We have previously discussed non-competition agreements in the employer/employee context, but non-compete agreements arise in other scenarios. One of the most common events that leads to a non-compete is the sale of a business. The basics are the same as for employers and employees: the non-compete must be reasonable in duration and geographic scope, and for a legitimate business purpose. The difference lies in what is deemed reasonable. A recent Superior Court case, Annunciata v. VPS Services, LLC, et al. (Civil Action No. 15-2985 BLS2) addressed some interesting points on this topic.
The plaintiff, Annunciata, sold her business in return for cash and an equity stake in a new company formed from the sale, known as “VPS LLC.” As part of the sale, Annunciata entered into several agreements. Two of them, the Asset Purchase Agreement governing the sale, and a Service Agreement by which Annunciata was hired to work for VPS LLC, each contained a restrictive non-compete, barring her from competing for five years (which would be reduced to one year if she was terminated by VPS LLC without cause).
Shortly after the sale was completed, Annunciata had disagreements over the direction of the new company with a manager of the company that held the majority of VPS LLC’s shares. The disagreements rose to a point that the other managers (and co-defendants) voted to terminate Annunciata’s employment with VPS LLC. Annunciata filed suit against VPS LLC and the other managers for wrongful termination, who in turn counterclaimed, seeking an injunction to bar Annunciata from competing with VPS LLC, an intention Annunciata had made clear.
The court ruled in favor of the defendants, granting them an injunction. The court reasoned that when a non-compete is negotiated as part of a business sale, the court is inclined to honor such agreements, provided they are reasonable. Here, the plaintiff intended to compete directly with VPS LLC, which would deprive the defendants of a key portion of what they purchased: the good will of the recently purchased business. Further, the plaintiff still owned a portion of VPS LLC, and the specific terms of her non-compete allowed her to work, just not to form a competing company.
The takeaway from this case is that Massachusetts courts will honor non-compete agreements of a longer duration, if such non-competes are negotiated as part of a sale of a business. Any person contemplating buying or selling a business should consult with a qualified Massachusetts business attorney to protect their interests.