Pennsylvania Supreme Court Finally Kills Hope That Magic Words Can Substitute for Valuable Consideration in Exchange for Post-Offer Restrictive Covenants

By Daniel Aiken and Vik Jaitly

To most practitioners, Pennsylvania law governing the consideration required for an employment agreement containing a restrictive covenant (e.g., a non-competition clause or non-solicitation clause) has been simple: (1) if the restrictive covenant is entered at the inception of the employment, the consideration to support the covenant is the award of the position itself; (2) if the restrictive covenant is entered during employment (i.e., post-offer), it is enforceable only if the employee receives new and valuable consideration—that is, some corresponding benefit or a favorable change in employment status. To avoid the need to provide a current employee additional consideration, some employers added magic language to their restrictive covenants, based on a statute from 1927, which arguably made a restrictive covenant enforceable without new consideration.

Specifically, the Uniform Written Obligations Act (“UWOA”) states that a written promise “shall not be invalid or unenforceable for lack of consideration, if the writing also contains an additional express statement, in any form of language, that the signer intends to be legally bound.” Thus, according to the terms of the statute, using the magic language, “the parties intend to be legally bound” erased any deficiencies in the consideration actually exchanged. Therefore, despite a significant line of authority requiring valuable consideration for post-offer restrictive covenants, an employer looking to enforce a post-offer covenant that lacked additional consideration could hold out hope of nevertheless enforcing the covenant.

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extinguished any flicker of hope with its decision in Socko v. Mid-Atlantic Sys. of CPA, Inc., No. 142 MAP 2014 (Pa. Nov. 18, 2015). There, the employer, Mid-Atlantic, was seeking to enforce a restrictive covenant against a former salesperson, David Socko. When Mr. Socko began his second stint of employment with Mid-Atlantic (he had resigned but was rehired four months later), Mr. Socko signed a new employment agreement containing a two-year noncompetition covenant. While still employed, Mr. Socko signed another, more restrictive, covenant not to compete. That agreement also expressly stated that the parties intended to be “legally bound,” but Mr. Socko apparently did not receive anything of value in return for his signature.

When Mid-Atlantic sought to enforce the agreement signed by Mr. Socko during his employment, Mr. Socko argued that the non-competition clause was unenforceable, as it was not supported by consideration. Mid-Atlantic, citing the parties’ pledge in the agreement to be “legally bound,” contended that the UWOA did not allow Mr. Socko to challenge the validity of the terms of the agreement on the basis of a lack of consideration. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed. The Court concluded that the UWOA does not save a post-offer restrictive covenant that otherwise lacks consideration. In reaching this conclusion, the Court cited Pennsylvania’s historical disfavor of covenants in restraint of trade and the fact that Pennsylvania courts have, for years, mandated strict compliance with the basic contractual requirement of consideration in the context of post-offer restrictive covenants.

For employers, this case serves as a reminder that they must provide new consideration in exchange for a post-offer restrictive covenant. To avoid this situation altogether, employers should consider whether they should insist, at the time of hiring, on having employees (especially those employees who will be in contact with customers or will have access to sensitive information) enter post-employment restrictive covenants. Agreements entered at the time of hiring are rarely subject to challenge for lack of consideration. Otherwise, employers will need to give up something of value in order to create a binding restrictive covenant. Continued at-will employment—which is sufficient consideration under most states’ laws—is not sufficient under Pennsylvania law. Rather, employers will need to offer more, and Pennsylvania courts have found that the following suffice as new consideration in exchange for a post-offer restrictive covenant: a promotion, a change from part-time to full-time employment, or a beneficial change to a compensation package of bonuses, insurance benefits, and severance benefits. Other valuable promises may also suffice depending on the circumstances.

How Safe Are Your Company’s Trade Secrets?

In a world where employee mobility is a business reality, companies should be taking proactive measures to guard trade secrets, retain competitive advantage and be ready for court if it comes to that. Click below to launch a video and hear from Labor & Employment partners Mark Terman and David Woolf on what they, and our other Labor & Employment group lawyers, are doing every day to protect companies.

 

Trade Secrets & Restrictive Covenants

What Happens at Work Stays at Work – The California Employer’s Approach To A National Program for Restrictive Covenants and Trade Secret Protection

Kate Gold, Mark Terman and Adam Thurston, partners in the firm’s Los Angeles office, recently presented to the Southern California Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel a program titled “What Happens at Work Stays at Work – The California Employer’s Approach To A National Program for Restrictive Covenants and Trade Secret Protection”.

