Tag: Restrictive Covenants

Current State of Restrictive Covenants (Other Than Non-Competes) in New York by Richard Friedman

Current State of Restrictive Covenants (other than Non-Competes) Under New York Law

What is a Restrictive Covenant?

Our last blog article provided an update on the state of New York law concerning non-compete provisions. This article focuses on the state of New York law concerning restrictive covenant provisions other than non-competes. As our readers are almost certainly all well aware, a restrictive covenant is a contractual provision that many employers include in employment and severance agreements as well as in contracts with respect to the sale of a business. Such provisions are designed to limit the activities of a former employee or a former owner of a company for a fixed period of time following the end of the employment relationship or after the sale of a company to protect the former employer’s or buyer’s supposed legitimate business interests. In addition to employment, severance, and agreements concerning the sale of a business, these covenants can often be found in stock option agreements.

Enforceability of Restrictive Covenants

As is well known, New York courts generally disfavor restrictive covenants contained in employment contracts and will only enforce them when they are found to be reasonable and necessary to protect an employer’s legitimate business interests.1  The test New York courts use to determine whether a restrictive covenant is reasonable was relied on recently by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Intertek Testing Servs., N.A., Inc. v. Pennisi.2 The court stated: “[a] restraint is reasonable only if it: (1) is no greater than is required for the protection of a legitimate interest of the employer; (2) does not impose undue hardship of the employee; and (3) is not injurious to the public.” Applying this test, New York courts analyzing a restrictive covenant take a two-step approach:3

  1. The court first considers whether the covenant is reasonable in scope and duration; and
  2. If the answer to the foregoing is yes, courts consider whether the contract, as written, is necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interest.

Scope and Duration

To be enforceable, a restrictive covenant must not be more extensive, in terms of time and place, than necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the employer. A court may find a restriction to be unreasonable when it covers a geographic area where the employer does not compete, or where the provision would effectively prevent the employee from continuing to work in a particular industry.4 For this reason, New York courts have rarely found worldwide restrictions reasonable in any context.

Legitimate Interests

New York courts have held that legitimate interests are limited to the protection against misappropriation of the former employer’s trade secrets, confidential customer lists, or protection from competition by a former employee whose services are unique or extraordinary.5 Additionally, such courts have found that an employer has a legitimate interest in protecting client relationships or goodwill developed by an employee at the employer’s expense.6

Types of Restrictive Covenants

Although non-compete provisions are the most common type of restrictive covenants, New York courts recognize the following other types of restrictive covenants:

  • non-solicitation provisions with respect to clients or customers;
  • no-hire provisions; and
  • “garden leave” provisions.

1.  Non-solicitation Provisions

A non-solicitation provision is a restrictive covenant that prohibits former employees or the former owner of a business, for a specific period of time after the employment relationship ceased or the sale occurred, from soliciting the former employer’s or previously owned company’s customers or providing competing services to those customers.7 They often also prohibit the former employee or owner from trying, directly or indirectly, to secure business from the former employer’s or previously owned company’s customers.8

A non-solicitation provision as applied to customers is typically easier to enforce than a non-compete provision because it only restricts the former employee or owner from soliciting and/or performing services for certain categories of customers or specifically identified customers for a designated time period.9 King v. Marsh & McLennan Agency LLC10 is an example of a recent case in which a New York court enforced a non-solicitation provision for customers. In King, the Court held that the employer had an undeniable interest in enforcing a non-solicitation agreement to protect its customer relationships.

