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Employment Injunctions The Employment Contract

3 Takeaways from the Ryanair V Peter Bellew High Court Case

The High Court case between Ryanair DAC and Peter Bellew is an important one because it gives us further guidance in the area of restrictive covenants in the contract of employment. A restrictive covenant is basically a covenant in a contract of employment preventing a departing employee from working for a competitor for a certain period of time after departing from his employment.

In Ryanair DAC the airline sought to prevent Mr Bellew from working for a competitor in any capacity for a period of 12 months after leaving Ryanair. This was what Mr Bellew had signed up for when he signed his contract of employment.

Ryanair sought to prevent him from taking up employment with Easyjet and sought an injunction in the High Court to enforce the covenants in his contract of employment with Ryanair. One of those covenants was as follows:

For a period of 12 months after the termination of your employment you shall not, without the prior written consent of the Company, directly or indirectly in any capacity either on your own behalf or in conjunction with or on behalf of any other Person;

a. be employed, engaged, concerned or interested in any capacity in any business wholly or partly in competition with the Company for air passenger services in any market;

b. solicit or entice or endeavour to solicit or entice away from the Company any person who was employed within in (sic.) a senior executive, managerial, or technical capacity by the Company.

1.2 If you receive an offer of employment or engagement during your employment with the Company, or before the expiry of the restriction period set out in this clause, you shall give the person or entity making the offer a copy of this clause.

The defendant in this matter fully admits that he freely signed the covenant and at the time of signing he fully understood its meaning and purpose but makes the case that he is not bound by said covenant.

The case law in this regard provides to be useful and instructive as to the approach adopted by the Irish Courts in relation to restrictive covenants.

Macken v. O’Reilly 1979 I.L.R.M 79

“All interference with an individual’s freedom of action in trading is per se contrary to public policy and, therefore, void. The general prohibition is subject to the exception that certain restraints may be justified. Restraints, restrictions or interferences are permitted if they are, in the circumstances obtaining, fair and reasonable. Whether what is complained of can be justified on this basis involves a careful examination of all the circumstances – the need for restraint, the object sought to be attained, the interests sought to be protected and the general interest of the public. What is done or sought to be done must be established as being reasonable and necessary and on balance to serve the public interest”

Murgitroy & Company Ltd v. Purdy 2005 IEHC 159

This a much more recent decision where the Chief Justice Clarke J. outlined that a restrictive term will not be implemented unless it satisfies the limbs of the following test

  1. The restriction is reasonable between the parties
  2. The restriction is consistent with the interests of public policy

The facts of Murgitroy are as follows. A restrictive covenant in a contract of employment restricted a Patent Lawyer from working in same sector for a period of twelve months in the Republic of Ireland. Clarke CJ.  Found the restriction in relation to the geographical nature (not working in Ireland) and the length of the restriction was reasonable and justified based on the nature of the employers business. However Clarke J. found that the result of allowing the aforementioned restrictions would create another, being the restriction to approach clients who are not pre-existing clients of the employer from being engaged by the ex-employee was too restrictive. The position of this case was affirmed in the more recent example of Net Affinity v Conaghan 2012 3 I.R 67.

Stenhouse ltd v. Philips 1974 A.C 391

The covenant entered into needs to be reasonable between the parties. The holding of this case outlines that the restriction sought must be a reasonable one and cannot restrict an employee from using his skill and knowledge in future endeavors. However, the employer can restrict the employee from using assets or ‘insider knowledge’ that must be regarded as company property.

The accepted proposition that an employer is not entitled to protection from mere competition by a former employee means that the employee is entitled to use to the full any personal skill or experience even if this has been acquired in the service of his employer: it is this freedom to use to the full a man’s improving ability and talents which lies at the root of the policy of the law regarding this type of restraint. Leaving aside the case of misuse of trade secrets or confidential information … the employer’s claim for protection must be based upon the identification of some advantage or asset inherent in the business which can properly be regarded as, in a general sense, his property, and which it would be unjust to allow the employee to appropriate for his own purposes, even though he, the employee, may have contributed to its creation.’

This becomes especially necessary when discussing trade secrets/ confidential information or market sensitive information. Any property or assets of the company that the employee is leaving must be protected by restrictive covenant because it is essentially, company property. Even if the employee may have contributed to the ‘company property’ the employer will still be granted protection for what is ultimately their property.

However, with regard to skill, knowledge and essentially the employee’s property, no restrictive covenant can restrict this movement. It must also be noted that if an employer is seeking to enforce a restrictive covenant simply to protect himself from mere competition, this will not be allowed.

In the Ryan Air case, Allen J. opined that that covenants are generally never reasonable unless if the competition was allowed it would take advantage of the employers trade position.

The High Court also looked at Hernandez v. Vodafone Ireland LTD 2013 IEHC 70 andTillman v Egon Zehnder Ltd from the United Kingdom Supreme Court.

