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FTC Bans Non-Compete Agreements Nationwide

6 min. read
Published: Apr 30, 2024
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Last Updated: April 30, 2024
  • The information provided on this blog is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or a substitute for consultation with a licensed attorney. For personalized guidance, please consult with our attorneys.

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has issued a final rule that establishes a nationwide prohibition on non-compete clauses on April 23, 2024. This action aims to promote a more competitive environment by ensuring that employees have the freedom to change jobs freely. The goal is to foster innovation and support the growth of new businesses. Organizations should review and update their employment policies to comply with this regulation.

Background and Legal Framework of Non-Compete Agreements

As a general rule, non-compete agreements have been designed to protect businesses by preventing former employees from joining competitors or opening similar businesses after leaving their employers. These agreements aimed to secure trade secrets and other sensitive business information. However, their application has broadened over time, often extending to lower-wage workers, where their justification is less clear.

The widespread implementation of non-compete clauses has sparked considerable legal and economic debate. Critics argue that these agreements limit worker mobility, suppress salary growth, and inhibit innovation by legally binding workers to their current employers, even when better opportunities arise. This has led to concerns about the broader impact on the economy, particularly the stifling of new business formation and reduction of market dynamism.

As scrutiny from policymakers, legal experts, and the public has grown, a noticeable shift has taken place towards limiting the scope of these agreements, as many advocate for regulations that balance the protection of business interests with the freedom of workers to pursue their careers.

State-Level Actions Prior to the Nationwide Ban

Before the FTC prohibited non-compete agreements nationwide, some states had taken varying approaches to regulating them, reflecting diverse economic priorities and legal views. State-level actions served as a precursor to federal intervention, with some states enacting strict restrictions or outright bans, and others maintaining more permissive policies.

California has been at the forefront of limiting non-compete agreements. As of January 1, 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that any employment non-compete clause or agreement that does not meet the statutory requirements is unenforceable. While the statute does not define “non-compete clauses” or “non-compete agreements,” California courts have defined them broadly to include customer non-solicitation clauses that are not related to trade secret protection and, on occasion, employee non-solicitation clauses.

Subsequently, in 2023, new provisions were introduced that explicitly stated that an employer could not include a non-compete clause in an employment agreement or compel an employee to enter into a non-compete agreement unless it satisfied one of the statutory exceptions. Consequently, this further restricted employers in California from imposing non-compete agreements on their employees.

Other states followed with varying degrees of restriction. For example, Illinois and Washington implemented bans on non-compete agreements for employees earning below a certain salary threshold, which acknowledges that such agreements disproportionately impact lower-wage workers who are less likely to possess confidential business information.

Massachusetts took a different approach by revising its non-compete laws in 2018 to limit the duration and geographical scope of non-compete agreements and to require employers to compensate employees during the non-compete period, termed as “garden leave” or a similar payment. Through this reform, a balance was sought between the protection of business interests and the rights of employees, thereby reducing the burden of non-compete agreements.

The variation in state responses demonstrated that there are many inconsistencies in the enforcement of non-competes across the country and that a standardized federal approach is necessary to address these inconsistencies. The FTC’s decision to ban non-compete agreements nationwide in 2024 was thus not only a response to the growing consensus about their negative impacts, but also an attempt to harmonize the legal framework across the United States, ensuring that workers in all states will receive fair and consistent treatment.

Immediate Actions for Employers

All organizations across all states must now review and revise their employment agreements in order to comply with the new FTC rule. Here are a few key steps:

  1. Identify all current employment agreements containing non-compete clauses. It is critical to understand the scope of the changes required and which contracts require immediate attention at this stage.
  2. Conduct a thorough assessment of non-compete clauses after identifying them in order to determine whether they are in compliance with the new FTC rule. Consider alternative forms of protection, such as non-disclosure agreements, which may provide similar protections without infringing upon the rights of employees or violating regulatory requirements.
  3. Once the assessment is complete and decisions have been made regarding contract modifications, ensure transparent and clear communication with employees. Providing them with a comprehensive explanation of the changes and how they impact their roles fosters trust and reduces potential misunderstandings. Ensure they understand that they are no longer obligated by the non-compete clauses in their contracts.
  4. Given the complexities of employment law and the potential legal implications of non-compliance, it is essential to engage experienced legal counsel. Their assistance can help adapt employment practices in accordance with the new federal regulations while also taking into account any state-specific nuances or requirements. The proactive approach minimizes the risk of legal challenges and facilitates a smooth transition to compliant employment agreements.

Key Exceptions to the Non-Compete Rules

It is also crucial for businesses and legal professionals to be aware of the exceptions outlined in the proposed FTC rule on non-compete agreements. Firstly, the rule continues to permit non-compete clauses for “senior executives,” who are instrumental in the strategic and operational decisions of a company. Secondly, in scenarios involving the bona fide sale of a business, non-compete agreements are still enforceable to protect the investment of the buyer, ensuring that the seller does not engage in competitive activities that could devalue the purchased business. Lastly, any legal proceedings or disputes regarding non-compete agreements that originated before the effective date of this new rule are not subject to the proposed restrictions and will be adjudicated according to the laws that were previously established. 

Conclusion 

In introducing a nationwide prohibition on non-compete agreements, an important change in employment law is marked by the FTC. This legal update is crucial for employers and employees alike, as the landscape of employment mobility and competitive practices is redefined. For businesses to remain competitive and compliant in this rapidly evolving market, alignment of their employment policies with this new legal framework is essential. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or require guidance on reviewing and updating your employment agreements.

Reference: Federal Trade Commission. “FTC Announces Rule Banning Noncompetes” April 23, 2024.

    Team Leader

    Gulbabil Kokver

    Oguz Law

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