The presentation, which was broadcast to in-house counsel viewing in three separate locations spread out around southern California, first looked at the California landscape, giving a refresher and update on non-competition agreements, customer and employee non-solicitation, identifying and pleading trade secrets and misappropriation.

The presentation then looked at considerations for a multi-jurisdictional approach to trade secret protection, including best practices for effective corporate policies and confidentiality and property protection agreements.

The presentation concluded by addressing social media in a trade secret protection program, including Twitter, LinkedIn, and BYOD, and making the most of choice of law and forum selection clauses in restrictive covenants.

A copy of the presentation can be downloaded here.

Daughter’s Facebook Post Leads to Costly Breach by Father of a Confidentiality Clause in His Settlement Agreement With Former Employer

By: Lawrence J. Del Rossi

A recent decision by a Florida appeals court, Gulliver Schools, Inc. v. Snay, stands as a stark reminder of the perils of trying to maintain confidentiality in the age of social media where news can travel faster than the speed of sound and inadvertent dissemination of information that is intended to be “confidential” can be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.

Patrick Snay sued his former employer, Gulliver Schools, for age discrimination and retaliation under the Florida Civil Rights Act after his contract as the school’s headmaster was not renewed.  The parties reached a settlement in the amount of $150,000 ($10,000 in back pay, $80,000 for non-wage damages, and $60,000 in attorney’s fees), and agreed that the “existence or terms” of the agreement were to be kept strictly confidential.  The confidentiality provision prohibited Snay from “directly or indirectly” disclosing or discussing the case or the settlement with anyone except “his attorneys or other professional advisors or spouse.”  It contained a clawback or liquidated damages provision allowing for the disgorgement of plaintiff’s portion of the settlement payments in the event of a breach.

Only four days after the parties had signed the settlement agreement, the school notified Snay that he had materially breached the agreement based on a Facebook posting of Snay’s college-age daughter, who boasted to approximately 1200 Facebook friends (many of whom were either current or past Gulliver students): “Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver.  Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer.  SUCK IT.”

Mr. Snay testified that he believed his daughter was retaliated against at Gulliver, that she was “very concerned about” the lawsuit, and that after the settlement was reached he and his wife decided to tell their daughter that the case had settled and that they were happy with the result.  They apparently did not tell her that the settlement was confidential or that she should not disclose such information to anyone else.  The trial court found that neither Snay’s comments to his daughter nor his daughter’s Facebook comment constituted a breach.  The appeals court disagreed and reversed, ruling that Mr. Snay “violated the agreement by doing exactly what he had promised not to do,” and “[h]is daughter then did precisely what the confidentiality agreement was designed to prevent, advertising to the Gulliver community that Snay had been successful in his age discrimination and retaliation case against the school.”

Confidentiality clauses like the one in the Snay/Gulliver settlement agreement are common and should be enforced when they are clear, unambiguous and voluntarily and knowingly agreed to.   From a drafting standpoint, if it was important for Mr. Snay to have disclosed certain information about the settlement to his daughter (as he had claimed at his deposition), then the confidentiality provision could have included “immediate family” as permissible recipients of confidential information and have subjected those family members to the same confidentiality obligations as Mr. and Mrs. Snay.

In addition, attorneys should take heed of this opinion in light of their ethical and legal obligations to protect client confidences.  The duty to protect privileged and confidential client information extends to current clients (RPC 1.6), former clients (RPC 1.9), and prospective clients (RPC 1.18).  Zealous representation and confidentiality are at the foundation of the attorney-client relationship, but if an attorney’s spouse, family member, or co-worker, inadvertently or otherwise posts on social media client or case information that is confidential (e.g., “mom just settled big toxic tort case, off to Mexico for much needed family vacation!”), such disclosure could be disastrous.

