October 20, 2009
By Nancy N. Lubrano
The California Court of Appeal recently ruled in Dowell v. Biosense that noncompete and nonsolicitation agreements that prohibited departing employees from rendering services to any competing organization and from soliciting or assisting others in soliciting employers’ customers for 18 months after departure were void as a matter of law and unenforceable.
Biosense’s departing employees took subsequent positions that, in Biosense’s view, violated the noncompete and nonsolicitation agreements executed by the employees. After receiving cease and desist letters, plaintiffs, and their new employers, sought injunctive relief to enjoin Biosense from enforcing the noncompete and nonsolicitation agreements. Although plaintiffs were not entitled to injunctive relief because the 18-month period of restraint had expired, the Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the agreements were void as a matter of law.
California law protects the right of individuals to pursue any lawful employment of their choice. Thus, contracts that restrain individuals from engaging in a lawful profession are facially void unless one of three narrow exceptions apply all of which relate to the dissolution of a business entity. In Dowell, the Court of Appeal reasoned that none of the three exceptions applied to Biosense’s agreements.
California courts recognize the strong public policy in favor of open competition and employee mobility. Indeed, employee mobility is “paramount to the competitive business interests of employers.” Based on the broad language of Biosense’s agreements, the lower court properly found that Biosense sought to restrain the employees from practicing their chosen profession. The contractual provisions were not only void under section 16600 of the Business and Profession Code, but also ran afoul of California’s Unfair Competition Law. Biosense argued, to no avail, that its agreements were valid based on a so-called trade secret exception. The purported exception based on unsettled case law was unavailing because, the Court of Appeal reasoned, even if it does exist, Biosense’s agreements were not narrowly tailored or carefully limited to protect trade secrets. Rather, they were so broadly worded as to restrain competition. Such clear contractual restraint is undeniably void under California law.