Many employers possess confidential information vital to generating profits. Employers routinely entrust employees with this information to facilitate business operations, but employees often leave their job after a few years to work for a competitor. When this happens, the employee takes the confidential information he or she learned to the next job. The employee might disclose this information to the new employer, and thereby detrimentally affect the former employer’s business. As a result, some employers competing in the same space have joined forces to combat disclosure of their confidential information by agreeing not to solicit each other’s employees, thereby ensuring the employees will remain at the same company. However, these agreements would likely constitute an unlawful restraint on trade under federal law it and may result in significant civil and criminal liability. The Mavrick Law Firm has extensive experience with non-compete agreements and related litigation.
Under the Sherman Act’s prohibition against anti-competitive behavior, an employer cannot lawfully stymie competition by entering agreements with other employers to hinder their employees’ ability to compete in the labor market. Congress declared every contract, trust, or conspiracy restraining trade or commerce illegal. 15 U.S.C. § 1 (“Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States….”). The Sherman Act therefore prevents anti-competitive behavior and courts interpret this statute to prohibit competitors from agreeing not to solicit each other’s customers or fix prices. Spectrum Sports, Inc. v. McQuillan, 506 U.S. 447, 458 (1993) (“The law directs itself… against conduct which unfairly tends to destroy competition itself.”); United States v. Topco Associates, Inc., 405 U.S. 596, 608 (1972) (“We think that it is clear that the restraint in this case is a horizontal one, and, therefore, a per se violation of § 1.”); Texaco Inc. v. Dagher, 547 U.S. 1, 5 (2006) (“Price-fixing agreements between two or more competitors… are per se unlawful.”). The Department of Justice has used the Sherman Act to sue several employers who agreed to refrain from competing for each other’s employees. In one such case, the Department of Justice contended in court filings that the employers “fix[ed] and suppress[ed] employee compensation and to restrict[ed] employee mobility.” In re High–Tech Employee Litig., 856 F. Supp. 2d 1103, 1108-10 (N.D. Cal. 2012). The case settled but opened the door for employees to assert similar private causes of action. For example, in Nitsch v. DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., an employee sued DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., The Walt Disney Company, Lucasfilm Ltd., and others claiming they agreed to refrain from actively soliciting each other’s employees and set employee compensation ranges. Nitsch v. DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., 100 F. Supp. 3d 851, 853 (N.D. Cal. 2015). Although the Nitsch lawsuit was resolved through arbitration, the case is problematic for employers because it sets a precedent for employees who fall within agreements between two or more employers to sue. These lawsuits could negatively affect businesses and business owners because liabilities associated with the Sherman Act can be severe. For instance, an individual can be fined up to one million dollars or imprisoned for up to ten years and a business can be fined up to one-hundred thousand dollars. 15 U.S.C. § 1. In addition, significant class action liability could arise. In re High–Tech Employee Litig., 2011-2509, ECF 1032 (granting class certification). Employers should therefore consider these risks before agreeing with another employer to inhibit employees from participating in the labor market.
Employers may avoid liability under the Sherman Act by entering bilateral employment contracts with employees that prohibit employees from disclosing confidential information. Florida law allows non-disclosure provisions within employment contracts. Courts must enforce these provisions if they are in a signed writing; protect a legitimate business interest; and are reasonable in time, area, and line of business. Fla. Stat. § 542.335 (1) (“enforcement of contracts that restrict or prohibit competition during or after the term of restrictive covenants, so long as such contracts are reasonable in time, area, and line of business, is not prohibited”); Fla. Stat. § 542.335 (1)(a)-(b) (“A court shall not enforce a restrictive covenant unless it is set forth in a writing signed by the person against whom enforcement is sought… and the person seeking enforcement of a restrictive covenant [must] plead and prove the existence of one or more legitimate business interests justifying the restrictive covenant”). These non-disclosure employment agreements are less likely to violate the Sherman Act because they are generally considered reasonable. Alders v. Afa Corp. of Florida, 353 F. Supp. 654, 658 (S.D. Fla. 1973) (finding the employer’s restrictive covenant reasonable). In fact, non-disclosure employment agreements may further the Sherman Act’s goals of creating an efficient marketplace by securing a business’ confidential information. Consultants & Designers, Inc. v. butler Service Group, Inc., 720 F. 2d 1553, 1561 (11 Cir. 1983) (“when a practice tends to reduce competition…, but nevertheless operates to make the market more efficient… then it may still be found, under the rule of reason, to further the Sherman Act’s goals in aiding competition.”). An employer employee non-disclosure agreement therefore reduces legal exposure and is more likely to be enforced.
Peter Mavrick practices non-compete, employment, and business litigation in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach Counties, Florida. This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation. Peter T. Mavrick can be reached at: Website: www.mavricklaw.com; Telephone: 954-564-2246; Address: 1620 West Oakland Park Boulevard, Suite 300, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311.