AGRILAND FAILS IN EFFORT TO PREVENT TILLAGE JOURNALIST FROM MOVING TO IRISH FARMERS JOURNAL - NON-COMPETE CLAUSE IN CONTRACT HELD TO BE UNENFORCEABLE
AGRILAND FAILS IN EFFORT TO PREVENT TILLAGE JOURNALIST FROM MOVING TO IRISH FARMERS JOURNAL
- NON-COMPETE CLAUSE IN CONTRACT HELD TO BE UNENFORCEABLE
AgriLand was seeking to enforce a non-compete clause by way of injunctive relief restraining the Defendant, a Tillage Journalist from commencing employment with the Farmers Journal until the conclusion of three months following the end of her employment, which the Plaintiff stated was 16 February 2021.
Mr Justice John O’Connor in refusing injunctive relief sought held that the Defendant's departure from AgriLand Media to The Farmers’ Journal, after having given two months-notice would not justify an additional three months unpaid leave until mid-February next.
Having considered all the relevant facts in the case and the law, the Court held that a non-compete clause in the Defendant’s contract of employment was not justified and was unenforceable.
The Defendant had commenced employment with the Plaintiff in September 2017 in the full-time role of a Technical Tillage Journalist. The wording of the non-compete clause in her contract was as follows:-
"Upon termination of the employee’s employment for whatever reason it is specifically agreed that the employee shall not take up employment with any other publisher of agricultural news for a period of three months from the date of termination of employment to include, without prejudice to the generality, the Farmers Journal, the Farming Independent and Farm Ireland.”
The Defendant’s Counsel, Ms Sheila Reidy BL, instructed by Ms Margaret Cordial of Smithwicks Solicitors, had submitted that the non-compete clause upon which the Plaintiff purported to rely was prima facie void as the Plaintiff had not demonstrated any reason why injunctive relief of this nature was warranted. She submitted that it was settled law in this jurisdiction that a non-compete clause is prima facia void, but can become binding upon proof that the restriction in question is justified in the circumstances and reasonable from the point of view of both parties.
Ms Reidy argued that in this case, the clause could not be justified as a legitimate interest had not been shown. She relied upon the established jurisprudence of the courts in Murgitroyd Net Affinity and the leading case of Ryanair v Bellew. She submitted that in circumstances where Ms Walsh’s role was a technical tillage journalist, and where she was moving to a different and distinct role with the Farmer’s Journal, the clause as drafted could never be said to be necessary or legitimate, fair or reasonable or consistent with the interests of both parties. She highlighted that the clause was not limited at all in any scope geographically, not even to the island of Ireland. It therefore restricted the Defendant from working outside of Ireland, in the US, the UK etc. Additionally, it sought to prevent the Defendant from taking up employment with any other publisher, whatsoever, including online, of agricultural news and it restricted her from working for any publisher of agricultural news in any capacity, such as a receptionist, in the canteen, essentially, in any role.
Mr Justice O’Connor noted that the Defendant was a highly qualified expert on tillage crops and had a PhD in agricultural science and was now considered one of the top soils and crops experts in Ireland. He held that the clause was too wide in scope and was unenforceable and that the Court had no jurisdiction to amend or rewrite the clause. He refused the injunctive relief sought and granted the Defendant the legal costs of the proceedings. He went on to hold that it is in the interests of employers and employees to enter enforceable contracts of employment.
The decision is a a reminder for employers to consider the legitimate interests that require protection when incorporating non-complete clauses into contracts of employment. Employers should ensure any proposed non-compete clauses and post termination restrictions are no wider than necessary to protect identified and specific legitimate business interests. Such clauses must be tailored to each employee, particularly in respect of (i) the extent of restriction on where the employee may work in the future, and (ii) the capacity in which the employee is restricted from being employed or engaged by an alternative employer.