.Y., Jul. 6, 2017).
One common type of restrictive covenant used in employment agreements is the “covenant not to compete,” also known as a non-compete clause. An employer may worry that, when an employee leaves their job, they will take the knowledge and contacts they have gained and either go to work for a competitor or start their own competing business. In order to be enforceable, a non-compete clause must have a reasonable duration and a limited geographic scope. A non-compete clause stating that a former employee cannot work for any competing business anywhere in the state of New Jersey for a period of 10 years is unlikely to be enforceable, but one that restricts competition within 10 miles of the employer’s location for six months might be considered reasonable. Other common restrictive covenants include agreements not to solicit the employer’s clients or customers (non-solicitation), and agreements not to disclose certain information learned during an individual’s period of employment (non-disclosure).
The plaintiff in DTL “is a global provider of electronic discovery (‘e-discovery’) services for law firms and corporate legal departments,” with about 7,000 employees. DTL, op. at 2. The defendants include four former employees and the competing company that hired them after they quit their jobs with the plaintiff. The individual defendants signed employment agreements with the plaintiff that included one-year non-compete and non-solicitation clauses and a non-disclosure clause. According to the court’s opinion, the individual defendants had become “dissatisfied with their employment” with the plaintiff as early as 2014. Id. at 3. They resigned from the plaintiff and signed employment agreements with the competing company in January 2017, with the understanding that they would not begin work until the following year, after the non-compete had expired.