Non-solicitation provisions eliminate the need for the court to evaluate the reasonableness of a geographic restriction.11 Additionally, the absence of a non-compete provision also increases the likelihood that the court will find the non-solicitation clause in an employment agreement enforceable.12

Yet New York courts have found that a non-solicitation provision is too broad to be enforced as written if it is not necessary to protect one of the following three legitimate protectable interests:

      • the uniqueness of the employee (which is difficult to establish);
      • the protection of the employer’s trade secrets or confidential information; or
      • the competitive unfairness of allowing competition that adversely impacts the employer’s goodwill.13

Establishing that an employee is unique can be very difficult as demonstrated in a case before the New York Appellate Division First Department last year. In that case, Harris v. Patients Med., P.C.,14 a medical practice appealed a ruling that denied its motion for a preliminary injunction enjoining a former employee, a doctor, from breaching restrictive covenants in her employment agreement. The Appellate Division determined that the employer did not have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of its claim. Specifically, the Court held the former employer had not shown that the restrictive covenants were necessary to protect its legitimate interests as it failed to establish that the doctor’s services were unique or extraordinary such that they gave the employee an unfair advantage over the employer.15 Similarly, in Vertical Sys. Analysis, Inc. v. Balzano,16 the First Department reasoned that the employee, an elevator inspector, did not provide unique or extraordinary services or have any access to trade secrets or propriety information that would require the enforcement of a non-solicitation provision.

2.  No-hire Provisions

A non-solicitation clause that applies to the solicitation of employees of a former employer or a previously owned company has been referred to by many courts as a non-recruitment or a no-hire provision. Improper conduct in this regard includes identifying employees to be recruited, direct or indirect solicitation of employees, and speaking to employees concerning how they would like to be compensated by the new employer.17

This commentator is not aware of a New York Court of Appeals case adjudicating whether a covenant not to solicit employees is enforceable.  However, both the Appellate Division Second Department and New York federal courts have stated that New York recognizes the enforceability of covenants not to solicit employees.18 Like other restrictive covenants, they are subject to a reasonableness analysis but are considered inherently more reasonable than a covenant not to compete.  The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has gone as far as to say that these types of provisions can be viewed as prima facie enforceable when they are reasonable in scope and limited in duration.19

A relatively recent case in the Southern District of New York demonstrates how courts are willing to enforce no-hire provisions. In Oliver Wyman, Inc. v. Eielson,20  an employer brought an action against two former employees, alleging fraud and breach of contract in connection with the acquisition by the plaintiff of the former employees’ consulting business. The Court held that the non-recruitment clause in the employees’ employment contracts was no more restrictive than necessary to protect the former employer’s legitimate interest in protecting its client base.21 The Court reasoned that the no-hire clause was acceptable because of its narrow scope because it only prevented the poaching of former co-workers for actual, available employment opportunities in which the solicitor of those workers has an interest.22 Additionally, the Court held that the non-recruitment clause in the former employees’ employment contracts did not impose an undue hardship on the former employees.23

3.  “Garden Leave” Provisions

A “garden leave” provision is an extended notice provision that requires departing employees to give the company a certain period of advance notice when they intend to leave the company.24  It is a variation of a notice of termination provision and can be used as an alternative to or in addition to a traditional non-compete provision to restrict competition by departing employees.  Such a provision gives employers the option to pay the employee through the balance of the notice period and direct her or him not to come to work or perform services, giving the employees leave to “tend to their gardens” or pursue any other activity excluding other employment provided that the employee does not compete with her or his former employer.25 Extended notice provisions may be mutual but can also require that only the employee provide notice, with no similar obligation on the employer.26 Where mutual, these provisions without exception (to our knowledge) do not require such notice from employers where the employee is being terminated for cause.27

 


