It is not uncommon for an employer to request that new employees sign non-compete agreements. Although they serve numerous purposes, non-compete contracts generally guard against employees leaving their jobs to work for competitors, where they may potentially share inside information.
However, if you have been terminated from a job, or you have left willingly, you may have since accepted employment elsewhere, only to discover your former employer believes doing so represents you violating non-compete agreements. Should this occur, consult with an employment law attorney to determine what steps you must take next. In the meantime, the following guide will help you better understand your rights as they relate to non-compete agreements.
Violating Non-Compete Agreements and Your Employee Rights
Are Non-Competes Enforceable?
Often, people who have been accused of violating non-compete agreements wonder if the agreement will hold up in court after a termination.
There are certain instances when a former employer can win their case if they accuse a former employee of violating the terms of their non-compete agreement. That said, numerous factors affect precisely how enforceable a non-compete contract may be.
Under Florida law, the terms of a non-compete agreement must be reasonable with regard to time and geographical area, and protect a legitimate business interest of the employer as defined by Florida statute.. For example, perhaps you were working for an engineering firm as an engineer and lost your job due to termination. Should you seek employment as an engineer at another engineering firm in direct competition with your former employer, your non-compete agreement may restrict you from doing so for a reasonable period of time, within a reasonable defined geographical area.
It’s not uncommon for employees to restrict former employees from working for competitors for 2- years. If the restrictions in your non-compete agreement exceed this length of time, the court might find that they are unreasonably strict and need to be modified.
Geography is also an important factor to consider. In general, a non-compete agreement is only regarded as reasonable if it prevents former employees from accepting jobs with legitimate competitors. For example, perhaps you gained employment at a business similar to your previous job. However, your new employer does not conduct business in similar regions as your former employer. Should you be accused of violating your non-compete, the court may find your contract unreasonable.
The type of role you played at an organization will also contribute to the validity of an employee non-compete agreement. Again, the primary purpose of a non-compete contract is to ensure workers don’t share important information or trade secrets in a manner that would unfairly benefit the competition. The contract exists to protect a legitimate business interest. That said, low-level employees are unlikely to have access to this type of information or materials. A non-compete contract that doesn’t protect a legitimate business interest because it applies to a low-level employee is unlikely to be considered enforceable.
Keep these points in mind as you build your case. If a former employer accuses you of violating non-compete agreements, whether they terminated you or you left the company willingly, you need to demonstrate the contract isn’t reasonable. An employment law attorney with experience representing non-compete agreements can assist you with this process.
When Are Non-Compete Agreements Enforceable?
Again, it’s important to remember that there are times when Florida courts will enforce non-compete agreements. Therefore, you need to avoid certain behaviors and activities to ensure your case remains as strong as possible.
There are obvious examples of violations that would likely result in the agreement being deemed enforceable in court. For example, if you went to work for a direct competitor of your former employer, and you shared with them a customer list or similar sensitive information, that would certainly be an instance when the agreement might be enforced.
That said, there are also activities you can engage in that may constitute breaching a non-compete agreement, even if you don’t realize it. Consider the example of training. It’s not uncommon for various organizations to develop extremely specialized training methods and programs for their employees. These methods may involve teaching employees techniques they can apply to get a unique advantage over the competition. If you were to work for a competitor of your former employer and used the specialized training you were provided with at your previous job, it could be argued that you are sharing proprietary information. Even if you didn’t intend to, you could have genuinely violated the terms of your employee non-compete agreement.
It’s often a good idea to review your contract with an employment law attorney before taking on a job that you believe may represent a violation of the contract. They can help you better determine if the agreement is likely to be enforceable should you take on the position. If you have time to review your contract with an attorney before signing it, that’s even better.
Exceptions to Non-Compete Agreement Enforceability
Each non-compete agreement case is different. Again, various factors will impact the outcome of yours. That said, it is worth understanding certain exceptions that generally prevent non-compete agreements from being enforced in most cases.
For example, a court will not enforce a non-compete contract if doing so is not in the best interests of the public. For example, this might occur if a non-compete agreement restricted a doctor from taking on a new role in an area with relatively few doctors. Forcing them to seek employment in a different region would further deprive area residents of access to physicians.
Additionally, sometimes contracts are meant to protect “confidential” information that is readily available to the public, such as showing a new employer how to use a public database of potential clients/customers. If that database is publicly available, teaching a new employer to use it will typically not represent a violation of a non-compete agreement, even if you first learned to use the database from an old employer.
All that said, what’s most important when you’ve been accused of violating a non-compete agreement is simple: contact employment law attorneys. At Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A., we understand how to build the strongest case possible. We represent employees – not employers – and will work diligently to get the justice you deserve.