Court Enforces Non-Compete and Rejects “Ambiguous Language” and “Unreasonable Restrictions” Defenses

Century 21 Access America v. Lisboa, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2085

Century 21 Access America was a residential real estate sales company based in Milford, Connecticut that employed Ms. Nereida Lisboa as a salesperson from April 2002 until April 2003.  Her employment was contingent upon signing an Independent Contractor Agreement on April 24, 2002 wherein paragraph twelve constituted a non-compete clause.  The restrictive covenant prohibited Ms. Lisboa for a period of two years from working at a competing company located within fifteen miles of Milford, Connecticut.  Once Ms. Lisboa voluntarily terminated her employment with Century 21, she immediately began to work for William Raveis Real Estate, a direct competitor located directly across the street.  Century 21 sued Ms. Lisboa for breach of the non-compete agreement and requested that the court enforce the provisions of the covenant.

Connecticut courts have the authority to exercise equitable power to order a temporary injunction pending final determination of the order, upon the moving party demonstrating that it will incur irreparable harm in the absence of such an injunctive order.  The court found that an injunction was warranted and proper in this case and as such, granted Century 21’s request for an injunctive order to restrain Ms. Lisboa from further violations of the covenant not to compete.  Ms. Lisboa offered several defenses to invalidate the agreement, including a claim that the language of the agreement was ambiguous and another claim that the provisions were unreasonable.  The court ultimately rejected both of these assertions and held in favor of Century 21.

The challenging party bears the burden of proof to show that an agreement is invalid and should not be binding upon the signatory parties.  The court found no merit in Ms. Lisboa’s claim that the agreement was ambiguous and that she was not obligated to refrain from any specific business activity.  The court stated that “although the covenant is neither a model of clarity or precise craftsmanship, the defendant [Ms. Lisboa] fails to demonstrate how the covenant’s language, in and of itself, is ambiguous”.

The court further dissected Ms. Lisboa’s defenses and shot down her claim that the restrictions were unreasonable.  It is well established in Connecticut law that a company has a proprietary right to its clients and is thus entitled to protection for that right.  Century 21 had a legitimate business interest worthy of protection based on the fact that Ms. Lisboa could use information gained from Century 21’s client lists and the time she spent with the company to solicit business for herself and her new company to the detriment of Century 21.  The company was well within its rights to employ reasonable restrictions to protect this legitimate business interest.  Ms. Lisboa’s license to engage in the real estate industry is valid throughout the state of Connecticut and the covenant only restricted her business activities within a relatively small area with a fifteen-mile radius.  This, in combination with a limited time restriction, made the court conclude that the geographical restriction was in fact reasonable and enforceable.

The court identified a legitimate business interest that required protection and concluded that the provisions of the covenant not to compete were reasonable, leading it the grant Century 21’s request for injunctive relief in the form of enforcement of the non-compete agreement.

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment and corporate law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County.  If you have any questions relating to your non-compete agreement or would like to discuss any element of your employment agreement, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. by phone at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

 

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