Why are non-competition or non-solicitation covenants added to contracts? The purpose of inserting so-called “restrictive” covenants in a contract is generally the desire to protect a company’s goodwill either upon the termination of an employment relationship, the termination of a business relationship, or the acquisition of a business. Clearly, the parties’ bargaining power will vary depending on the context: an employee’s bargaining power is usually less and warrants different treatment from the treatment applying to a businessman or woman negotiating the sale of his or her business. In addition, where a business is the subject of an acquisition transaction, the goal of maintaining smooth business operations is a strong factor supporting rules of interpretation that favour the preservation of the goodwill of the business. It is therefore no coincidence that the rules applying to such covenants will depend on the nature of the contract involved.
The Supreme Court of Canada reminded us of this, among other things, in the recent case of Payette v. Guay inc.1 rendered on September 12, 2013.
In that case, restrictive covenants had been inserted in a contract for the sale of assets pursuant to which Guay Inc. (“Guay”), a company operating a crane leasing business, had acquired the assets of certain companies controlled by a Mr. Yannick Payette (“Payette”) and his partner, in October 2004, for an amount of $26 million. A clause had also been inserted into the contract providing for transitional services by Payette as a consultant for a maximum period of six (6) months following the closing of the transaction, with the option of concluding an employment contract at a later date. Both the transitional services and the employment contract were subsequently implemented.
However, everything changed on August 3, 2009 when Guay dismissed Payette, who joined a firm in competition with Guay, bringing several of Guay’s employees with him!
The Supreme Court first considered the nature of the rules applicable to restrictive covenants contained in a contract for the sale of assets: was it a transactional context or an employment context?
Indeed, the Civil Code of Québec (“C.C.Q.”) is not insensitive to the reality faced by employees since it provides, in article 2095, that an employer may not invoke a non-competition clause contained in an employment contract if it has dismissed the employee without a serious reason. The C.C.Q. is however silent on the issue with respect to restrictive covenants in a commercial context.
In this case, the Court could not dissociate the restrictive covenants from the contract for the sale of the assets, even in the context of the termination of Payette’s employment, which triggered its application. According to the Court, the reason why the restrictive covenants were agreed upon was the sale of the business and not the employment relationship which followed the closing of the transaction. The result: Payette was not afforded the protection of article 2095 C.C.Q. as an employee of Guay.
The Court therefore interpreted the restrictive covenants in accordance with commercial law and concluded that the dismissal of Payette, whether done with or without sufficient cause, had no effect on the enforceability of the restrictive clause.