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Contract Requiring Ex-Employee to Compensate Former Employer for Competing Ruled Enforceable in British Columbia

A recent decision of the B.C. Court of Appeal has endorsed a novel approach to post-employment competition by upholding an employment contract whereby the employee was required to compensate the employer if she competed soon after her employment ended. In Rhebergen v. Creston Veterinary Clinic Ltd., 2014 BCCA 97, a newly licensed veterinarian signed a three-year employment contract with an established veterinarian clinic in a rural community. Under the contract, the veterinarian was required to pay her employer a set amount if she set up a practice in the same area within three years of the employment contract being terminated. The veterinarian left the clinic after fourteen months and soon established a mobile veterinary practice in the area. The veterinarian went to court to have the payment clause declared unenforceable.

The Court recognized that there were two approaches in establishing whether such a clause was a restraint of trade, either a “functional” approach, which asks whether the clause attempts to, or effectively does, restrain trade, or a “formalist” approach, in which the clause must be structured as a prohibition against competition, which does not include “mere disincentives”. The formalist approach is more commonly used in Ontario, but the B.C. Court of Appeal adopted the functional approach in its analysis, and concluded that the clause was, in fact, a restraint of trade.

Notwithstanding that the clause was found to be a restraint of trade, the Court held that the clause was not a penalty because it reasonably compensated the employer for the costs incurred in training the new veterinarian. The Court split on whether the clause was ambiguous and therefore unenforceable. A non-competition clause is ambiguous if it is not clear as to activity, time or geography. The majority of the Court concluded that there was only one reasonable interpretation to the clause and it was not ambiguous. The clause was therefore enforceable by the employer, and the veterinarian was required to pay the amounts under the contract to her former employer as a result of her competition.

This case demonstrates the continually evolving nature of post-employment covenants, and the fact that courts will give employers some latitude to develop contractual “tools” to provide protection (or at least give financial compensation) in the event a former employee engages in competition soon after employment. The fact that the Court of Appeal was not unanimous demonstrates, however, that this is a complex area requiring careful drafting of contractual terms.

A copy of the B.C. Court of Appeal decision can be found here: http://www.courts.gov.bc.ca/jdb-txt/CA/14/00/2014BCCA0097.htm

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Contract Requiring Ex-Employee to Compensate Former Employer for Competing Ruled Enforceable in British Columbia

Terminated Employee Entitled to Profit Sharing Bonus Declared After Termination but During Employment Standards Notice Period

Employers often assert that a terminated employee is not entitled to a bonus for the termination year. A decision of an Ontario court may put a small qualification on that assertion. Employers should review their bonus policies in light of this decision.

The employer terminated the employee’s employment on May 25, 2010 on a without-cause basis. On June 18, 2010 – within the employee’s four-week Employment Standards Act notice period – the employer announced its profit sharing bonus for the recently-ended fiscal year and paid it out. The employer did not pay that bonus to the employee. The employee had been paid the bonus for her three previous years of employment. The bonus was a “very significant financial part of her overall compensation.”

Mr. Justice Ricchetti of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that section 61(1)(a) of the Employment Standards Act “permits the employer to terminate without notice but only if the employee receives what the employee would otherwise been entitled to receive from the employer under the terms and conditions of employment during the statutory notice.”

The judge held that under the employer’s bonus plan and practices, the decision as to whether to award profit sharing at all may have been discretionary, but once the bonus had been declared, the employer had no discretion to exclude a particular employee from entitlement. As such, all employees who were employed on June 18, 2010 were entitled to the profit sharing bonus. Because that date was within the employee’s four-week Employment Standards Act notice period, she was deemed to be “employed” at that time, and was thus entitled to the profit sharing bonus payment. An employer memo, issued a few months earlier, to the effect that only “active” employees were entitled to the bonus, did not override the statutory obligation to pay the bonus to the employee.

Sandhu v. Solutions 2 go Inc., 2012 ONSC 2073 (CanLII)

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Terminated Employee Entitled to Profit Sharing Bonus Declared After Termination but During Employment Standards Notice Period