Do You Need A Contract To Stop A Former Employee From Competing?

The short answer is yes, a business does need a contract, also known as a "non-compete agreement," to prevent a former employee from fairly competing in business once the employee resigns.  Even with a written agreement, there are limitations on non-compete agreements because they are viewed as a restraint of trade.  To be enforceable, the restrictions in the agreement must be reasonable in time, scope, and geography. The restrictions also must be reasonable in relation to legitimate business interests you are seeking to protect.   

A poorly drafted agreement, or no agreement at all, can leave a business with little legal recourse to stop a former employee from fair competition once the employee resigns.  Simply put, the law in Connecticut permits fair competition upon resignation.  However, the lack of a written agreement does not give free license to employees to unfairly compete in all circumstances. 

For example, what about an employee that starts competing against your business without your knowledge while continuing to work for you?  Is this fair competition that should be freely permitted?  Depending on the circumstances, this type of conduct can be actionable in a civil case for damages.  The actionable conduct is breach of the employee’s common law duty of loyalty, which exists without a written agreement in certain circumstances.  There are also statutes in Connecticut that can protect businesses in certain situations that do not require contracts such as unauthorized computer access or misappropriation of trade secrets.   

I just read a story about a recent case that demonstrated some of the legal issues involved when there are no contracts in place with former employees.  According to the small business report by Carlye Adler of CNN, Charter Oak Lending, located in in Danbury Connecticut, lost a trial against several former employees who allegedly left to work for a larger company, CTX Mortgage.  Charter Oak alleged it lost more than a third of its business and a million dollars in fees after a sudden departure of 10 employees to CTX. The litigation lasted four years and ended with a defense verdict for the former employees. Charter Oak is appealing the decision. 

It appears that the decision against Charter Oak was based in part on the lack of contracts and the categorization of the defendants as independent contractors rather than employees.   The Trade Secrets Blog by Womble Carlyle picked up the story and had an interesting take focused on pure versus unfair competition.  The blog post supports the legal concept that a line can be crossed turning pure competition into unfair business. 

Charter Oak’s appeal of this case will be interesting to follow.  The outcome will likely depend on what evidence existed at trial to demonstrate unfair competition prior to the employees’ departure along with consideration of the duty of loyalty.  The takeaway is that it is always better to have written agreements to protect your business’ customers, client lists, and confidential information.  However, the lack of such an agreement will not always give free license to former employees to unfairly compete in all circumstances.   A close examination of the facts of each case must be undertaken to consider common law and statutory remedies that do not necessarily require agreements.