By Kate S. Gold
The Issue: You are a California employer with out-of-state headquarters, and your executive works and lives in California. Your employment agreement has a one-year post-termination non-compete. Can you enforce it?
The Solution: In general, no, but the answer may depend on whether you have a valid forum selection and choice of law clause that provides for resolution in a state that permits reasonable post-termination non-competes.
Analysis: In general, California employers cannot enforce post-termination non-competes and a party cannot circumvent California restrictions on non-competition with a choice of law provision designating a more non-compete friendly jurisdiction. However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Atlantic Marine Construction Co., Inc. v. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, 134 S. Ct. 568, 571 U.S. ___ (Dec. 3, 2013) held that contractual forum selection clauses should be enforced in all but the most exceptional cases, and therefore may be helpful to employers who seek to enforce non-competes against employees who work or live in states, like California, that disfavor restrictive covenants.
Indeed, some recent California federal district court cases have focused on whether the employment agreement has an out-of-state forum selection and choice of law clause. In Meras Engineering, Inc. v CH20, Inc., the Washington-based employer was permitted to enforce its Washington forum selection and choice of law clauses against its California sales associates who left for a California competitor. The Washington court concluded it was proper to apply Washington law as provided by the employment agreements. The California court dismissed the California employees’ lawsuit in favor of the Washington forum selection clause.
Similarly, in two other recent California district court cases, Plaintiffs were former California employees who signed employment agreements with restrictive covenants and Pennsylvania forum selection clauses. In both cases, the employees argued the cases should not be transferred because the more restrictive covenant friendly Pennsylvania courts would enforce the non-compete, which contravenes a strong California public policy. Both California courts however, focused on the reasonableness of the forum selection clause, rather than on the clauses’ effect. Both found that the possibility a Pennsylvania court might apply Pennsylvania law to the non-compete clause was not a sufficient basis to invalidate the forum selection clause.
In light of these recent cases, California employers should consider whether they have a reasonable and enforceable basis for selecting an alternative forum and choice of law for their executive agreements, and, in consultation with counsel, draft carefully tailored restrictive covenants that comply with that state’s law.