If you have ever signed an employment agreement, or asked your employees to sign one, it probably had a covenant not to compete with the employer if the employee leaves the business. These clauses are usually called “non-competes.” They typically limit the time and the geographic area within which the former employee can perform the same kind of work and/or work in the same industry. But how enforceable are they? A recent Iowa Court of Appeals decision, Cedar Valley Medical Specialists, PC v. James Wright, M.D., shows both how these clauses are used and what the courts think of them.
Wright, a cardiothoracic surgeon, entered into an employment contract with Cedar Valley Medical Specialists, PC, in Black Hawk County, Iowa. In the contract, Wright agreed that if he left the employment he would not practice medicine within 35 miles of Black Hawk County for a period of two years after leaving. He also agreed that if he did not comply with the restrictions, he would pay as liquidated damages the greater of $100,000 or his last 6 months’ salary with the group.
Wright retired from the medical group and went to work for a local hospital the next day. The medical group sued to enforce the agreement and won in the district court. Wright appealed, and the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled on his case on October 9, 2019.
The court began its analysis by stating the Iowa law on restrictive covenants, saying:
Because restrictive covenants involve the partial restraint of trade, we construe them against the party seeking enforcement and approve them with some reluctance. We apply a three-pronged test to determine whether an employment contract with a restrictive covenant is enforceable: (1) Is the restriction reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer’s business; (2) is it unreasonably restrictive of the employee’s rights; and (3) is it prejudicial to the public interest?
– Cedar Valley Medical Specialists, PC v. James Wright, M.D.
As you can see, the courts do not automatically enforce these contractual provisions, but rather engage in a balancing of interests among the employer, the employee, and the public good. Moreover, the burden is on the employer to prove it is entitled to enforce the covenant.
As to the first prong, the court found the covenant was reasonably necessary to protect the employer. The market for Wright’s specialty was limited; Wright had confidential information about the medical group’s operations; and the group had supported, promoted, and invested heavily in Wright. When he left, the group lost the revenue he would have brought in.
The court next found that the restrictions were reasonable as to time and geographic area.
Wright argued that the public interest favored striking the clause. If he, the only cardiothoracic surgeon within 50 miles, was prohibited from practicing his specialty, there would be none. Lives hung in the balance. The court rejected this argument, noting that there were only three or four emergency cases annually and there were other providers close enough by. Besides, the former employer was not seeking an injunction (that is, it was not trying to prohibit Wright from practicing medicine); it was asking to enforce the liquidated damages provision to make up the losses it suffered when Wright went to work for a competitor.
The second part of the analysis of this non-compete clause was the reasonableness of the liquidated damages provision. Liquidated damages are damages agreed to when a contract is made that will be paid if a party breaches the contract. They are enforceable if: 1) they were a reasonable estimate, at the time the contract was entered into, of the damages that will be suffered if the contract is breached; and 2) the amount of actual damage is difficult to determine. Given the investment the former employer made in Wright and the lost revenue it would likely suffer if Wright were to compete with them, the court found the clause to be reasonable and enforceable.
If you need assistance with an enforceable non-compete for your employees, feel free to contact us for assistance.