Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Noncompete Answers - Company Lost The Customer Contract; Employer Owes Me Wages

On the ever-popular topic of non-competition agreements, I continue to get tons of questions. I'm answering some more today.

Is My Noncompete Agreement Enforceable If My Employer Owes Me Wages?

Q: My former employer wrote such an ambiguous non-compete that it virtually eliminates any chance of me finding any employment in my field. Plus they owe me $9500 and say they won't pay unless I provide them with proof I'm not competing.

They made exceptions to the non-compete during my employment and now say that I'm violating the agreement by continuing to do the exceptions that they allowed.

They are in Illinois - I am in Florida. 

Mr. High School

Hi Mr. High School. You raise several interesting issues, so I'll touch on all of them quickly. The one that I hear most often is whether a noncompete agreement is enforceable if your employer owes you wages. The answer is a whopping, clear-as-mud, maybe. If your noncompete agreement is part of an employment agreement that sets out your wage rate and other terms and conditions of employment, then the failure to pay those wages is a breach of the agreement. If they breached before you started working for a competitor, then the breach should eliminate your obligations. However, this may vary from state to state (and judge to judge) so I can't predict how a judge in the state where it ends up in court would see it.

If the noncompete agreement is separate and doesn't include any promises about wages, then the issue is less clear. I'd still argue that the failure to pay the wages owed negates your obligations, but the question would really depend on the specific facts and contract language. I'd suggest talking to an employment lawyer in your state about this to be sure.

If they've made exceptions to the noncompete and allowed you (or coworkers) to compete in specific circumstances or with specific companies, it will be really tough for them to argue that they have a legitimate interest to protect in enforcing the restrictions against you alone (or you now, when you've previously been allowed).

You also mention that they're in a different state than you. If the agreement says which state's law applies, then that's probably which state law you'll be dealing with. If the agreement is silent on which state's law applies, it's probably the state where you executed the agreement. Frankly, Florida law is so horrid on noncompetes that you're probably better off if you can apply Illinois law (but I'll defer to any Illinois lawyers out there who disagree.)

My Company Lost It's Contract - Can I Stay?

I got two questions on this topic. Here they are:

Hi I signed a contract with a company that states I cannot work for myself, or any other company in my line of profession for 1 yr.. My contract is up in may and my boss has moved to South America. Since being over there he has messed my wages up and hardly replies to my emails. The customers are not contracted with this company and I would like to take them on myself. If my company has gone elsewhere and I took over the duties for the customers they left behind, where do I stand?

Lee B.
Hi Lee. I answered the issue about the unpaid wages above. I'll answer your question about your company moving after the question below.

Sounds like this is more of a hot topic than I knew. I am a victim also--I started working for company x in March 2004. A while after I started, the manager's position came open and they offered it to me. I am pretty sure it was at this time they made me sign a non-compete. (I am contract labor). The company that owned the building I was working in then was purchased by another company. In 2008 this building closed down and I transferred to another building. About 6 months later I was again asked to sign a non-compete. Now the company "x" that I work has lost their contract in the building so I am being told because of the non-compete I cannot stay and do the same type of work for the new company.
I applied and was going to be hired by the company that owns the building for a totally different type of job, but they are now saying they have a "policy" that states I cannot work for them for 12 mos. then have to reapply, when I was originally told by my supervisor that I could do any other job in the building other than the services they provide. Now that has changed. So, now am waiting for an answer from the new company as to whether or not they can get me out of the non compete--which is slim to nothing chance. If not I will be looking for a new job and am restricted can't do the three jobs listed above, OR work in any of the buildings owned by current building I'm in.
I live in a rural area where there are virtually NO JOBS so I may be in the unemployment line because of this stupid non compete! I will never sign one again. 

Tired of This
Hi Tired of This. I'm tired of ridiculous noncompete restrictions too, which is why I enjoy fighting them when I can. To answer Lee and you, if your company has either abandoned a geographic area of business or lost the customer through someone's fault other than yours, such as through competitive bidding, then I think it will be really tough for them to prove there is any legitimate interest to protect in enforcing a noncompete agreement against you.

Remember, agreements that are for the sole purpose of preventing competition are illegal. They violate antitrust laws. Noncompete laws are an exception to antitrust laws. Your employer must show a legitimate interest to protect. Legitimate interests might be things like trade secrets, confidential information that's truly confidential and not available from public sources, and customer goodwill. If they can't show a legitimate interest other than preventing competition (or spite) then they should lose in court.

The problem is, most employees don't have the resources to fight if they're sued, and most new employers will just fire you if they get a nastygram from your former employer because they don't want to be in the middle of a lawsuit. I'm hoping that the Department of Justice and some state Attorney's General will start stepping up for the common man and enforcing antitrust laws against bullying employers.

In the meantime, you should contact an employment lawyer in your state about your rights.

If you have a question on noncompete agreements, discrimination, whistleblowing, employment contracts or any other employment law issue, and don't mind having me answer it publicly, feel free to ask it in the comments section. If you ask me here, you're asking for general information and not for legal advice. The question and answer will be public and will not be covered by attorney-client privilege, nor will it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice or have an urgent legal issue that needs to be dealt with, contact an employment lawyer in your state.

1 comment:

  1. Hi I work at a condo community as a concierge the management company I was hired by sub contracted my department out to a security company so now we're concierge /security. Ok the management company and the security company lost it's contract I signed a no compete with the security company the Condo Association want to keep me I don't have a security license which is ILLEGAL to hire a security officer without a license what's your advice for me I live in Florida


I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.