North Carolina Business Litigation Report

Battleground Veterinary Hospital, P.C. v. McGeough, 2007 NCBC 33 (N.C. Super. Ct. Oct. 19, 2007)(Diaz)

Defendant, a veterinarian, had signed a covenant not to compete with his former employer. He was, at the time, the sole shareholder, sole officer, and sole director of his employer, although the management of the company was controlled by an affiliated entity (VetCor). Defendant left the business and sold its stock, but before doing so he formally cancelled his own non-compete and that of his wife, another veterinarian.

His former employer sued for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, unfair and deceptive practices, and violation of the North Carolina Trade Secrets Protection Act. The Court granted summary judgment on the breach of contract claim as to the former employer. It held that "a sole shareholder of a corporation is generally free to dispose of corporate assets as he sees fit, except where such actions harm or defraud the corporation's creditors, or otherwise violate public policy." Vetcor, however, was entitled to proceed on its breach of contract claim, because the contract had been intended for its benefit.

The Court held that summary judgment was inappropriate on the argument that the covenants were unenforceable becasue they had been signed after the commencement of employment. The date on the contracts was contemporaneous with the start of employment of defendant and his wife, and the Court held that the dates in the contract were prima facie evidence of the date of execution. The Court said that it would consider parol evidence on the actual date that the contracts were signed.

The Court also found that the covenants were ambiguous about whether they applied in the event of a resignation, as opposed to a termination, and that this was an issue for trial.

The Court granted summary judgment on the fiduciary duty claims. Defendant had no fiduciary duty to Vetcor, which was merely a creditor of a corporation that was not in a winding up mode, and he had not breached any duty to his former employer because he was the sole shareholder at the time of his alleged misconduct in setting up a competing business. The Court held that "to hold that [defendant] breached a fiduciary duty would mean only that he breached a duty to himself. Because this conclusion is a non sequitur, the Court declines to adopt it."

On the trade secrets claim, the Court ruled that customer lists are not protected if they contain information that is easily accessible or which can be retrieved by reviewing public information, and that plaintiff had no claim.

The Court let stand the unfair and deceptive practices claim, finding questions of fact on whether defendant was entitled to invoke the learned profession exemption from the statute.

Full Opinion

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Mack Sperling
Brooks Pierce, LLP
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