The Implied Negative Covenant: Can a Fixed-Term Employment Contract Substitute for a Non-Compete Agreement?

by Burr & Forman
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Fans of professional football may recall the predicament faced by former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer at the beginning of the 2011 season.  Prior to the season, Palmer had announced that he no longer wished to play for the Bengals.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Bengals took him at his word, and Palmer did not play for the Bengals in 2011.  However, what seemed to be more surprising is that the Bengals did not rush to trade Palmer to another team.  Rather, for the first half of the 2011 season, Palmer played for no team — as reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer on July 27, 2011, Bengals president Mike Brown explained:  “Carson signed a contract, he made a commitment.  He gave us his word and we relied on his word and his commitment. . . .  If he is going to walk away from his commitment, we aren’t going to reward him for doing it.”  It was not until October of 2011 that the Bengals finally released Palmer from his contract and traded him to the Oakland Raiders.

An analysis of Carson Palmer’s predicament has implications beyond the world of professional football.  Although few employers have employment contracts as detailed as those used in professional sports, other employers may view a key employee’s departure the same way that Bengals president, Mike Brown, viewed Carson Palmer’s announcement.  Employers may ask the following question:  When a key employee leaves without notice, and there is no formal “non-compete agreement” in writing, is the employer completely without hope in preventing the departing employee from working for someone else?  Before answering this question, it is important to look at all agreements between the employer and the departing employee, and not just specific “non-compete agreements.”  One agreement that could impact such a scenario is a fixed-term employment contract.

The default rule in employment law in the United States is “employment at will.”  Under the common law as applied in most states, the default rule is that the employment relationship is “at will” and that either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason (or for no reason at all).  Of course, a number of state and federal statutes and court decisions have created exceptions to this “default rule,” exceptions that limit an employer’s ability to act. For example, although an employer can terminate an employee’s employment “for any reason,” the employer cannot terminate employment based on reasons that have been declared illegal by statute (e.g., under the federal Title VII statute, an employer may not terminate employment because of an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin).  Similarly, although an employer can terminate an employee’s employment “at any time,” statutes may require some notice before certain terminations (e.g., the federal WARN Act requires 60 days’ notice before employees can be terminated as a consequence of a “plant closing” or “mass layoff,” as defined in the statute).

Perhaps the biggest exception to “employment at will” is when the parties of an employment relationship choose to contract for something else.  For example, in the collective bargaining context, most unions will bargain for provisions in the collective bargaining agreement requiring “just cause” for any terminations, and collective bargaining agreements may go into great specificity about what constitutes “just cause” and provide that disputes over terminations be resolved through grievance procedures, including arbitration.  Similarly, highly sought-after and specialized individual employees (e.g., executives, scientific researchers, physicians, entertainment personalities, and, yes, professional athletes) may have sufficient “clout” to insist on a written employment contract from their employer, so as to guarantee employment (and income) for a fixed term and require specific notice before the contract (and thus the employment relationship) can be terminated.

What may be less appreciated, however, is that such individually-negotiated “fixed-term” employment contracts can be a “two-way street.”  Depending on how it is written, a contract providing for a two-year term of employment (subject, perhaps, to “automatic” renewal provisions) and requiring four months’ notice before the contract can be terminated might be capable of being applied to both to the employer and the employee.  A provision requiring four months’ notice of any termination of the contract may provide protection not just to the employee (i.e., the four months’ notice provision ensures that the employee will have four months to look for other employment before her paychecks stop coming) but also to the employer (i.e., the employer will have four months to find a replacement if the employee chooses to leave).

The trickier question is what the remedy should be when an employee leaves employment without providing the notice required under a fixed-term employment contract.  Courts will not grant “specific performance” of an employment contract, insofar as there can be no “involuntary servitude” (i.e., an employee cannot be compelled to work against their will).  However, some courts have entertained the possibility of “negative specific performance.”  Although the court cannot compel an employee to work for “Employer A” against their will, the court may be able to enjoin (prohibit) the employee from working for any other employer during the specific time period that the employee had committed to work only for “Employer A.”  In cases involving entertainment personalities and professional athletes, for instance, courts have considered granting such “negative specific performance” where the employer shows that (i) there is a fixed-term employment contract, (ii) the employee left employment before the term was up, and (iii) the employee’s services are unique or extraordinary.  Courts have called this the “equivalent of a covenant not to compete.”

For employers, does this mean that fixed-term employment contracts are a perfect substitute for covenants not to compete?  Probably not; it should be kept in mind that courts prefer to award money damages and are often not inclined to issue injunctions depriving a departing employee of their ability to earn a living unless it is clear that this is what the parties bargained for.  Thus, employers who want to make sure that key employees cannot leave and work for competitors are better off specifying this when they negotiate contracts with the individual employees.  On the other hand, both employers and employees should keep in mind that a fixed-term employment contract can “cut both ways” and can be used to provide protections not just to the employee but to the employer as well.

If you are an employer and want more information on or wish to discuss non-compete agreements or fixed-term employment contracts, please contact any of the Burr & Forman’s Non-Compete & Trade Secrets team members and we will be happy to assist you.

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