Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission proposed a sweeping new rule that would ban employers from including non-compete terms in employment agreements with virtually all of their workers – from janitors to senior executives. Describing such agreements as an “exploitative practice that suppresses wages, hampers innovation, and blocks entrepreneurs from starting new businesses,” the FTC’s rule deems non-compete agreements to be an “unfair method of competition” under Section 5 of the FTC Act, without regard for any business justifications or reasonableness. Potential rulemaking against non-compete clauses has been percolating for some time and has support from the White House, but the breadth of the proposed rule is nonetheless surprising.
The FTC’s push for this rule under its Section 5 authority surely will spark legal—including constitutional—challenges that could delay implementation of any final rule for months, if not years. Companies need not immediately start rescinding or avoiding reasonably tailored non-compete agreements with employees, but should take note that the FTC is not likely to sit on the sidelines and wait for a final rule to come into effect before taking further action against some employers based on the scope of their non-compete agreements. The proposed rulemaking and the FTC’s recent enforcement actions targeting specific companies’ use of non-compete provisions as violations of Section 5 reflect the FTC’s and DOJ’s aggressive approach to antitrust enforcement in the labor markets – including the FTC’s desire to bring enforcement actions in this area even before any final rule goes into effect.