By Chris Avcollie
In response to a recent Carey & Associates, P.C. survey of topics of interest in employment law, some of our readers asked: “Are non-competition agreements enforceable against independent contractors?” This is an excellent question. The short answer in Connecticut is: “Yes, but with some exceptions and special circumstances.”
What Is A Non-Competition Agreement?
Non-competition agreements are special contracts between employers and their workers which prohibit workers from engaging in business activities that compete with their former employers, usually for a fixed period of time following the end of an employment relationship and usually within a definite geographical area. These agreements, often called, “restrictive covenants” allow employers to prevent a former employee or contractor from earning a living in his or her business after the employment relationship ends.
Courts Generally Enforce Non-Competition Agreements
Courts in Connecticut will generally enforce non-competition agreements provided there is consideration provided for the promise not to compete and provided the restrictions are not unreasonable to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests. Facts which our courts consider in evaluating the “reasonableness” of an non-competition agreements include: (1) the duration of the restriction, (2) the scope of the geographic restriction, (3) the protection afforded to the employer, (4) the degree of restriction on the employee’s career opportunities, and (5) whether the restrictions are in the public’s interest. If even one factor fails the “reasonableness” test, the non-competition agreements could be held to be unenforceable.
In Connecticut, as in many states, there are no statutes or regulations that specifically address non-competition agreements outside of the medical profession. Whether a non-compete agreement is enforceable against an independent contractor is not specifically addressed under Connecticut law at this time. Our courts do not formally distinguish between non-competition agreements with employees as opposed to independent contractors. That being said, the five-factor analysis described above does vary when it is applied to the independent contractor relationship. When courts analyze the fourth factor, i.e., the effect the non-competition agreements has on the worker’s career opportunities, our courts must account for the fact that independent contractors are by definition expected to serve more than a single customer at one time. That is what makes them, “independent.” Notwithstanding this obvious basis to reject all non-competition agreements as applied to independent contractors, our courts will often find non-competition agreements enforceable. For example, non-competition agreements were upheld in circumstances where an independent contractor uses their position with the employer to gain information to set up a competing business for themselves.
Rationale For Non-Competition Agreements Are Faulty
The concepts underlying and justifying these restrictive covenants are faulty. One underlying notion that is misapplied to non-competition agreements is the “freedom of contract.” This legal fiction posits that individuals and firms are free to act in the marketplace in their own best interests and are therefore free to make any lawful agreements they see fit. Unfortunately for most workers this “freedom” is an illusion. The notion that workers who do not want to be bound by non-competition agreements can simply “choose” to work elsewhere is absurd. Jobs are difficult to find during the best of times. During a global pandemic amid skyrocketing unemployment, locating a good position can be overwhelmingly difficult. If one is restricted from using one’s business contacts, skills, and training to function in the market and the industry in which one has established a record of experience, the task of finding gainful employment becomes insurmountable. In the employment context the power and resources of the employer as opposed to the employee is generally so unbalanced that “freedom of contract” is a bad joke.
While non-competition agreements are becoming increasingly common, these restrictions on a person’s ability to work often cause extreme hardship on workers who must find continuous employment within their chosen industry in order to survive and to support their families. Why should an employer who has no legal obligation to employ its workers for any period of time get to dictate to a former employee where and how he or she can work? How can such an economically crippling restriction between parties of drastically unequal bargaining power be tolerated by courts of equity?
In a recent article, Attorney Mark Carey explores the profound injustice of restricting an employee’s right to work. (Covid-19 Cancels All Noncompete Agreements Due to Impossibility) During a pandemic where millions of American workers are unemployed, restricting anyone’s freedom to work is patently unconscionable. While our courts consistently uphold “reasonable” restrictions on competition, the Connecticut state legislature is at last beginning to address the problem directly.
In another recent article on this blog, Attorney Liz Swedock explains the provisions of a piece of proposed legislation currently under consideration by the Connecticut Legislature’s Labor and Public Employee Committee.(Connecticut “May Pass” a Partial Ban on Noncompetition Agreements). The new proposed legislation, SB 906, “An Act Concerning Non-Compete Agreements” would impose some reasonable limits on an employer’s ability to enforce a non-compete agreement. As it applies to independent contractors, SB 906 would prohibit non-competition agreements against contractors unless the contractor is being paid over five times the minimum wage or $60.00 per hour. While this proposed legislation is a step in the right direction in that it prevents non-competition agreements from victimizing the lowest-paid workers in the marketplace, it does not address the fundamental injustice of these agreements. The legislature’s special treatment of independent contractors under SB 906 indicates a recognition that employees and contractors are not in the same position with respect to these contracts.
Independent Contractors Serve More Than One Master
When it comes to independent contractors, the applicability of non-competition agreements becomes quite complex. While courts have recognized an employer’s interest in protecting its trade secrets and “good will” through non-competition agreements, independent contractors are by definition, not bound to a single employer, although in practice they sometimes are. The term “independent” refers to a contractor’s ability to provide goods and services to many businesses at once. Employees on the other hand are generally obligated to devote all of their productive time and energy to furthering the interests of their employer.
Employers Face Risks When Enforcing Non-Compete Against Independent Contractor
There are risks for employers who try to enforce non-competition agreements against independent contractors. When an employer imposes non-competition restrictions on an independent contractor, it runs the risk of changing the nature of its relationship with that worker. Where an employer exercises a high degree of control over the work of a contractor, that contractor could be considered a regular employee. Imposing a non-competition agreement could be construed as evidence of the very control that marks a traditional employment relationship.
Thus, employers sometimes seek to enforce non-competition agreements but are then counter-sued for employee benefits and wages based on the assertion of control under the non-competition agreement. Employers could incur liability for wages, administrative fines, or worker’s compensation benefits when an employee is “misclassified” as an independent contractor. This fact gives employers pause when enforcing non-competition agreements against their independent contractors.
Non-Competition Agreements Are Overreaching
In general, while courts in Connecticut will enforce non-competition agreements against independent contractors where they are held to be “reasonable”, it is difficult to justify the necessity of these restrictions. While employers often justify their restrictive covenants by asserting their right to protect confidential business information, this argument is irrelevant given the fact that all of an employer’s proprietary information is protected under trade secret and intellectual property protection statutes. Further, employers can and do include broad confidentiality and non-disclosure provisions into their employment agreements, which provide contractual protections from dissemination of vital company information. It is simply over-kill and over-reach to also seek to prevent competition from former workers whether they are employees or contractors.
The basic answer to the reader’s question about enforceability of non-competition agreements against independent contractors is that they are enforceable against independent contractors, but it is slightly more difficult and definitely riskier for employers to enforce such agreements against them. The larger answer is that all non-competes are inherently unjust, inequitable, and should be resisted by employees and contractors alike.