FRANCHISEE 101: Purposes and Limits of Non-Compete Clauses

Lewitt Hackman
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Many franchise agreements have "non-compete clauses", which state that after termination or expiration of the franchise agreement, the ex-franchisee may not operate a business that is similar to or that would compete with the franchised business. These clauses apply for a stated time and cover a stated geography. In some jurisdictions, such as California, non-compete clauses are not enforceable. In other jurisdictions where these clauses can possibly be enforced, courts also decline to enforce them in some circumstances.

In AAMCO Transmissions, Inc. v. Romano, Robert and Linda Romano sold their AAMCO franchise in Florida and terminated their AAMCO franchise agreement. Then they opened a new transmission repair shop over 90 miles away from their old location. The Romanos' franchise agreement had a non-compete clause barring them, for two years, from opening a competing business within 10 miles of any AAMCO location. The Romanos' new location was only 1.4 miles from an AAMCO business. Despite this, a court refused to enforce the non-compete provision. The court ruled that the provision was too broad in its geographic scope, and limited enforcement to 10 miles from the franchisees' former location, and 10 miles from any other AAMCO location within the county in Florida where the franchise had been located.

In MEDIchair LP v. DME Medequip Inc., MEDIchair franchise businesses sold and leased medical equipment to be used at home. The MEDIchair franchisor also owned and operated similar businesses, but under the name "Motion Specialties." A MEDIchair franchisee in Ontario, Canada discovered it was competing with a nearby Motion Specialties store serving the same area. When the franchisee's franchise agreement ended, it de-identified its store as a MEDIchair franchise, and operated a similar business in the same location, with the same employees selling the same or similar products. MEDIchair then sued the franchisee to enforce the non-compete clause in the franchise agreement. That clause prohibited the franchisee from operating a competing business within 30 miles of the franchised location or any other MEDIchair franchise for 18 months after expiration of the agreement.

The Ontario court noted that, to be enforceable, a non-compete clause must serve a legitimate business interest of the franchisor - namely, to protect the franchise system. In this case, the evidence suggested the franchisor did not seek a replacement franchisee for the vacated location, since the territory was already served by its own Motion Specialties location. MEDIchair's actions showed that it had no interest in protecting the interests of its franchise system in Ontario. Therefore, the court refused to enforce the non-compete clause against the former franchisee in that territory.

AAMCO and MEDIchair show that even in jurisdictions where non-competes can be enforced, courts may narrowly construe the franchisor's legitimate business interests that may be protected by a non-compete clause. A court may find, as in AAMCO, that the non-compete only protects the franchisor's interests in the particular franchised location sold. Or, as in MEDIchair, a court may conclude that the franchisor has no business interest to protect - or, that the interest it seeks to protect is not "legitimate."

Read: AAMCO v. Robert V. Romano and Linda Romano, and MEDIchair LLP v. DME Medequip Inc.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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