*Asked and Answered
Asked – An employee (“Employee”) of one of our vendor’s (“Vendor”) has left the company and is now employed by a competing firm (“Competitor”). We want to terminate our contract with Vendor and switch to Competitor so that we can continue to use Employee. Vendor’s contract has a non-compete clause stating that we cannot “directly or indirectly” hire any of Vendor’s employees for twelve (12) months after contract termination. Is such a provision enforceable?
Answered – Non-compete clauses are very common, especially in routine service vendor contracts (e.g., building maintenance, management companies, etc.). They are meant to prevent clients from leaving when the employee leaves; after all, the relationship is with the employee, not the employer. Fortunately, such non-compete clauses are generally unenforceable in California.
California law demonstrates a strong aversion to contract provisions that place a restraint on profession, trade, or business. Indeed, unless the covenant falls within one of the expressly defined exceptions, it is void and unenforceable. (See Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 16600 (“Except as provided in this chapter, every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.”).) The type of provision referenced in the question does not fall into one of the exceptions identified in the California Business and Professions Code.
Moreover, such a provision has been rendered void as an impermissible restraint on trade under California case law. For example, in VL Systems, Inc. v. Unisen, Inc., the Court held that a very broad no-hire provision of a contract between consulting company and client, under which client could not hire any of consulting company’s employees for twelve (12) months after the contract terminated, was unenforceable, in violation of the statute prohibiting restraints on engaging in a lawful, profession, trade, or business of any kind. (2007) 152 Cal. App. 4th 708. Like in VL Systems, Inc., the no-hire provision in the Vendor’s contract prevents the association from hiring any of Vendor’s employees for twelve months after the contract terminated. Thus, although not a true “covenant not to compete,” the “effect of the no-hire provision is to restrict the employment of [Vendor’s] employees; it is inconsequential whether the restriction is termed a ‘no-hire’ provision between [Vendor] and [the association] or a ‘covenant not to compete’ between [Vendor] and its employees.” (Id. at pp. 716-17.)
||Although the non-compete provision is invalid, it does not mean that Vendor will not bring a lawsuit against the association for breach of contract. Indeed, Vendor may very well bring a lawsuit against the association, which will necessarily result in the parties incurring legal expenses relative thereto. The association therefore must remain mindful of this fact and be prepared to defend itself should a lawsuit ensue.
-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Matthew T. Plaxton, Esq.