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What constitutes consideration to uphold an agreement?

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In the recent decision of Downey v. Ecore International Inc., the Ontario Court of Appeal found that a confidentiality agreement signed by a consultant on his first day of work was not void for lack of consideration.

Paul Downey entered into discussions with Ecore in 1999 for employment with the company.  One of the key terms of his employment was to be the signing of a confidentiality agreement, due to the nature of Ecore’s business and Downey’s position.  He then asked whether he could instead provide services to Ecore as a consultant through his company CSR Industries Inc., as it would be more advantageous from a tax perspective, and a consulting agreement was subsequently executed between Ecore and CSR.  Although Downey was not a signatory to the consulting agreement, he was described within it as a “Key Person of the Consultant”.  A couple of weeks later, on the first day of work, Downey executed a confidentiality agreement in favour of Ecore, in his personal capacity.

In 2011 Downey commenced an action against Ecore on the basis that it allegedly owed him compensation for his assignment to the company of inventions he had created.  In response, the consulting agreement was terminated.  A central question in the resulting jurisdictional motion was whether or not the confidentiality agreement signed by Downey was invalid due to a lack of consideration.  The initial motions judge determined that it was indeed invalid, as it was CSR rather than Downey who was a party to the related consulting agreement and deriving compensation as a result of the arrangement.

The Court of Appeal had a different view of the matter.  Simply put, it found that the confidentiality agreement formed part of a single transaction between Ecore, Downey and CSR, constituted by both the consulting agreement and the confidentiality agreement.  It came to that conclusion upon a review of each agreement, as well as the evidence of initial employment discussions between Ecore and Downey.  When looking at the totality of the evidence of the intentions of the parties as well as an interpretation of the agreements, the court found that the true business reality of the relationship emerged.

Importantly, the court also decided that the company’s grant of permission to Downey to access Ecore’s proprietary information in order to perform services under the consulting agreement, had been independent consideration for signing the agreement. In that respect, the court noted that the “Background” preamble to the agreement stated:

“Employee will be granted access to confidential and proprietary information of the Company as part of his employment.  Employee is entering into this Agreement to grant to the Company protections regarding the Company’s proprietary information.  The parties of [sic] this Agreement agree and intend to be legally bound by the covenants as set forth in this Agreement.”

The court stated that,” The mutual promises contained in this provision constitute a quid pro quo that formed the basis for the Confidentiality Agreement: Downey would be granted access to Ecore’s Proprietary Information, which was necessary to allow him to perform the Services under the Consulting Agreement, and the information so disclosed would be subject to confidentiality protections in favour of Ecore.”

Downey v. Ecore International Inc., http://canlii.ca/t/frz4j

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