The current landscape regarding the enforcement of non-compete agreements is about to get flipped on its head in the United States. Following President Biden’s July 2021 executive order encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to employ its statutory rulemaking authority “to curtail the unfair use of non-compete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility,” on January 5, 2023, the FTC—in a profound exercise of its regulatory power—issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would have a sweeping effect on the enforcement of non-compete agreements.
The Proposed Rule
The new rule will not only bar employers from entering into non-compete agreements with their workers. It will additionally require employers to rescind pre-existing non-compete clauses no later than 180 days after the final rule is published. Additionally, employers will be required to provide notice to their employees that, as of the compliance date, any non-compete clauses are no longer in effect and may not be enforced against the worker.
To properly comply with the rule, an employer’s communication to its workers would need to be “individualized” and “on paper or in a digital format such as, for example, an email or text message.” Notice would need to be delivered within 45 days of rescinding the non-compete clause. The notice requirement would apply to current and former workers, to the extent that “the worker’s contact information [is] readily available.” The proposed rule includes a very limited exception which is applicable only to “a person who is selling a business entity or otherwise disposing of all of the person’s ownership interest in the business entity, or by a person who is selling all or substantially all of a business entity’s operating assets, when the person restricted by the non-compete clause is a substantial owner of, or substantial member or substantial partner in, the business entity at the time the person enters into the non-compete clause.”
Preemptive Effect on States’ Non-Compete Laws
Until now, the enforceability of non-competition clauses was a matter of state law, and states’ positions regarding the proper scope of noncompetition restrictions have varied. If implemented, however, this new rule will supersede all state laws, regulations, orders, or interpretations to the extent that they are inconsistent with the FTC’s rule. It’s worth noting that only California, North Dakota, and Oklahoma outright ban the enforcement of non-compete agreements—so the FTC’s rule would effectively create a nationwide policy that goes further than state law in the remaining 47 states.
New Non-Compete Rule Certain to Face Legal Challenges
The tremendous significance of this new rule cannot be overlooked. Most U.S. companies will be forced to completely change how they operate in retaining talent and safeguarding company secrets. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the rule, if adopted in its current form, will face prompt legal challenges.
In publishing the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking—which is the first step in the FTC’s rulemaking process—FTC Commissioners voted 3-1, along partisan lines, with Commissioner Christine Wilson being the lone dissenter. In her dissenting statement, Commissioner Wilson notes that the proposed rule “…represents a radical departure from hundreds of years of legal precedent that employs a fact-specific inquiry into whether a non-compete clause is unreasonable in duration and scope, given the business justification for the restriction.” She further expects that the “…Commission’s competition rulemaking authority itself certainly will be challenged,” including under the “major questions doctrine” addressed in West Virginia v. EPA, as the “Commission lacks clear Congressional authorization to undertake this initiative.”
The public will have 60 days to submit comments on the proposed rule, which was based on a preliminary finding that non-compete clauses constitute an unfair method of competition and, therefore, a violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. The FTC noted that it is specifically seeking comments on:
- Whether franchisees should be covered by the rule;
- Whether senior executives should be exempted from the rule or subject to a rebuttable presumption rather than a ban; and
- Whether low- and high-wage workers should be treated differently under the rule.
The comment period closes after March 10, 2023. The rule would subsequently take effect 180 days after the final version is published, but its imposition could be delayed as it is almost certain to face a significant wave of litigation challenging the constitutionality of the rule.
Although the rulemaking process is still in the early stages, this is the strongest indication of legislative and executive intent to void existing non-compete agreements and ban the use of such agreements going forward. As the tides drastically change for American businesses, employers should be proactive before this comment period is over and speak to an attorney regarding how their policies on non-compete agreements will be affected going forward. RDM’s Employment and Labor Law Team is ready to help you understand your options and ensure compliance with potential new regulations. Contact RDM today.
Further Reading on the FTC’s Non-Compete Rule
Dillion Williams previously provided an overview of restrictive covenants, including non-compete and non-solicitation agreements, in “The Shifting Landscape of Non-Compete and Non-Solicitation Agreements.” The article appeared in the January 2023 issue of DRI’s The Brief Case and was co-authored by Kennard Davis, associate attorney at Baker Donelson’s New Orleans office. Dillon and Kennard serve together on DRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.