Richard B. Friedman
Richard Friedman PLLC

200 Park Avenue Suite 1700
New York, NY 10166
TEL: 212-600-9539
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1 Flatiron Health, Inc. v. Carson, 2020 WL 1320867, at 19 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2020).
2 Intertek Testing Servs., N.A., Inc. v. Pennisi, 2020 WL 1129773, at 19 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 9, 2020).
3 Id; See also King v. Marsh & McLennan Agency, LLC, 67 Misc. 3d 1203(A) (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2020). KCG Holdings, Inc. v. Khandekar, 2020 WL 1189302, at 17 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 12, 2020).
4 Good Energy, L.P. v. Kosachuk, 49 A.D.3d 331 (1st Dep’t 2008).
5 Intertek Testing Servs., N.A., Inc. v. Pennisi, 2020 WL 1129773, at 21.
6 Id.
7 4B N.Y.Prac., Com. Litig. In New York State Courts § 80:8 (4th ed.).
8 Id.
9 Contempo Communications, Inc. v. MJM Creative Services, Inc., 182 A.D.2d 351 (1st Dep’t 1992). Genesee Val. Trust Co. v. Waterford Group, LLC, 130 A.D.3d 1555, 1558 (2015).
10 King v. Marsh & McLennan Agency, LLC, 67 Misc. 3d 1203(A) (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2020).
11 Id.
12 Id.
13 Flatiron Health, Inc. v. Carson, 2020 WL 1320867, at 21 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2020).
14 Harris v. Patients Med., P.C., 93 N.Y.S.3d 299 (N.Y. App. Div. 2019).
15 Id.
16 Vertical Sys. Analysis, Inc. v. Balzano, 621, 97 N.Y.S.3d 467 (N.Y. App. Div. 2019).
17 Marsh USA Inc. v. Karasaki, 2008 Wl 4778239 (S.D.N.Y. 2008).
18 See Intertek Testing Servs., N.A., Inc. v. Pennisi, 2020 WL 1129773, at 23 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 9, 2020); General Patent Corp. v. Wi-Lan Inc., 2011 WL 5845194 (S.D.N.Y. 2011).
19 General Patent Corp. v. Wi-Lan Inc., Isd.
20 Oliver Wyman, Inc. v. Eielson, 282 F. Supp. 3d 684, 695 (S.D.N.Y. 2017).
21 Id.
22 Id.
23 Id.
24 4B N.Y.Prac., Com. Litig. In New York State Courts § 80:10 (4th ed.).
25 Id.
26 Id.
27 Id.

 

Restrictive Covenants in Franchise Agreements Under New York Law by Richard Friedman

Restrictive Covenants in Franchise Agreements Under New York Law

What Are They?

Restrictive covenants are often found in agreements between franchisors and franchisees. The purpose of such covenants is to prevent franchisees—who are the owners and operators of businesses such as “chain-style” stores and restaurants—from harming franchisors by providing similar goods or services after the franchise agreement expires or is terminated. Restrictive covenants can serve to protect the good will of the franchisor after the franchise is reconveyed. See Jiffy Lube Int’l, Inc. v. Weiss Bros., 834 F. Supp. 683, 691 (D.N.J. 1993). 

A typical restrictive covenant clause in a franchise agreement provides that the franchisee may not own or operate a similar or competing entity in a specified area for a specified period of time after the franchise relationship expires or is terminated. 

When Are They Enforceable? 

In order to be enforceable in New York, restrictive covenants in franchise agreements must be:

1. reasonable in geographical and temporal scope; and

2. necessary to protect a franchisor’s legitimate interest. 

ServiceMaster Residential/Commercial Servs., L.P. v. Westchester Cleaning Servs., Inc., No. 01 CIV. 2229 (JSM), 2001 WL 396520, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 19, 2001). 

In determining whether to grant an injunction to enforce a restrictive covenant, New York courts weigh the harm that such an injunction would likely cause to the franchisee and to the general public. Golden Krust Patties, Inc. v. Bullock, 957 F. Supp. 2d 186, 198 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (citing BDO Seidman v. Hirshberg, 93 N.Y.2d 382, 389, 690 N.Y.S.2d 854, 712 N.E.2d 1220 (N.Y.1999). 

