In light of the continued merger activity within the state, including the blockbuster SunTrust/BB&T merger, we’ve seen a renewed focus on the enforceability of non-compete provisions – from banks looking to hire, from banks hoping to retain, and bank employees considering a change.
Apparently, we’re not alone. On May 1, 2019, the American Banker published a story titled “What ruling on non-compete clauses means for banks — and job hunters.” The article looks at the potential impact of the the Georgia Court of Appeals’s decision in Blair v. Pantera Enters., Inc. (2019 Ga. App. LEXIS 114). Among other things, the article posits that “if BB&T and SunTrust want to enforce non-compete agreements with all their loan officers and wealth management experts stationed in Georgia, some of those contract provisions might not pass legal muster, according to legal experts.” While the enforceability of non-compete agreements is always subject to legal uncertainty, with the specific facts at play and the trial judge potentially playing a significant role, we think this vastly overstates the impact of Blair v. Pantera, particularly in the bank context.
Blair v. Pantera involved the enforceability of a non-compete provision against a backhoe operator. The court found, correctly and consistently with the Georgia Restrictive Covenants Act (O.C.G.A. § 13-8-50 et seq.), that he was not an employee under the statute against whom a non-compete could be enforced. Under the Georgia Restrictive Covenants Act, non-competes may generally only be enforced against employees that: manage the business, regularly direct the work of two or more other employees, can hire or fire other employees, are regularly engaged in the solicitation of customers or with making sales or taking orders, or meet the definition of a “key employee” under the statute. Under the statute, an employee must fit in one of these categories to sign a valid non-compete. See O.C.G.A. § 13-8-53.
As it applies to banks, we would expect most, if not all, loan officers and wealth managers to be regularly engaged in the solicitation of customers, and thus within the category of employees of can sign a valid non-compete under Georgia law. The Blair v. Pantera decision doesn’t affect that analysis.
To be clear, the category of the employee is not the only aspect of Georgia law that would need to complied with to have an enforceable non-compete, and other state’s laws differ significantly. The team of lawyers at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is available to assist banks and bank executives as they address non-compete provisions in employment contracts.