Companies and employers around the country seek to protect their intellectual property by, among other things, using non-compete provisions in employment agreements. Generally, these provisions are intended to prevent an employee from soliciting or doing business with a former employer’s customer/clients over a set period of time and/or in regard to a set geographical area. Under California law, and specifically Business and Professions Code section 16600, such provisions are unenforceable unless they fall within one of the statutory exceptions, i.e., primarily in connection with the sale of a business interest. For years, although California state courts would refuse to enforce such provisions under section 16600, federal courts in California sometimes applied a narrow court-created exception and allow such provisions to be enforced provided that they were narrowly tailored as to time and geographical area. In 2008, the California Supreme Court unequivocally ruled that such provisions were unenforceable under section 16600 and rejected the “narrowly restricted” exception used by federal courts. (See Edwards v. Arthur Andersen, LP, 44 Cal.4th 937 (2008).)
In response to the Edwards decision, many California companies and employers began to omit such provisions from their new employment agreements or re-write them with specific language restricting an employee from using trade secret information to unfairly compete. However, other companies and employers left their old agreements untouched and in place thinking merely that they would not enforce them should the need arise. A recent court decision, Couch v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. (E.D. Cal. Aug. 7, 2015), reveals the risk an employer or company faces in failing to update their older employment agreements to remove or revise such provisions.