Articles Posted in Employment Contracts

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).

fightOne 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.

arm-wrestlingWhen an employee ceases to work for an employer, many employers will want to protect their investment in that employee in any way they can. Nondisclosure agreements and trade secret laws cover confidential and proprietary information that employees might obtain during their employment. Employees who bring a particular set of skills or knowledge, and who might obtain additional valuable skills through their work for the employer, could potentially have a negative impact on the employer’s business if they took that knowledge to a competitor. Some employers therefore try to protect themselves with noncompete agreements, which state that the employee may not accept employment with a competitor after they leave the employer. New Jersey employment laws only allow enforcement of noncompete agreements when they have strict limitations, such as a limited geographic area and a limited duration. A New Jersey Superior Court judge in Bergen County recently ruled in favor of a former employee who was seeking to invalidate a noncompete clause. Abuaysha v. Shapiro Spa, No. L-000988-18, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Bergen Cty., Feb. 1, 2018)

Injunctive relief is one of the main methods of enforcing a noncompete agreement. Employers often file suit against a former employee and seek a preliminary injunction, but it is also possible for a former employee to file suit first. In order to obtain a temporary injunction in New Jersey, a movant must establish four elements:  (1) “irreparable harm” without the injunction, (2) a settled legal right underlying the movant’s claim, (3), “a reasonable probability of ultimate success on the merits,” and (4) a balance of hardships faced by the parties that favors granting the injunction. Crowe v. De Gioia, 90 N.J. 126, 132-34 (1982). In the case of noncompete agreements, courts must look closely at the second and third parts of this test.

New Jersey courts use the “Solari/Whitmyer test,” named for two New Jersey Supreme Court decisions, to determine whether a noncompete agreement is enforceable. Solari Industries, Inc. v. Malady, 55 N.J. 571 (1970); Whitmyer Bros., Inc. v. Doyle, 58 N.J. 25 (1971). This test has three parts:  (1) protection of legitimate employer interests, (2) no undue hardship on the employee, and (3) no injury to the public. When determining whether a noncompete agreement protects the employer’s interests, the court has noted that an “employer has no legitimate interest in preventing competition as such.” Whitmyer, 58 N.J. at 33. Examples of legitimate interests include protection of confidential information, trade secrets, and customer relationships. Id. The geographic limits, duration, and other restrictions in a noncompete agreement must be “no broader than necessary to protect the employer’s interests.” Cmty. Hosp. Grp., Inc. v. More, 183 N.J. 36, 58-59 (2005).

airportThe National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) enables workers to organize themselves for the purpose of collective bargaining with their employers. A current dispute between a major telecommunications company and its employees’ union alleges that the company is planning mass layoffs, in violation of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the parties, and with the alleged intent of “diminish[ing] the Union’s bargaining strength.” Commc’ns Workers of Am. (CWA) v. AT&T Southwest, No. 1:17-cv-01221, complaint at 6 (W.D. Tex., Dec. 30, 2017). The union also filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). AT&T Southwest, No. 16-CA-212398, charge (NLRB, Dec. 29, 2017). The case grew out of assertions made by prominent telecommunications companies regarding recent political issues, including recent tax cuts and changes to federal “net neutrality” rules. While the defendant employer claims the layoffs are due to a lack of work, the plaintiff asserts that the telecommunications business is booming. The issues raised by the lawsuit are likely to affect New Jersey labor rights as well.

Under the NLRA, employers may not interfere with workers’ efforts to organize, nor may they discriminate or retaliate against employees who engage in protected activity. The law also requires employers to collectively bargain with representatives chosen by the employees in accordance with its provisions. Once an employer and the employees’ representatives have entered into a CBA, it is binding on both parties. The NLRA allows claims to enforce CBA provisions and to collect damages for breaches. It also allows recovery of damages for various unfair labor practices described in § 8 of the statute, 29 U.S.C. § 158.

The plaintiff in CWA describes itself in its complaint as a labor union authorized to bring suit on behalf of the defendant’s employees under § 301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947. 29 U.S.C. § 185. The parties entered into the current CBA in April 2017. According to the complaint, a representative of the defendant’s labor relations department informed the plaintiff in December 2017 of the defendant’s intention to lay off 152 individuals employed as “Premises Technicians” (PTs) in at least four states. CWA, complaint at 4. The defendant’s representative cited “a reduction in workload” as the reason. Id.

New Meadowlands StadiumNew Jersey employment statutes and other laws around the country prohibit employers from taking certain adverse actions against employees. Antitrust laws can provide relief for workers when a direct employer-employee relationship might not exist. Laws like the Sherman Act prohibit companies that ostensibly compete with one another from making agreements that impede competition. This is often known as “collusion.” Agreements among companies not to hire one another’s workers, for example, hurt workers by limiting their job opportunities. Colin Kaepernick, a professional football player who has been a controversial public figure in the past year or so, is making similar allegations in a grievance filed against the National Football League (NFL). He is a free agent, but no team has signed him since the controversy gained prominence. Rather than a lawsuit under a law like the Sherman Act, the player is alleging violations of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the players’ union and the NFL. The case could have a national impact, since NFL teams are located all over the country, including two that play in New Jersey.