Ten Considerations in Drafting Executive Employment Agreements

By: David J. Woolf

Perhaps your company has just acquired a new business and wants to put that entity’s employees under a more structured employment arrangement.  Or maybe you are just looking to roll out new executive-level agreements within your own company.  Whatever the motivation and circumstances, here are ten things to think about in drafting employment agreements that often go overlooked: 

  1. Severance – The most common question is the easiest: Are you going to provide severance and, if so, how much?  Other details merit consideration though.  For example, is death or disability a severance trigger?  As part of the package, do you want to provide things like medical benefit continuation, prorated bonus, equity vesting acceleration, extension of the option exercise period, or other benefits?  Whatever you do, the employer will want to make sure that the executive has to execute a release to receive the severance benefits, other than vested benefits and accrued compensation.
  2. Fixed Term (or Not) – Traditionally, a term contract was like a baseball contract – the executive had a term and, except where the employer had good cause for an early termination, it had to pay the executive out through the end of the term no matter what.  That concept seems to have largely disappeared, in that (a) employers don’t want to be saddled with paying out the full term if they elect to make a change earlier and (b) executives want severance even when the agreement expires naturally and is not renewed by the company.  As a result, except where the employer can secure a true no obligation walk away at the end of the term, or at least establish some difference between an in-term and end-term separation, an employer would be wise to go with an at-will arrangement with no set term.
  3. Restrictive Covenants (or Not) – Restrictive covenants, including covenants not to compete, require clearer, more definitive consideration than most contract terms.  And aside from new employment, there is no better consideration than new or enhanced compensation and benefits memorialized in a formal employment agreement.  So, if you think non-competition, customer non-solicitation, or other restrictive covenants are worthwhile (and you usually should at the executive level), the employment agreement (or a separate, contemporaneously-executed and cross-referenced restrictive covenant agreement) is the place to do it.
  4. Cause – “Cause” means different things to different people.  From an executive’s point of view, Cause is often engaging in particularly serious conduct that is not rectified after notice and an opportunity to cure.  Employers, however, should seek to include things like the executive’s failure to perform his or her duties; violation of material company policies (such as anti-discrimination and harassment policies); commission of a felony or other serious crime; breach of his or her restrictive covenants, fiduciary duty, or other misconduct; and material misrepresentation of experience or education, among other things.
  5. Good Reason Provision (or Not) – A “Good Reason” separation provision allows an executive to resign for certain preapproved reasons – typically the employer’s material breach of the employment agreement, a required relocation, or a material diminution of the executive’s duties, often after the employer has failed to cure – and collect severance as if he or she was fired without Cause.  Most savvy executives have come to expect such a provision, and providing it to the executive can be a relatively easy give if the Good Reason provision is drafted correctly.
  6. Award Equity (or Not) – Many executives, particularly when accepting a role in a new or newly-acquired company, understand that the cash compensation may be limited initially.  What they really want is equity or options so that, if they succeed in developing the company, they can share in that success.  Employers and equity firms often find this arrangement beneficial too in that it limits cash outlays and aligns incentives.   
  7. State Law and Venue Selection – Almost all employment agreements include a choice of law provision, and many, if not most, employers instinctively select the state in which the company operates and the executive will work.  But that may not be the best law for the employer and other options may be available.  For example, most courts will apply another state’s law if there is a nexus to that state, such as it being the employer’s state of incorporation.  Venue is equally important, as requiring an employee to litigate in a certain forum can give the employer litigation location certainly and potentially avoid the executive running to another state where the law (for example, concerning non-competes) is more favorable.
  8.  Assignment – Often forgotten, the assignment provision is critical in that, without it, many states’ laws will not permit assignment, even upon a sale of the employer’s assets.  To avoid this, the employment agreement should state that, although the executive may not assign the agreement, the employer may do so, at least to an affiliate or as part of a transaction.
  9. 409A – When possible, severance, other payments and the agreement generally should be structured so as not to trigger coverage under Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code.  If the agreement is subject to Section 409A, it should be written to comply with it.  Failure to do so can expose the executive, among other things, to a 20 percent additional tax and the employer to an angry executive.
  10. Miscellaneous – There are of course numerous other things of value that an employer can do.  For example:

●  The salary section can allow for the reduction of the executive’s salary when executive salaries are being cut across the board. 

●  The employer may want to make any bonuses contingent on the executive working through the end of the year.

●  In most states, an employer can provide that accrued, unused vacation and PTO will not be paid out upon termination of employment.

●  Arbitration, subject to a carve out for injunction actions, has its positives and negatives and should be considered.

●  Address what is to happen upon a sale of the employer or other change of control.

●  New executives should represent and warrant that they are not bound by any restrictive covenants that would limit their ability to work for the employer and that they will not use any confidential information from their former employer.

●  Although largely standard now, employers should take care to ensure that the agreement provides that it can be revised only by written document. 

●  Make sure the agreement works with other documents and that the integration clause doesn’t unintentionally overwrite other agreements.

