Be careful with covenants not to compete when you buy or sell a business. That’s the lesson from Amerigas Propane, LP v. Coffey, 2014 NCBC 4, decided this week by Judge Jolly.
The Plaintiff had Defendant Coffey, an employee of the company which it was acquiring, sign a "Confidentiality and Post-Employment Agreement" after the acquisition. The Agreement contained a non-solicitation provision and a section protecting the buyer’s "confidential information."
The Plaintiff fired Coffey a year later, and he went to work for a competing propane company.
Plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction enforcing the restrictive covenants, which was denied by the Court.
You all know that there must be consideration for a covenant not to compete. Those types of agreements ordinarily are entered into at the start of an employment relationship, and the new employment itself constitutes the consideration. In North Carolina, continued employment can’t satisfy the consideration requirement.
So did the acquisition work a termination of Coffey’s employment with the selling company so that he had a new employment with the buyer?
Here’s where it gets interesting. The type of acquisition makes a difference. If it had been an asset purchase it might have been a new employment which could have served as consideration. Judge Jolly observed that:
an employment contract signed at the time of a business acquisition may only use employment with the acquiring company as consideration if the old employment relationship is deemed terminated as a result of the transaction. In this regard, North Carolina courts previously have stated that acquisition of another company by asset purchase will act as a termination of existing employment relationships, and existing employees of the acquired business do not necessarily become employees of the acquiring entity.
Op. ¶5 (relying on Calhoun v. WHA Med. Clinic, PLLC, 178 N.C. App. 585, 597 (2006) (citing
QSP v. Hair, 152 N.C. App. 174 (2002)); and Better Bus. Forms & Prods., Inc. v. Craver, 2007 NCBC 34 (2007) ("[W]hen an employer sells its assets . . . the employment relationship has been terminated." Id. ¶38.).
But an acquisition via a stock purchase (or by purchasing membership interests, as happened in this case) doesn’t have the same effect. It does not automatically terminate existing employment relationships "and therefore ordinarily will not constitute new employment for purposes of consideration." Op. ¶6.
So the Plaintiff was left to argue that there was other consideration for the restrictive covenants, like "new benefits" made available to Coffey, and a raise in salary shortly after the acquisition. Judge Jolly didn’t buy that. He found the "new" benefits to be essentially the same as Coffey would have received with the selling employer.