The Sherman Act prohibits businesses from making “contract[s]…or conspirac[ies] in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States.” 15 U.S.C. § 1. Agreements among market competitors that deliberately restrict or restrain trade, such as price-fixing, clearly violate the Sherman Act. In situations in which the alleged restraint is less obvious, courts use the “Rule of Reason” to determine whether the restriction is anti-competitive or not. Addyston Pipe & Steel Co. v. United States, 175 U.S. 211 (1899).

Agreements among NFL teams could constitute unlawful collusion under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court held that the creation of a single business entity to handle product licensing for all 32 NFL teams “constitute[d] concerted action that is not categorically beyond the coverage of §1.” American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League, 560 U.S. 183 (2010). It held that courts should apply the Rule of Reason to determine whether such agreements violate antitrust law. While that case dealt with intellectual property, it established that NFL teams are distinct entities that might have distinct economic interests.

silhouettesWorkers asserting a cause of action against an employer under various employment statutes must establish multiple facts before any claim may proceed. Perhaps before anything else, they must demonstrate an employment relationship between the defendant and themselves. If a claimant is an independent contractor rather than an employee, the employer may have far fewer obligations, or none at all, under employment statutes and the common law. “Misclassification” involves classifying workers who meet a legal definition of an employee as independent contractors. A recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowed a New Jersey misclassification lawsuit to proceed, specifically addressing another early roadblock for complainants:  a contractual clause purportedly mandating arbitration of all disputes. Moon v. Breathless, Inc., No. 16-3356, slip op. (3d Cir., Aug. 17, 2017).

No precise definition of “employee” exists in state or federal law. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines an “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer,” and “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 203(e)(1), (g). Different jurisdictions have therefore developed their own definitions of “employee” and “independent contractor.” New Jersey’s definition is quite expansive, holding that an individual is an employee unless they meet a three-part test:  (1) the employer lacks control over how the individual performs their job; (2) the individual’s job either is substantially different from the employer’s usual business activities or is not performed at the employer’s regular place of business; and (3) the individual has an “independently established trade, occupation, profession or business” that includes their work for the employer. Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 106 A.3d 449, 458 (N.J. 2015).

Many employment contracts include clauses stating that both parties agree to arbitration of any disputes, often precluding the option of going to court. The arbitration process involves submitting a dispute to an arbitrator, a private individual with specialized training in dispute resolution. The process may involve something resembling a trial, in which each side presents arguments and evidence, and the arbitrator makes a decision. Whether the arbitrator’s decision is binding on the parties depends on the terms of the arbitration clause.

family insuranceFederal law does not require employers to provide employees with benefits like retirement plans, but it regulates employers that choose to do so. Employers may be liable to employees for failing to meet the requirements set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. A federal court awarded $750,000 in damages in an ERISA claim for a failure to inform an employee of certain details of a life insurance plan. Erwood v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., et al., No. 2:14-cv-01284, opinion (W.D. Pa., Apr. 13, 2017). The case was in a Pennsylvania court but relied in part on New Jersey employment law claims.

ERISA covers a wide range of employment benefits, including retirement plans, deferred income plans, life insurance, and health insurance. Employers must designate an administrator, who has the duty of providing a summary of any covered plan, along with other information, to each beneficiary. 29 U.S.C. § 1021(a). Anyone who “exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of such plan” owes fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries. Id. at §§ 1002(21)(A), 1104(a).

If a plan does not provide any specific remedy for breaches of fiduciary duties or other violations, ERISA allows various forms of relief for aggrieved beneficiaries. Id. at § 1132(a)(3). These may include reformation of the plan and other equitable remedies, as well as “a surcharge remedy “extended to a breach of trust committed by a fiduciary.” Erwood, op. at 14, quoting CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 563 U.S. 421, 440-42 (2011). See also Horan v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., No. 3:12-cv-07802, opinion (D.N.J., Jan. 30, 2014).

SeoulIn 2015, a group of technology companies settled a class action filed on behalf of thousands of employees for about $415 million. The lawsuit alleged that the defendants violated antitrust laws by entering into “anti-poaching” agreements, by which they agreed not to solicit or hire each other’s employees. These types of agreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to advance in their fields, and they also tend to drive wages downward. More recently, a putative class action that partly originated in New Jersey made similar allegations against two major electronics companies. Frost v. LG Corp., et al., No. 5:16-cv-05206, complaint (N.D. Cal., Nov. 8, 2016). A judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case in April 2017, based on pleading defects, but will allow the plaintiffs to make corrections in an amended complaint. The case remains a good example of how state and federal antitrust laws can affect employment.

The main federal antitrust statute is the Sherman Act, originally enacted by Congress in 1890 in an effort to address monopolistic practices across the country. It prohibits any “contract…in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states,” 15 U.S.C. § 1, and allows both civil and criminal penalties. The New Jersey Antitrust Act uses almost identical language to describe prohibited contracts. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 56:9-3. The attorneys general at the state and federal levels are empowered to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive practices, and both state and federal laws allow civil causes of action by aggrieved parties.