There are always more issues of course, particularly those specific to the particular company and the executive.  But the ten-plus areas above arise frequently and thus typically merit consideration.

Hiring Employees Who May Be Bound by Post-Employment Restrictive Covenants? Caution, Restrictions May Apply

By: Daniel H. Aiken

Employers frequently want to hire talented employees who are bound by post-employment restrictive covenants (e.g., non-competes, or customer/employee non-solicitation covenants).  Often, a plain reading of the prospective hire’s agreement raises questions about whether joining your company would violate the agreement.  This requires strategic, and sometimes creative, planning.  Depending on your jurisdiction, deciding to hire an employee despite their post-employment restrictive covenants may involve taking a calculated risk that some parts of the post-employment restrictions are not enforceable, while deciding that there are some aspects your company can live with and that you expect the new employee to follow.  The following provides some basic guidance.

1.  Assess the business impact of the restrictions by determining the precise scope and duties of the prospective job.  Even though the individual may be subject to post-employment restrictive covenants, the job for which you intend to hire him/her may not fall within the restrictions.  Or, inasmuch as most restrictive covenants will expire — sometimes in a matter of months — you may decide that the company can tailor the scope of the intended position so that the new employee can still add value, but not perform work that would violate the individual’s obligations to his/her former employer.  Can the person be employed in a capacity that does not violate the restrictions until they lapse?  Can the person be employed outside the geographically restricted area or assigned to existing customers different from those of the former employer?

2.  Review and analyze the legal risk.  Analyze the true legal risk of proceeding.  By “true” legal risk, I mean the likelihood that the former employer will succeed if it takes legal action, as well as the likelihood the former employer will actually take legal action.  This should include an analysis of the scope of the restrictions and their enforceability given the applicable state law, whether the action will be brought in federal or state court, as well as an assessment of the likelihood that a court will enforce the restrictions.  This will vary according to the applicable state law and circumstances.  You should also consider more practical issues such as the former employer’s litigation history, the importance of the potential hire to the former employer, and the extent to which employment with your company differs from the prior employment.  Other practical considerations should include a review of the industry and whether post-employment restrictions are commonplace, whether the two companies compete for the same customers, and a frank review of your company’s flexibility in defining the scope of the intended position.

3.  Hire away, or don’t, but proceed with caution.  Having analyzed the legal risk and business impact of the restrictive covenants on your proposed hire, determine whether you are comfortable proceeding with the hire in the intended position, or if there is a different, or modified position, that would still suit the company’s needs while lessening the legal risk.  Analyze and take available appropriate steps to minimize the risk of being sued, or, if sued, the risk of a lengthy or costly suit.  Communicate, in writing, what you expect of the new employee.  For instance, you and counsel may reach the conclusion that the prospect’s non-competition restrictions are overly broad and will not be enforced under the circumstances, but that a court is likely to enforce a customer non-solicitation covenant.  Accordingly, you may decide to move ahead with the hire, and plan to keep the new employee away from former customers.

Typically, the  company’s offer letter is a good place to memorialize such expectations.  In our scenario, the offer letter should state, as a condition of employment, that the new employee does not possess and/or will not use his former employer’s confidential information and that the employee will not solicit former clients (as well as any other restrictions that your company expects to be followed).  The employee, especially if sophisticated or if represented by an attorney, may seek indemnification for any legal action taken by his former employer.  Determine whether you are willing to entertain such a request.  Consider also what type of an “out” you have, both of the employment relationship and/or indemnification, i.e., what recourse does the company have if ensuing litigation is going badly or you find the new employee was not truthful about not taking any confidential information from the former employer?

4.  Protect your company from the beginning.  Companies often get into trouble when recruiting a prospective employee long before the actual hire.  Employees may pitch their importance by showing you their customer list or sales volume, but these items are likely to be considered confidential by their employer, if not trade secrets.  Further, the employee may offer to bring with them a junior colleague and provide you with confidential information about the employee or may start contacting customers about his or her intentions.  Those actions may have already violated the person’s restrictive covenants.  Ground rules for such activity should be established during the interview process, in writing, if possible.  Also obtain written confirmation that the potential hire is not under any undisclosed restrictions and communicate, in writing, that the prospective employee is not to disclose or use confidential information or trade secrets and is not to take or bring any property or information belonging to the employer.  Follow through and make sure the person complies fully with those requirements.

Although there is no way to prevent a suspicious former employer from challenging your company’s hire of one of its employees, following this guidance will place your company in a better position in the event of such a challenge.