June 11th, 2014

Pennsylvania Employers Must Support Non-Compete Agreements with Adequate Consideration

Non-compete clauses in employment agreements have recently captured a headline in the New York Times and are trending on newsfeeds of search engines. As the economy continues on its path to recovery, the employment landscape has seen changes that include an increased presence of non-competition agreements in industries other than the sales, technology, medical, and corporate fields. In an effort to protect investment in employees and limit competition, restrictive covenants are now being used in service industry jobs, such camp counselors, yoga instructors, hairdressers, college interns, and the food industry. While this discussion in the media focuses on whether such provisions chill or spur the economy and competition, the focus in the courtroom is on enforcement actions and whether the covenants are valid.

Generally, the Courts of Pennsylvania disfavor restrictive covenants as they are viewed as a trade restraint that prevents a former employee from earning a living. Notwithstanding, Pennsylvania Courts enforce restrictive covenants between an employer and employee if it is supported by consideration and is reasonably limited in scope and duration.   When the employee signs a non-competition clause in anticipation of employment, Pennsylvania Courts have held that the consideration is the job itself. The same does not hold true in the context of post-employment non-competition clauses.

A post-employment non-competition clause is enforceable only if it is not supported by adequate consideration. In a May 13, 2014 decision, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania considered whether the inclusion of the language “to be legally bound” alone is sufficient consideration for the enforcement of a non-compete clause. Generally, under Pennsylvania common law and the Pennsylvania Uniform Written Obligation Act, such language in a contract would prevent the avoidance of an agreement for lack of consideration.   This, however, is not the case in the context of post-employment non-competition clauses. In its decision, the Court explained that the stated intent “to be legally bound” in the restrictive covenant did not constitute adequate consideration. Instead, the employee had to receive an additional benefit at the time the non-compete agreement was signed. The Court explained that this additional benefit had to be in the form of a raise, bonus or change in job status in order to assure the necessary consideration was given for the future validation and enforcement of a post-employment restrictive covenant.

As non-competition clauses continue to gain popularity for employers, and employers elect to take affirmative steps to enforce those provisions, it is important that companies review the non-competition clauses that they have in place or that they are asking employees to sign to ensure they have been supported by adequate consideration. If an employer cannot identify an actual benefit received by an existing employee who signed a post-employment non-competition agreement, then it is necessary to remedy the situation through the execution of a new non-competition clause. But this time with an additional benefit from the employer.

Attorney Loren Speziale counsels businesses in the areas of business and employment law as well as represents her business clients in litigation matters.

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