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The FTC Seemingly Thumbs Its Nose at the Supreme Court

Despite the Supreme Court’s recent 6-3 ruling in West Virginia v. EPA that regulatory agencies must have “clear congressional authorization” to make rules pertaining to “major questions” that are of “great political significance” and would affect “a significant portion of the American economy,” and the import of that ruling to the area of noncompete regulation (which we addressed in detail in Law360), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced yesterday that they are teaming up to address certain issues affecting the labor market, including the regulation of noncompetes.

In a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) issued on July 19, 2022, the FTC and NRLB shared their shared view that:

continued and enhanced coordination and cooperation concerning issues of common regulatory interest will help to protect workers against unfair methods of competition, unfair or deceptive acts or practices, and unfair labor practices. Issues of common regulatory interest include labor market developments relating to the “gig economy” and other alternative work arrangements; claims and disclosures about earnings and costs associated with gig and other work; the imposition of one-sided and restrictive contract provisions, such as noncompete and nondisclosure provisions; the extent and impact of labor market concentration; the impact of algorithmic decision making on workers; the ability of workers to act collectively; and the classification and treatment of workers. (Emphasis added.)

Accordingly, the purpose of the MOU is “to facilitate (a) information sharing and cross-agency consultations on an ad hoc basis for official law enforcement purposes, in a manner consistent with and permitted by the laws and regulations that govern the [FTC and NLRB], (b) cross-agency training to educate each [agency] about the laws and regulations enforced by the other [agency], and (c) coordinated outreach and education as appropriate.”

This follows the Biden Administration’s July 9, 2021 Executive Order in which it “encourage[d]” the FTC to “consider” exercising its statutory rulemaking authority under the FTC Act “to curtail the unfair use of non-compete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” Nothing concrete has yet come of that Executive Order, although the MOU perhaps represents the next stage of the FTC’s “consider[ation]” of the issue. As we previously reported, FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan recently told the Wall Street Journal that regulating noncompetes “falls squarely in [the FTC’s] wheelhouse,” and she has never been shy about sharing her view that noncompetes should be banned nationwide and that the FTC has the authority to do so. This view does not appear to have changed despite the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA.

Only time will tell what, if any, action the FTC takes with respect to regulating noncompetes, but if it does take steps to ban or otherwise limit noncompetes nationwide under Section 5 of the FTC Act, there will no doubt be litigation challenging those regulations. And you can bet that the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA will be front and center in any such challenge. Indeed, according to Law360, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley said that the MOU shows Chairwoman Khan’s vision for the FTC “goes well beyond what is provided in law and what was envisioned by Congress.” Chairwoman Khan does not seem too perturbed by the prospect of challenges to the FTC’s authority in this regard, however, and seems intent on moving forward despite the Supreme Court’s admonition.

As always, we will report here on any future updates to state or federal law concerning trade secrets, noncompetes, and other restrictive covenants.