FLORIDA LAW ON NON-COMPETITION COVENANTS AND CHOICE OF LAW PROVISIONS

Florida law tends to favor enforcement of non-competition covenants.  Under Florida law, non-competition covenants are enforceable if they protect one or more legitimate business interests and if they are reasonable in time, area, and line of business.  In fact, Florida law explicitly forbids courts from considering “any individualized economic or other hardship that might be caused to the person against whom enforcement is sought” when determining whether a non-competition covenant is enforceable.  Fla. Stat. § 542.335(g)(1).

For those reasons, companies might wish to take advantage of Florida’s non-competition laws even when the non-competition contract will be enforced outside of Florida.  In those situations, companies will likely include a “choice of law” provision in their non-competition covenants.  Generally, a “choice of law” contractual provision allows the parties to decide which state’s laws should apply to the contract.

Consider the following example:  A Florida corporation conducts business in New York.  To protect its legitimate business interests, the Florida corporation enters into a non-competition contract with its New York employee.  However, New York’s laws do not favor non-competition covenants to the same extent that Florida’s laws do.  New York law requires courts to consider whether the non-competition contract would impose undue hardship on the employee, a consideration that is forbidden under Florida law.  To take advantage of the Florida law, the Florida corporation includes a “choice of law” provision in the non-competition contract stating that Florida law shall apply to the contract.  That is exactly what a Florida corporation did in Brown & Brown, Inc. v Johnson, 980 N.Y.S.2d 631, 637 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2014).  The New York appellate court, however, found that New York law, not Florida law, applied to the non-competition contract notwithstanding the contract’s “choice of law” provision.

Under New York law, a “choice of law” provision will be upheld if it bears a reasonable relationship to the parties or the transaction and if it is not “truly obnoxious” to New York’s public policy.  Considering New York’s public policy, the court in Brown & Brown, Inc. refused to uphold the “choice of law” provision and held that New York law will apply to the non-competition contract.  Specifically, the New York court found that “Florida law prohibiting courts from considering the hardship imposed on the person against whom enforcement is sought is ‘truly obnoxious’ to New York public policy.”  Brown & Brown, Inc., 980 N.Y.S.2d at 638.

New York was not the first state to find that Florida non-competition law was contrary to the respective state’s public policy.  In 2012, a Georgia appellate court found that “applying Florida law, the [the non-competition] covenants would almost certainly be upheld, despite the fact that they violate applicable Georgia law.”  Carson v. Obor Holding Co., LLC, 318 Ga. App. 645, 654 (Ga. Ct. App. 2012).  Consequently, the Georgia court held that the non-competition contract’s forum-selection clause selecting Florida as the forum state was unenforceable because Florida non-competition law was against Georgia public policy.

Likewise in 2008, an Illinois appellate court found that “Florida law, which specifically prohibits considering the hardship a restrictive covenant imposes upon an individual employee, is contrary to Illinois’s fundamental public policy.”  Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Mudron, 379 Ill. App. 3d 724, 728 (Ill. App. Ct. 3d Dist. 2008).  The Illinois appellate court therefore found that Illinois law applied to the non-competition contract despite the contract’s “choice of law” provision.  In 2001, a federal court in Alabama also refused to uphold a “choice of law” provision in a non-competition contract because it found that Florida non-competition law was “antithetical to Alabama’s general policy against covenants not to compete.”  Unisource Worldwide, Inc. v. S. Cent. Ala. Supply, LLC, 199 F. Supp. 2d 1194, 1201 (M.D. Ala. 2001).

As the above cases show, Florida companies seeking to enforce a non-competition covenant outside of Florida might not be able to take advantage of Florida’s non-competition laws even with a choice of law provision.  Because a choice of law provision cannot guaranty that Florida law will apply outside of Florida, proper drafting of the non-competition contract is key in those situations.

Peter T. Mavrick has successfully represented many businesses in trade secret and non-competition covenant litigation.  This article is not 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; Email: peter@mavricklaw.com.