Ninth Circuit: Section 16600 Applies to Settlements

Section 16600 of the California Business and Professions Code prohibits contracts from restraining individuals “from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind.”  While the reach of Section 16600 is broad (recently reaching as far as the  Delaware Court of Chancery), it has traditionally been applied only to employment contracts or agreements that contain non-competition or non-compete clauses where the former employee is prevented from working with a competitor.

But what about a settlement agreement that prohibits employment with a former employer, i.e., an agreement that a former employee can only work for competitors?  Last week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed that very issue in Golden v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group, No. 12-16514, 2015 WL 1543049 (Apr. 8, 2015).

In that case, Donald Golden (“Golden”), an emergency room doctor, sued his former employer, California Emergency Physicians Medical Group (“CEP”), and others alleging various causes of action including racial discrimination.  In open court CEP agreed to pay a “substantial monetary amount” to Golden, and Golden agreed to withdraw his claims against CEP and “waive any and all rights to employment with CEP or at any facility that CEP may own” now and in the future.  (Notably, CEP is a consortium of more than 1,000 physicians and staffs and manages emergency rooms and inpatient centers throughout California.) 

Golden later refused to sign the settlement agreement.  The district court ultimately granted a motion by Golden’s former counsel to intervene and ordered that the settlement agreement be enforced. Golden appealed to the 9th Circuit on the single issue that the settlement agreement was void under Section 16600.

After addressing the issue of ripeness, the majority began by noting that the California Supreme Court had not ruled on whether Section 16600 applies outside of “typical so-called ‘non-compete covenants,’” and specifically “whether a contract can impermissibly restrain professional practice, within the meaning of the statute, if it does not prevent a former employee from seeking work with a competitor and if it does not penalize him should he do so.”

The majority found that the breadth of the statute meant that Section 16600 was not so limited and that the district court improperly determined that the settlement agreement need not comply with Section 16600.  As the court noted, Section 16600 prohibits “every contract” (not specifically excepted by another statute) that “restrain[s]” someone “from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business.”  Therefore, Section 16600 applies to all such restrictions “no matter [their] form or scope.”  The case was reversed and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Notably, former 9th Circuit chief justice Alex Kozinski filed  a dissenting opinion accusing the majority of ruling on the case despite the fact that, according to him, “the settlement agreement does not limit Dr. Golden’s ability to practice his profession at this time—except to the extent that he can’t work for CEP.”  In his opinion, the majority misconstrued Section 16600 and allowed it to preserve “an unfettered right to employment in all future circumstances, no matter how remote or contingent.”  Judge Kozinski would have dismissed the case for lack of standing until Golden had actually been fired or denied a position due to the settlement agreement. 

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