Court Invalidates Non-Compete Agreement for Unreasonable Restrictions

by Joseph C. Maya on Mar. 01, 2024

Employment 

Summary: Trans-Clean Corp. v. Terrell, 1998 Conn. Super. LEXIS 717

Trans-Clean Corp. was a company engaged in the business of restoring exteriors and interiors of commercial buildings.  The company began to employ Mr. Alton Terrell as a salesman and manager in December 1990 in connection with the company’s acquisition of Travel Washer, Inc..  The parties executed an employment agreement that created a one-year term of employment, specified the compensation schedule, and contained a non-competition covenant.  The non-compete agreement stated that Mr. Terrell was prohibited for two years following the completion of his employment contract or any renewal thereof from competing with Trans-Clean within sixty miles of the company’s main office in Stratford, CT.

The parties negotiated a pay increase in 1993 and a new compensation schedule was created.  Trans-Clean considered this a renewal of the original employment contract and held the belief that the non-compete agreement was still valid and in effect.  Mr. Terrell however did not share the same view and did not treat the pay increase and new compensation schedule as a renewal of the original contract.  While the parties had different interpretations of the pay increase, there were no direct discussions to clarify its characteristics.

The Dispute

Mr. Terrell suddenly resigned from Trans-Clean in September 1997 and proceeded to create his own commercial restoration company and solicited business from individuals/businesses on Trans-Clean’s customer list.  Trans-Clean sued Mr. Terrell and asked the court to issue an injunction to enforce the non-compete agreement and prevent any further violations.  The court had to tackle two central issues to decide the dispute: 1) whether customer lists are protected trade secrets and 2) the nature and reasonableness of the employment contract and non-compete agreement.  It held that the lists were not trade secrets that entitled Trans-Clean to an injunction and further concluded that the non-compete agreement was unreasonable and unenforceable.

The court held that the customer lists were not trade secrets or confidential information that required protection.  There was never a company policy to designate the lists as confidential information or maintain a degree of secrecy of customers or contact persons.  Furthermore, each salesperson maintained his or her own personal contact lists and did not have any direct access to other sales representatives’ lists.  Each salesperson had the responsibility of developing his or her list, maintaining business relationships, and collecting accounts.  These lists did not amount to a business interest for which Trans-Clean was entitled to protection and injunctive relief.

Reasonableness of the Covenant

Next, the court assessed the reasonableness of the covenant not to compete and found that its provisions, specifically the geographical restriction, were unreasonable and unenforceable.  The sixty-mile radius restriction covered 75% of Connecticut, including the state’s six major metropolitan areas (Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury, Stamford, and Danbury), and extended into parts of New York (including four out the five boroughs) and New Jersey.  The restriction, according to the court, was overreaching and unnecessarily infringed on Mr. Terrell’s ability to purse his occupation and obtain future employment.  He had twenty years of experience in the commercial restoration industry and it was the only field in which he had ever worked.

Renewal of the Original Agreement

Lastly, the court analyzed whether the pay increase and modification of the compensation schedule amounted to a renewal of the original agreement.  The court stated there was a “question of fact” that it needed to answer in order to decide the case.  It noted that the writing drawn up by the company regarding the pay increase did not make any reference to the original employment contract and there was no apparent connection between the two writings.

In the absence of any reference or connection, the court concluded that the pay increase was not a renewal or extension of the original employment contract.  The court noted however that Mr. Terrell “should be bound by the non-compete agreement if that agreement is found to be reasonable”.  The court’s earlier analysis revealed that the covenant was in fact unreasonable, thereby overriding Mr. Terrell’s obligation to abide by its provisions.


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