On April 23, 2024, by a vote of 3-2 along party lines, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted to approve a final rule effectively banning employers from using non-compete agreements, with a few limited exceptions. The measure reflects an unprecedented effort by the FTC to expand its rule-making authority. The final rule “shall supersede” all state laws, regulations, orders, and interpretations regarding non-competes, unless the state laws afford more protection to employees. Whether the rule will survive legal challenges remains unclear, but as the legal landscape concerning non-competes continues to shift, employers should cautiously review any non-compete clauses going forward and not make any major changes to their current practices just yet.

The rule is a sweeping ban on all new non-competes with workers of all levels. A non-compete clause is broadly defined by the FTC as “a term or condition of employment that prohibits a worker from, penalizes a worker for, or functions to prevent a worker from

1. seeking or accepting work in the United States with a different person where such work would begin after the conclusion of the employment that includes the term or condition; or

2. operating a business in the United States after the conclusion of the employment that includes the term or condition.”

The FTC stated that whether a prohibition constitutes a “non-compete clause” is a “fact-specific inquiry.” For example, a non-solicitation clause, if sufficiently broad, could fall under the FTC’s definition of a prohibited non-compete clause. The FTC did clarify, however, that a “garden leave” provision, where an employee receives the same total annual compensation while employed by the employer, is not considered a non-compete.

The application of this prohibition extends to all “workers,” which the FTC broadly defined as including employees, independent contractors, interns, and volunteers. The rule excluded from this prohibition non-competes between franchisors and franchisees, non-competes related to the sale of a business, as well as workers for non-profits, including many workers in the healthcare industry.

The FTC’s rule is scheduled to go into effect 120 after the rule is published in the Federal Register, so the rule is not yet effective. As written, the rule allows existing non-competes to remain in place only for senior executives; however, The FTC narrowly defined a “senior executive” as a worker in a “policy-making position” earning more than $151,164 annually. Those identified in “policy-making positions” include a company’s president, CEO, or a similarly situated individual. Other officers, such as vice presidents, must hold responsibilities that afford them the final authority to make policy decisions that control significant aspects of the business. The FTC excluded from this definition individuals who have the final authority to make decisions over subsidiaries of the business but not over the business as a whole.

Should the rule become final and effective, most notably, employers will be required to provide notice to non-senior executive workers with existing non-competes stating that the non-compete agreement will no longer be enforced. This notice must be provided to both current and former workers by the effective date of the final rule.

The FTC received over 26,000 public comments when it first proposed this rule in January of 2023. So, unsurprisingly, legal challenges immediately began following the FTC’s 3-2 vote in favor of the rule. Ryan LLC, a tax service firm, filed the first legal challenge to the FTC rule on the same day it was announced, arguing the FTC’s lacked the authority to enact the rule. The US Chamber of Commerce, a critic of the rule from its initial proposal, filed a lawsuit the following day in Federal District Court in Tyler, Texas, along with the Business Roundtable, and other trade groups.

Employers should adopt a wait-and-see approach until there is further clarity on the rule’s legal challenges. And even if the FTC’s rule survives legal challenge, the rule’s scope will inevitably be subject to litigation that tests the contours of the rule.