Employee Non-Competition and Non-Solicitation Covenants: Where are we at?

The departure of an employee from a business can result in harm to the business when that former employee begins to either compete and/or approach the customers and contacts of the business with an eye to securing the business relationships for themselves.

Many employers have developed contracts which contain post employment covenants on the part of the employee, whereby the employer attempts to secure the employees agreement to refrain from competing against and/or soliciting the employer’s customers for a period of time post-departure.

The Canadian courts have repeatedly held that restrictive covenants in the nature of non-competition are considered a restraint of trade and accordingly are contrary to public policy and generally not enforceable.

However, there are some circumstances in which these covenants may be enforced, but those situations are few and far between.

In the Court of Appeal case of Mason v. Chem-Trend Limited, the court of appeal summarized the principles that will be utilized when determining whether to enforce the restrictive covenants in a written employment contract.

These principles are:

1.         To be enforceable the clause must be reasonable as between the parties and with reference to the public interest;

2.         The clause must balance the general public policy in favour of open competition, with the right of the employer to the protection of trade secrets, confidential information and trade protections; and,

3.         The court must engage in a review of the surrounding circumstances when analyzing the reasonableness and enforceability of the restrictive covenant in question.

The court then went on to identify the 3 main areas of consideration in determining when to enforce restrictive covenants.

A.        Did the employer have a proprietary interest entitled to protection?

B.        Are the temporal (time) or spatial limits (geographic distance) to broad?

C.        Is the covenant overly broad in the activity it prohibits because it prohibits competition generally and not the solicitation of the employer’s customers specifically?

In Mason v. Chem-Trend Limited the court of appeal made particular note of the fact that the employee in question was not a senior level employee or officer, but rather part of the sales force operating within a small sales territory.  The contract in question went beyond prohibiting the solicitation of former customers but also prohibited the employee from dealing with any of them in competition with Chem-Trend.  Further, the court noted the contract attempted to prohibit the employee from doing business with potential customers of Chem-Trend, something that would be very difficult if not impossible for the employee in question to know when they had run afoul of the prohibition period.  As a result of the foregoing analysis the court of appeal concluded that the restrictive covenant was unreasonable and unenforceable.

The prevailing case law which trends against the enforcement of restrictive covenants means employers and employees are best advised to seek out proper legal advice prior to drafting and entering into agreements that contain restrictive covenants. While it is entirely possible to craft a fully enforceable restrictive covenant that protects the legitimate proprietary interests of the employer these types of covenants and contracts must be carefully scrutinized to ensure that the result in Mason v. Chem-Trend Limited does not occur.

Posted by D. Jared Brown – Team Lead

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