California Rejects Enforcement of Restrictive Covenant in Employment Agreement

By: Elena S. Min

A California Court of Appeal recently rejected a covenant not to compete included in an employment agreement, although it was related to a transaction for the sale of goodwill of a business – one of the well-recognized exceptions to the general rule in California that limits restrictive covenants.

In Fillpoint, LLC v. Maas, No. G045057 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 24, 2012), Michael Maas, a shareholder in Crave Entertainment Group, Inc., sold his shares in the company when it was acquired by Handleman Company.  That transaction was executed through a stock purchase agreement which contained a three year covenant not to compete.  A month later, Maas entered into an employment agreement, which contained a one year covenant not to compete that became effective as of the date of the termination of his employment with Crave.  Three years after the sales transaction, Maas resigned from Crave and began working for a competing company.  Handleman’s successor, Fillpoint, LLC, sued Maas for breaching his employment agreement (as well as his new employer for interference with contract).

Fillmore argued that the restrictive covenant in Maas’ employment agreement was enforceable because it fell within the sale of goodwill exception contained in California Business and Professional Code section 16600.  The Court of Appeal rejected that argument and found that, although the stock purchase agreement and employment agreement constitute a single transaction and each agreement referenced the other, only the purchase agreement was focused on protecting the acquired goodwill.  In contrast, the Court of Appeal stated that the covenant contained in the employment agreement impermissibly targeted an employee’s fundamental right to pursue his or her profession and was therefore unenforceable.

This recent decision reaffirms the limited scope of the exceptions to the general rule in California that covenants not to compete are unenforceable.  Therefore, employers must be mindful when drafting such covenants to ensure that they fall squarely within one or more of the recognized exceptions.