High Court decision

The High Court recognized the difficulty in practice of enforcing a confidentiality clause and referred to Lord Denning in Littlewoods Organisation Limited v Harris [1978]

It is thus established that an employer can stipulate for protection against having his confidential information passed on to a rival in trade. But experience has shown that it is not satisfactory to have simply a covenant against disclosing confidential information. The reason is because it is so difficult to draw the line between information which is confidential and information which is not; and it is very difficult to prove a breach when the information is of such a character that a servant can carry it away in his head. The difficulties are such that the only practicable solution is to take a covenant from the servant by which he is not to go to work for a rival in trade. Such a covenant may well be held to be reasonable if limited to a short period.”

The High Court had a difficulty with whether the restraint that Ryanair sought went further than was necessary for the legitimate protection of its interests. It had no difficulty, interestingly, with the time period of 12 months.

It noted that it could, if the circumstances permitted, use the “blue pencil rule” to remove an unenforceable provision if the character of the contract was not changed as a consequence. However, the covenant in this case applies to “any business wholly or partly in competition with Ryanair for air services”.

With considerable reluctance, but without misgivings as to the applicable law, or my application of the law, I am driven to the conclusion that the clause is void and unenforceable as an unjustified restraint of trade.

195. The other provision of the restraint in this case which troubled me was the prohibition on employment in any business in competition with Ryanair “in any capacity”. It appeared to me that literally construed it would restrain Mr. Bellew from taking up employment with another airline as a pilot or air steward.

208. I find that the plaintiff has discharged the onus of proving that it had a legitimate interest in exacting a covenant from the defendant to protect the valuable sensitive and confidential commercial, operational and financial information that would come to the defendant’s knowledge in the course of his employment. For the reasons given, I find that that interest has not been shown to extend beyond those airlines in competition with the plaintiff in the low cost or low fare sector, to those airlines operating in the legacy or flag or high cost sector.

209. I find that the covenant in this case, properly construed, would prevent the defendant from taking up employment with any European airline, including the legacy carriers, and so goes beyond what the plaintiff has shown to be justified.

210. The legitimate interest of the plaintiff in restraining the defendant from taking up alternative employment is limited to roles which would risk the disclosure or use of its protectable information. I find that the restraint on employment in any capacity goes beyond that interest and has not been shown to be justifiable.

211. For the reasons given, I find that the covenant to which the defendant, for valuable consideration, freely agreed is, as a matter of law, void and unenforceable as an unjustified restraint of trade.

Conclusion

Ryanair DAC were refused their injunction because the High Court found

  1. The restraint preventing the departing employee from working “with any European airline” went beyond what was justified
  2. The restraint preventing Bellew from taking up employment “in any capacity” goes beyond the legitimate interest of Ryanair and was not justifiable.

For these reasons the High Court decided the covenant was void and unenforceable and an unjustified restraint of trade.

Takeaway for employers

  1. Employers need to understand that any restrictive covenant is drafted to reflect the specific relationship between employer and employee in any particular circumstance and a “one size fits all approach” runs the risk of being found unenforceable. If it goes too far and is too wide it is unlikely be justified as being necessary to pursue a legitimate interest.
  2. Twelve months, as a temporal restraint, is acceptable and unproblematic.
  3. Confidentiality clauses, whilst necessary and acceptable, are difficult to enforce in practice as confidential information can be used and abused without any evidence of the breach-for example in negotiating terms with competitors.

Read the full decision here: Ryan Air DAC v. Peter Bellew 2019 6239 P , Decided 23rd December 2019.

Categories
The Employment Contract

Restrictive Covenants (non-compete clauses) in Contracts of Employment-What You Need to Know

 

restrictive-covenant

Do you wonder how effective a “non compete” clause is in a contract of employment?

When will it not be enforceable?

Let’s take a look at this important topic.

It is widely accepted that an employer is entitled to protect his trade secrets and confidential information in his contract of employment. The Courts have also recognised, down through the years, a common law right to have trade secrets and confidential information protected.

Fidelity and loyalty

Courts will also recognise a duty of fidelity and obligations of loyalty in all employment contracts. This duty has also been held to include an obligation for an employee not to compete with his employer while employed by him.

In Ireland, the EAT has upheld dismissals on this ground of breach of good faith and loyalty. It has also, on occasion, upheld dismissals where the employer had a significant, bona fide concern that this would occur.

Confidential information and trade secrets

An employer does not have to have a specific term in the contract of employment to protect trade secrets and confidential information. However, if there is a dispute, the employer would have to prove that the information he sought to protect was a trade secret or confidentiality must apply to it.

This will depend on the particular circumstances and there is a difference between “objective knowledge”, property of the employer, and “subjective knowledge”, property of the employee.

These rights of the employer must be weighed against the employee’s right to blow the whistle, as whistleblowing is protected in certain circumstances in Ireland, thanks to the Protected Disclosures Act, 2014.

Non-compete after termination of employment

There is no common law restriction on an employee competing with a former employer, or soliciting former colleagues or customers/clients. That is why provision for this should be made in the contract of employment.

There is also a distinction to be made between copying the employer’s customer/client lists-not allowed-and soliciting former customers based on what is in the employee’s head-allowed.

To be clear: there is no common law restriction on an employee soliciting business being done by their former employer.

When are restrictive covenants allowed in a contract?

