3d Cir.: Enforceability of Non-Competes Where Employee Misclassified

The Third Circuit gave employers new reasons to worry about misclassifying their employees in its decision in Figueroa v. Precision Surgical, Inc., (PDF), C.A. No. 10-4449.  A former employee brought suit seeking to invalidate the non-competition provision in his independent-contractor agreement (“ICA”).  The plaintiff alleged that his former employer had materially breached the contract and, therefore, could not enforce it against him. approved-stamp

During the course of his 6-years with the organization, the plaintiff’s relationship became more like that of an independent contractor.  For example, the company required that the plaintiff: (1) devote 100% of his energy to selling the company’s products; (2) report to his supervisors daily and attend monthly meetings; (3) abide by a dress code; and (4) obtain permission from before giving quotes to certain prospective customers.

As the supervision and reporting requirements became more onerous, the plaintiff objected and, eventually, requested a new contract that clarified his status as an independent contractor.  The company refused and stated that it intended to convert all sales positions to employees, eliminating all independent contractor positions.  When he refused to make the conversion to employee status, his contract was terminated. 

The employee brought sought suit seeking declaratory relief invalidating the non-compete provision in the agreement. The company filed a counter-claim alleging breach of the non-compete agreement based on the plaintiff’s new contract position as a sales representative for a competitor.

The District Court denied the employer’s request for a preliminary injunction, finding that the employer had more likely than not breached its obligations under the independent-contractor agreement.  The Third Circuit affirmed, finding that the requirements to which the plaintiff had objected were not consistent with requirements for an independent contractor.  As a result, the court held, the employer breached the agreement by treating the plaintiff as an employee. 

Well-informed employers understand the significance of properly classifying employees for tax and benefits purposes. The Third Circuit’s recent opinion gives employers another reason to avoid misclassifying their employees: failure to properly classify workers as employees or independent contractors may impact their ability to enforce restrictive covenants and non-compete agreements.

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