New York courts have held franchise agreements akin to employment agreements. Am. Jur. 2d, Monopolies, Restraints of Trade, and Unfair Trade Practices §§ 511-521. Accordingly, the general rules and policies that govern restrictive covenants in employment agreements also apply in courts’ analyses of such covenants in franchise agreements. Id. We have written recently on the current state of restrictive covenants under New York law. That article can be found here

1) Reasonable in Geographical and Temporal Scope 

Under New York law, a restrictive covenant will be found enforceable where it is reasonable in geographic and temporal scope. Golden Krust Patties, Inc. at 198. Whether geographic and temporal scope is reasonable is acutely fact specific. Courts recognize franchisors’ interests in preventing ex-franchisees selling to customers of the former franchise, thereby profiting from and potentially damaging the franchisor’s good will. See ServiceMaster Residential/Commercial Servs., L.P. v. Westchester Cleaning Servs., Inc., No. 01 CIV. 2229 (JSM), 2001 WL 396520, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 19, 2001); Carvel Corp. v. Eisenberg, 692 F.Supp. 182, 185–86 (S.D.N.Y.1988) (restriction against competing stores within two miles for three years was “reasonably related to Carvel’s interest in protecting its know-how and to its ability to install another franchise in the same territory”). However, courts will not enforce restrictions regarding when and where a former franchisee can compete when such restrictions are found to be overbroad and detrimental to the franchisee’s ability to earn a livelihood. 

In Singas Famous Pizza Brands Corp. v. New York Advertising LLC, 468 F. App’x 43 (2d Cir. 2012), the Second Circuit held that a restrictive covenant that prohibited a former pizza store franchisee from engaging in “the Italian food service business” within ten miles of the franchisee’s former location for a two-year period was reasonable. The Court based its conclusion on evidence that it had taken four years for the former franchisee to find a suitable location for the Singas. The Court also stated that the ten-mile geographical restriction was “reasonably calculated towards furthering [the franchisor’s] legitimate interests in protecting its ‘knowledge and reputation’ as well as its ‘customer goodwill.’” See Id. at 46–47. 

However, the court reached a somewhat different result in Golden Krust Patties, Inc. v. Bullock. In that matter, Golden Krust, a Caribbean fast-food chain, sought a preliminary injunction against a former franchisee whose franchise agreement was terminated after the franchisee was discovered to have been selling food products manufactured by Golden Krust’s competitors. The franchise agreement stated that, for two years after expiration or termination of the agreement, Golden Krust franchisees were restricted from opening any restaurant at or within ten miles of the franchise location, or within five miles of any other Golden Krust in operation or under construction.

The Eastern District Court ultimately granted the injunction but modified the geographic constraints of the non-compete provision to reflect “the densely populated nature of the New York Metropolitan area.”  Golden Krust Patties, Inc. at 199 (E.D.N.Y. 2013). Reasoning that “most consumers in that region will not travel ten miles—or even five miles—to a fast-food establishment,” the Court determined that a four-mile restriction from the franchise location was more appropriate than the original ten-mile restriction. Id. Additionally, the Court reduced from five miles to two and a half miles the required minimum distance of restaurants that could be opened by the former franchisee from any Golden Krust location. The Court cited the close proximity between Golden Krust locations (often less than one mile apart) as evidence that a broad non-compete zone was not necessary. Id. 

The Golden Krust Court distinguished the case from Singas, holding that Singas had only restricted franchisees from operating Italian food service businesses, whereas Golden Krust restricted former franchisees from operating any type of restaurant business. Id. It is reasonable to believe that the court would have been less inclined to modify the geographic scope of the non-compete had Golden Krust restricted franchisees only from serving Caribbean-style food. Thus, one major takeaway from these cases is that New York courts are more likely to find temporal and geographic restrictions to be reasonable if a franchise agreement’s non-compete clause is sufficiently narrow in other ways. 

