Continued Employment is Ruled Valid Consideration for Non-Competes in Wisconsin
On April 30, 2015, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin issued its long-awaited decision in Runzheimer International Ltd. v. Friedlen, in which it came to the conclusion that the promise of continued at-will employment is valid consideration for a restrictive covenant.
In Runzheimer, the employee had worked for his employer for fifteen years when the employer required all employees to sign restrictive covenants or be terminated. The employee signed the restrictive covenant, but after he was terminated more than two years later, he went to work for a competitor in breach of that agreement, and the employer sued. The employee then claimed that the agreement was invalid because it lacked consideration.
In Wisconsin, forbearance in exercising a legal right is valid consideration. The Court reasoned that, because Wisconsin is an employment at-will state, companies have a legal right to terminate employees at any time for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all, as long as it does not violate existing law or public policy. Therefore, giving up the legal right to terminate an employee at that moment in exchange for the employee signing a covenant not to compete is valid consideration.
The court emphasized that its holding in Runzheimer is consistent with its 1994 holding in NBZ, Inc. v. Pilarski where the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the promise of continued employment did not provide sufficient consideration to support a restrictive covenant entered into by an existing employee. The Wisconsin Supreme Court distinguished its holding in NBZ by finding that, in that case, the employee’s employment had not been conditioned upon her signature and the employer did not promise to do anything else in exchange. Without these elements, there can be no consideration to support enforcement of the agreement under Wisconsin law.
Therefore, under the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s holding in Runzheimer, in order for continued at-will employment to be valid consideration for a restrictive covenant agreement, employers must condition the employee’s continued employment upon the employee actually signing the agreement. In order to maintain that position in any action that might challenge the issue of consideration, an employer must actually terminate any employee who refuses to sign the restrictive covenant for it to validly assert that continued employment was conditioned upon the employee’s signature to the agreement.
Wisconsin has now joined the majority of jurisdictions, which hold that a promise to continue an at-will employee’s employment is lawful consideration for a restrictive covenant. The Runzheimer decision now permits Wisconsin employers to require their existing employees to sign new or modified restrictive covenant agreements without promising employees anything more than continued at-will employment.