A new bill has been introduced to the New Jersey legislature that would invalidate any contract not to compete, not to disclose and/or not to solicit between employers and former employees if it is determined that the employee is eligible for unemployment benefits. The bill [A-3970] if passed, would not apply to any contract not to compete, not to disclose and/or not to solicit, that was in effect prior to when the bill is enacted.
The current law in New Jersey allows employers to enforce an agreement not to compete, not to disclose and/or not to solicit if the agreement protects a legitimate interest of the employer. Courts have held that, in certain circumstances, employers have a legitimate interest in protecting things such as trade secrets, confidential business information and customer relationships. In order to enforce a restrictive covenant, the terms of the not to compete, not to disclose and/or not to solicit clause must be reasonable, not impose an undue hardship on the employee and not be injurious to the public. Courts will not enforce agreements not to compete, not to disclose and/or not to solicit if the restriction is unreasonable. New Jersey courts have repeatedly held that employers do not have a legitimate interest in restricting competition. This is because New Jersey has a strong public policy affording individuals the right to pursue one’s profession and livelihood. When determining whether a restrictive covenant is enforceable, New Jersey courts will analyze the specific facts and circumstances of the employee’s former employment and new employment, along with the specific terms of the restrictive covenant.
If A-3970 becomes law, an employee would be relieved from any contractual obligation not to compete, not to disclose and/or not to solicit if they are found to be eligible for unemployment benefits. An employee is eligible for unemployment benefits if they become unemployed due to not fault of their own. Most disqualifications for unemployment benefits are because the employee either left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work or was involuntarily terminated for committing an act of misconduct. The three types of misconduct are gross misconduct, simple misconduct and severe misconduct. Gross misconduct is when an employee is terminated because they committed a crime of the first, second, third or fourth degree under the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice. Simple misconduct occurs when an employee is terminated because of improper, intentional, connected with one’s work, malicious and within the applicant’s control and is either a deliberate violation of his or her employer’s rules or a disregard to standards of behavior that the employer has the right to expect of the applicant. There currently is no statutory definition for severe misconduct, but there is a bill pending to correct this oversight by the legislature. The Appellate Division has interpreted severe misconduct to be a gap-filler between simple misconduct and gross misconduct.
The passing of this bill would undoubtedly be a huge victory for New Jersey employees. It would also become much more common for employers to challenge its former employees’ claims for unemployment benefits. All New Jersey employers, employees and employment attorneys will need to stay tuned to see if this bill becomes law.