2) Legitimate Business Interests 

New York courts have traditionally required that restrictive covenants in franchise agreements, in addition to being reasonable in time and scope, serve legitimate business interests. ServiceMaster Residential/Commercial Servs., L.P. at *3. As already noted above, courts recognize in franchisors a legitimate interest in guarding against former franchisees’ exploitation of i) the knowledge provided by the franchisor and ii) the franchisor’s customer base. In ServiceMaster Residential, the Court held there to be “a recognized danger that former franchisees will use the knowledge that they have gained from the franchisor to serve its former customers, and that continued operation under a different name may confuse customers and thereby damage the good will of the franchisor.” ServiceMaster Residential/Commercial Servs., L.P at *3 (citing Jiffy Lube Int’l, Inc. v. Weiss Bros., Inc., 834 F.Supp. 683, 691-92 (D .N.J.1993) (upholding ten-month, five-mile restriction on rapid lube operation); Economou v. Physicians Weight Loss Ctrs., 756 F.Supp. 1024, 1032 (N.D.Ohio 1991) (upholding one-year, fifty-mile restriction on diet center). 

Legitimate business interests are strengthened when the franchisor has provided the franchisee with unique access to training and clientele. In finding that ServiceMaster’s restrictive covenant served a legitimate interest, the Court emphasized that the franchisor had provided the franchisee with training and confidential manuals regarding how to launch a restoration cleaning business. ServiceMaster Residential/Commercial Servs., L.P at *3. 

Likewise, in RESCUECOM Corp. v. Mathews, No. 5:05CV1330 (FJS/GJD), 2006 WL 1742073, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. June 20, 2006), the Court found that the franchisor-plaintiff had provided the former franchisee with “training and manuals pertaining to the best methods for operating a successful computer sales and services business . . . [and] extended to the defendant the knowledge and ability to launch and successfully operate a computer sales and services business.” The franchisor had also provided the franchisee with access to clientele, evidenced by the fact that the franchisee successfully diverted at least five of the franchisor’s former customers. Id. at *2. The Court granted a preliminary injunction against the defendant, who had opened a computer sales company in the same location as the franchise he had previously operated. 

3) Weighing the Interests of the Franchisee and the Public 

In determining whether to grant injunctions based upon the restrictive covenants of franchise agreements, recent cases have emphasized the balancing of the franchisor’s interests against the interests of both the public and the franchisee. See Singas Famous Pizza Brands Corp. at *12; Golden Krust Patties, Inc. at 198. 

Singas and Golden Krust—two of the most recent leading New York decisions involving restrictive covenants in franchise agreements—explicitly consider the potential harm of enforcing the non-compete provisions at issue to both the former franchisees and the public interest. Both decisions ultimately found the covenants enforceable and granted injunctions (though the Golden Krust Court, as discussed above, modified the temporal and geographic scope of the provision). 

In Singas, the Court acknowledged that defendants invested significant time and money into restaurants they had hoped would be Singas franchises. However, according to the Court, “any hardship caused by an injunction was caused by the defendants’ own violation of the Agreement” when they opened a restaurant location as a purported franchise without having received permission from Singas. Singas Famous Pizza Brands Corp. at *12. 

In Golden Krust, the Court also found that any harm caused to defendants by an injunction would stem from their own wrongdoing, as the former franchisee had sought to pass off a competitor’s product as a Golden Krust product, and had continued to operate after termination in contravention of the franchise agreement. Golden Krust Patties, Inc, at 199–200. In addition, the Golden Krust Court found that the public would be harmed if the defendants were allowed to continue to use the franchisor’s trademarks and solicit Golden Krust customers. The Court stated as follows: “There is likely a greater harm to the public in the form of consumer confusion if defendants are not enjoined.” Golden Krust Patties, Inc. at 200. 

Conclusion 

The general rules and policies that govern restrictive covenants in employment agreements also apply in New York courts’ analyses of such covenants in franchise agreements. However, courts will give deference to franchisors which have provided unique access to training and other benefits to franchisees. Thus, as with such cases in the employment context, litigations involving the alleged breach of restrictive covenants in franchise agreements are very factually intensive and are best handled by counsel who regularly represent clients in such matters.

Richard B. Friedman
Richard Friedman PLLC

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New York, New York 10022
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