The Frost lawsuit is actually a consolidation of two lawsuits filed in California and New Jersey. It asserts claims on behalf of three classes of employees:  nationwide, in California, and in New Jersey. The two defendant employers are American subsidiaries of South Korean companies. Their parent companies are also named as defendants. The lead plaintiff for the New Jersey class worked for one of the defendants in Englewood Cliffs for about eight years, beginning in 2006.

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defense lawyerThe U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to three consolidated cases addressing the enforceability of class action and collective action waivers in employment arbitration agreements. Many employment agreements include provisions stating that both employees and employers will submit any employment-related dispute to a neutral arbitrator. A waiver bars employees from filing or joining a class action related to their employment. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., appears to authorize this type of provision, but a waiver might violate the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. The Supreme Court has recently upheld class action waivers in consumer contracts, and it may have agreed to hear this case in order to resolve any uncertainty resulting from those rulings.

In a class action, a plaintiff or group of plaintiffs sues on behalf of a larger group of similarly situated persons. This allows people who lack the resources to file suit, or whose individual claims are too small to justify the expense of suing, to pool their claims into a single lawsuit. Federal law establishes four criteria for certifying a class:  (1) the class must be numerous enough to make individual lawsuits, or individual joinder of plaintiffs, impractical; (2) the class members must have common legal or factual questions; (3) the claims of the lead plaintiffs must be typical of the other class members; and (4) the lead plaintiffs must be able to “fairly and adequately” represent the class members and their interests. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a).

Arbitration is a method of alternative dispute resolution. Instead of filing suit, the parties submit their dispute to one or more arbitrators, who are usually legal professionals with knowledge of the subject matter at issue. The arbitrator will conduct a hearing, which might resemble a trial in many ways, and recommend an outcome. Employment contracts may require binding or non-binding arbitration. The results of binding arbitration are not subject to review by a court, absent evidence of misconduct by the arbitrator. A common criticism of arbitration is that the process tends to favor whomever is paying the arbitrator’s fees.

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arm wrestlingThe American economy is largely based on the principle that competition is beneficial to everyone. No system of laws is ever perfect, of course, and ours requires regular revisions to balance different interests, such as an employer’s interest in retaining its investment in an employee and an employee’s interest in choosing where—and in which field—to work. Non-compete agreements (NCAs) limit an individual’s ability, upon ceasing to work for an employer, to work in a similar job. This obviously protects the employer’s interest but can be quite damaging to the former employee. Several states have outlawed NCAs entirely, while most states, including New Jersey, have established strict criteria for their enforcement. The White House issued a call to state governments in October 2016 to restrict the enforceability of NCAs even further, in ways that benefit employees.

Laws governing the enforceability of NCAs differ considerably from state to state. Some states have enacted legislation, while others rely on court rulings based on statutory or common law. In a very general sense, NCAs prohibit an employee from working for a competitor or starting a competing business while working for the employer or after their employment ends. An open-ended NCA is almost universally unenforceable, but many states allow NCAs that are limited in time and geographic scope. For example, an NCA that bars a former employee from working for a competitor within 20 miles of the employer’s location, for a period of six months after the end of their employment, is likely to be enforceable in most jurisdictions.

At least four states, California, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, have banned the use of NCAs in employment contracts almost entirely. Under New Jersey law, NCAs are only enforceable if they meet a three-prong test called the Solari/Whitmyer test. The NCA must be “necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interests,” it cannot create an “undue hardship” for the employee, and it cannot be “injurious to the public.” Community Hosp. Group, Inc. v. More, 869 A.2d 884, 897 (N.J. 2005); citing Solari Industry v. Malady, 264 A.2d 53, 56 (N.J. 1970); and Whitmyer Bros., Inc. v. Doyle, 274 A.2d 577 (N.J. 1971).

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Our economic system depends on the competition of individuals and businesses in a free market, subject to reasonable regulations. When one or more “persons”—a legal term that includes individuals and various types of businesses—take actions that make their segment of the market less competitive, they may be in violation of federal or state antitrust laws. These statutes prohibit employment practices, such as “wage-fixing” agreements among competing companies, that unfairly harm employees’ interests. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued a guidance document, entitled “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals,” addressing the enforcement of federal antitrust laws. In addition to civil penalties, the DOJ has the authority to pursue criminal charges for anticompetitive practices in some situations. The guidance document advises human resources (HR) professionals to enact policies aimed at avoiding civil and criminal liability for their employers.employee

Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1 through 11, in 1890 in order to combat the formation of monopolies that could take over control of entire markets or commodities, such as oil or steel. When a single company has control over a particular product or service within a market, consumers typically suffer because of factors like the lack of incentive to keep prices at a reasonable level. Employees can also suffer when there is no other employer who has need of their skills. Federal laws and many state laws allow state regulators to take steps to prevent actions, such as mergers of two or more formerly competing businesses, that could lead to a monopoly.

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