The law attempts to strike a balance between preventing restraint of trade on the one hand, and, on the other hand, allowing legitimate restrictive contractual terms in a contract of employment.

What’s permitted will depend on

  1. Where the employer has a legitimate interest to protect; a general restriction against competition is not enough.
  2. The restriction must be reasonable and cover activity of the employee while he worked at the employer.
  3. The time period must be reasonable; this will depend on the time needed for the employer to protect the goodwill of the business or limit the damage done by the employee.
  4. The geographical area to be protected must be reasonable; it cannot be too wide if it is more than adequate to protect the employer’s business.

If an employer is in fundamental breach of a contract, or repudiates the contract, he will be unable to rely on a restrictive covenant.

The Competition Act, 1991

The Competition Act, 1991 prevents agreements between undertakings which have as their object or effect the restriction of competition (section 4(1) Competition Act, 1991).

However, employees are not undertakings while working as employees for either their “old” employer, or “new” one.

If they set up a new business, though, in competition with their old employer they will be considered to be an undertaking and any agreement between the employee and former employer will fall within the restriction against restriction of competition in section 4(1).

The leading case in this area is Apex Fire Protection v Murtagh [1993].

One of the useful inferences that can be drawn from the case is that a one-year restriction is acceptable, but anything more than this may be seen as excessive.

The case also shows that a business owned and operated by an ex-employee can be considered an undertaking and, therefore, any agreement will fall within the The Competition Act, 1991.

It also shows that the legality of restraints in any agreement between employer and employee will depend on the particular circumstances of the case.

Any aspect of the agreement that is excessive or unnecessary to protect a legitimate interest of an employer is likely to be unenforceable.

Case Law

Hernandez -v- Vodafone Ireland Ltd is a useful High Court decision from February, 2013 in this area of law as it looks at the issues that are relevant in this type of case. It also looks at a couple of other cases such as Murgitroyd & Co. Ltd. v. Purdy and Net Affinity v. Conaghan & Anor.

Categories
The Employment Contract

How Safe is Your Business From This Simple Mistake?

small-business-mistake

Imagine this.

You’ve worked hard to build up a solid base of clients in your hairdressing or beauty salon business.

It hasn’t been easy, but you began to see the fruits of your hard work, long hours, and commitment pay off around 12 months ago.

In fact, it got so busy that you had to take on another hairdresser and, after fielding applications and interviews, you took on Nigel 9 months ago.

Nigel seemed to be the perfect person for the job; he was originally from the area and had spent the last 5 years in Dublin working in one of the country’s top salons gaining valuable experience.

You agreed the main parts of his employment contract-his salary and working hours-and things have gone surprisingly smoothly. You didn’t give him a written contract because you were both happy enough and the real meat of the agreement was how much he would be paid and how many hours per week he would work, and you were agreed on this.

You noticed that he got on great with all your clients and they really liked him.

Last weekend, though, you heard some disturbing news: you were told Nigel was going to set up his own salon on the Main Street in your town. You didn’t believe it at first, but couldn’t help worrying about it because there was a nagging concern in the back of your head.

If it was true, it would not be hard to imagine pulling a lot of your clients with him.

Then you notice a friend of his wishing him well on his new venture on his Facebook page.  You can’t wait any longer and you confront Nigel and put the disturbing rumours to him.

Nigel confirms your worst fears and gives you a month’s notice.

You ring a solicitor with your questions:

  1. Can you dismiss him immediately?
  2. Do you have to give him notice? If so, how much?
  3. Will he have a case for unfair dismissal?
  4. Do you have to pay him if you terminate his employment today?
  5. Can he bring your clients with him?

You’re told that you can dismiss him and, while he is entitled to one week’s notice, he does not have the required 12 months’ service to bring a claim for unfair dismissal.

But you now quickly realise that the most serious aspect of this whole affair is Nigel setting up his new competing business on Main Street, and the danger of you losing a lot of your clients-clients you had spent years acquiring.

And the most stomach churning part of the whole affair?

You now know that if you had a written contract in place from the start of Nigel’s employment you could have protected yourself and your business with a non-compete clause.

This non-compete covenant may have only lasted for 12 months after Nigel left, and it may only apply to a limited geographical area, for example your town or County, but it would have been a huge help, wouldn’t it?

Because if Nigel had to click his heels and wait for 12 months before starting on Main Street maybe he would thought twice about quitting now; and if he couldn’t set up in your town maybe he would have started his business far enough away from you that it would have no impact on your existing clients.

The sad thing is you will never know now because there is no non-compete clause, because there is no contract.

There are plenty of risks involved in running your own business-some avoidable, some unavoidable.

Putting a written contract in place for all your employees is not expensive, and a well drafted one specifically for your needs might even help save your business.

Learn more about drafting an employment contract including a restrictive covenant here.

Are you an employer?

Need a quote for a contract of employment? Contact me.

We can supply you with

  1. a template contract which you will complete yourself for each employee. This would involve things like commencement date, job description/role, rate of pay, and any other specific details for the individual employee and/or
  2. individual contracts for each employee-we get all the necessary details from you for each employee and draft the contracts for you.