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