Employment LawScene Alert: Employers Should Review Their Employee Non-Solicitation Agreements

On January 19, 2018, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision in The Manitowoc Company, Inc. v. Lanning affirming a 2016 Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruling that expanded the scope of  Wis. Stat. § 103.465, which governs the enforceability of restrictive covenants, to include employee non-solicitation, or anti-raiding, provisions. We previously posted a  blog about the Court of Appeals decision here.

John Lanning, a long-term employee of the Manitowoc Company, signed an agreement whereby he agreed, for a period of two years after the termination of his employment, not to solicit, induce, or encourage any employee of the Manitowoc Company to terminate his or her employment with the company or to accept employment with a competitor, supplier, or customer of the company. After he terminated his employment, he encouraged multiple employees of the Manitowoc Company to terminate their employment and join him at his new employer, which was a competitor of the Manitowoc Company.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court addressed two questions: 1) Whether employee non-solicitation agreements are “covenants not to compete” governed by Wis. Stat. § 103.465; and 2) if they are, was the provision contained in Lanning’s agreement enforceable.

In answering whether non-solicitation agreements are covenants not to compete, the Court acknowledged that the statute has been applied to agreements viewed as restraints on trade, which may take many forms, and opined that the focus of the inquiry about whether a provision is a covenant not to compete should focus on the effect of the restraint, rather than its label. Therefore, the Court found that, because the non-solicitation provision restricted Lanning’s ability to compete fully with the Manitowoc Company by prohibiting him from soliciting employees and competing in the labor market, it was a restriction on his ability to engage in ordinary competition and was governed by the statute.

The Court stated that the purpose of Wis. Stat. § 103.465 is to invalidate covenants that impose unreasonable restraints on employees. The Court found the employee non-solicitation unenforceable under Wis. Stat. § 103.465 because the non-solicitation provision was unnecessarily broad because it restricted Lanning’s ability to compete fully in the marketplace with the Manitowoc Company by prohibiting him from soliciting all employees wherever they might work in the world. Such a restriction does not allow for the ordinary sort of competition attendant in the free market and, as a result, was an unlawful restraint of trade.

In order to be enforceable under the statute, a covenant not to compete must 1) be necessary for the protection of the employer, 2) provide a reasonable time limit; 3) provide a reasonable territorial limit; 4) not be harsh or oppressive to the employee; and 5) not be contradictory to public policy. Because the Court found that the employee non-solicitation provision that Lanning had signed was not necessary for the protection of the employer, they only addressed that portion of the test. Because words are interpreted to have their plain meaning, the Court found that the words “any employee” contained in Lanning’s agreement prohibited him from soliciting every one of the Manitowoc Company’s 13,000 world-wide employees with no limits as to the nature of the employee’s position, Lanning’s personal familiarity with or influence over the particular employee, or the geographical location in which the employee worked. The company’s contention that it had a protectable interest in maintaining its entire workforce was rejected by the Court, which said that, ordinarily, the protectable interest would be limited to top-level employees, employees with special skills or knowledge important to the employer’s business, or employees with a set of skills that are difficult to replace. Because the employee non-solicitation provision was not limited in any way, the Court found that it was overbroad on its face and unenforceable.

Based on this decision, employers must carefully review their restrictive covenants, particularly employee non-solicitation provisions, to ensure that they are carefully drafted to be necessary to protect their interests and no broader than needed. The focus must be on protectable, identifiable interest of the company. An experienced management-side employment attorney can assist employers with drafting such provisions in order to meet the enforceability standards required by the Wisconsin restrictive covenant statute.

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