This is one of those gray legal areas where the answer is “it depends on the facts of the situation.” Previously, I wrote about the basics of non-compete and non-solicitation agreements that are becoming increasingly common in all industries. At their core, non-compete agreements restrain the free labor market, and are therefore analyzed under the Michigan Anti-Trust Reform Act (“MARA”) (MCL 445.774a), which sets out a four-factor “reasonableness” test for the agreement. To be enforceable, the non-compete must: (1) Protect a reasonable competitive business interest; (2) Be reasonable in terms of duration; (3) Be reasonable in terms of geographical area; and (4) Be reasonable in terms of the the type of employment or business affected. Although the four-factor test in MARA expressly refers to “employer” and “employee,” lawyers and businesses frequently cited the same test when evaluating non-competes in other relationships, such as between two sophisticated business entities or an independent contractor.
In a 2017 opinion, Innovation Ventures v. Liquid Manufacturing, the Michigan Supreme Court clarified that the MARA test only applies to employment relationships. A different test applies to commercial agreements between sophisticated business entities. The case involved the manufacturer of 5-Hour Energy, and the Court looked at the plain language used by the Legislature to determine that the test does not apply to agreements between businesses. The Court further explained that MARA does not set forth a test for commercial agreements, but instead instructs courts to look to federal anti-trust law for similar legal analysis. The applicable test is the so-called “rule of reason,” which can be summarized as whether, under all relevant facts, the covenant unreasonably restrains competition. While the test may seem similar to the MARA four-factor analysis, it is different because it focuses on the reasonableness of the effect on the free market, rather than the impact on the restrained party.
What about independent contractors? Can a hiring party insist on a non-compete as part of the independent contractor agreement? And if so, what are the parameters for a valid non-compete for an independent contractor? First, parties are generally free to contract for anything, and so an independent contractor may certainly agree to a non-compete clause as part of their contract. Second, the non-compete will be evaluated under the same “rule of reason” as an agreement between two sophisticated commercial entities. This is because an independent contractor is not an employee – thus MARA’s four-factor test does not apply. Where MARA does not apply, the Legislature instructs courts to look at federal anti-trust law. Thus, the outcome is the same as with commercial contracts under Innovation Ventures. That means the rule of reason applies and the court will look at the effect of the restraint on the relevant market.
In applying federal anti-trust law, there is also a concept called a “per se” anti-trust violation. A “per se” violation is conduct that violates Section 1 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by its very nature and does not require proofs of the actual anti-competitive effect or the relevant market. Simply put, a “per se” anti-trust violation is one where there is no redeeming competition-facilitating effect. A classic example in the employment arena is the low-wage hourly worker non-compete. A restraint on an $11-per-hour janitor precluding him or her to work for a competitor serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever and is clearly abusive. A court will not enforce such a “per-se” violation. The independent contractor analysis would be similar – if there is no legitimate pro-competitive justification for the non-compete, it may not be enforceable.
One final word of warning. If you are a business considering or using non-compete clauses in your independent contractor agreements, some courts consider such clauses indicative of an employment relationship. If an individual or government agency (like the worker’s compensation agency) challenges your classification, a non-compete clause is evidence of control that weighs in favor of finding someone is an employee. And, if someone is misclassified as an independent contractor, there are a myriad of penalties, fines, and other problems that you may face.
Non-compete and non-solicitation clauses and contracts are becoming more and more standard. However, it is a mistake to blindly use them for all your employees or independent contractors. Each situation warrants its own analysis. Otherwise, your business risks not only losing non-compete litigation, but also risks other unintended adverse effects, such as a finding of an employment relationship where one was not intended.
Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal advice. Every situation is different and faces its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Artaev at Law PLLC. All rights reserved.