Contract Principles in Connecticut Non-Compete Agreements: Consideration and the Parol Evidence Rule
United Rentals, Inc. v. Bastanzi, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45268
This federal case involved an employee, one Mr. Jeffrey Bastanzi that started his own company in direct competition with his employer while still in its employment, allegedly in violation of a non-compete agreement signed by both parties. Mr. Bastanzi worked for United Rentals, Inc. from July 2003 to March 30, 2005 as a salesperson in the company’s Gainesville, Florida office. United Rentals is a Delaware corporation with principle business operations in Connecticut that rents and sells equipment and contractor supplies (including but not limited to safety equipment, hand tools, anchoring systems, hard hats, and silk fencing). Mr. Bastanzi was provided with United Rentals’ “Business Ethics Policy” and “Conflict of Interest Policy” on the first day of employment wherein the latter contained a clause stating “no employee shall own or have an interest, directly or indirectly, in any competing enterprise or activity, which conflicts or might conflict with United Rentals’ interests, except with the written approval of the Chief Operating Officer”. Ten months into the job, on May 10, 2004, United Rentals had Mr. Bastanzi sign a “Confidentiality and Non-Competition Agreement” containing non-compete, non-disclosure, and non-solicitation clauses. The covenant established a duration of twelve months, a geographical limitation of seventy-five miles in any direction of United Rentals’ Gainesville office, and stipulated that the company be entitled to injunctive relief in the event Mr. Bastanzi violated the agreement.
United Rentals alleged that Mr. Bastanzi breached the agreement by operating his own competing business, B&S Industrial and Contractor Supplies, LLC, while still employed by the company and within the twelve months following his termination. Mr. Bastanzi started B&S with his wife in 2004 and began contacting United Rentals’ vendors to inquire about becoming a distributor for their products. B&S continued to grow at a steady pace and eventually Mr. Bastanzi’s co-workers informed management that he was operating a competing business on the side. United Rentals terminated Mr. Bastanzi after it conducted an investigation into the matter and found the allegations to be true. At this point Ms. Bastanzi began to work full time at his new company B&S, at that time making approximately $30,000.00 in monthly sales. United Rentals proceeded to sue Mr. Bastanzi for breach of the non-compete agreement to which he offered three defenses to the court: 1) the agreement lacked consideration, 2) he signed the restrictive covenant under duress, and 3) the agreement was incomplete.
The court found in favor of United Rentals, ordered the enforcement of the non-compete agreement, and invalidated all of Mr. Bastanzi’s defenses. It concluded that there was indeed adequate consideration in the non-compete agreement that would make it binding upon the parties. Mr. Bastanzi received continued employment at United Rentals at a mutually agreed upon salary plus the added benefit of a conditional severance package, while United Rentals in return received Mr. Bastanzi’s services and the benefit(s) of the restrictive covenant. Citing a previous federal case, Sartor v. Town of Manchester (312 F. Supp.2d 238 (D. Conn. 2004)), the court stated that, “Connecticut recognizes that continued employment is adequate consideration to support non-compete covenants with at-will employees”.
Next, the court concluded that Mr. Bastanzi did not meet the burden of proof with respect to his claim that he signed the agreement under duress. Mr. Bastanzi failed to impress upon the court that United Rentals committed any “wrongful act or threat” in conjunction with him signing the non-compete agreement. Courts have the authority to invalidate a contract/agreement if there is sufficient evidence that one or more of the parties engaged in fraud or wrongful acts, but in the face of insufficient evidence, the court would not invalidate the agreement between United Rentals and Mr. Bastanzi.
Thirdly, the court rejected Mr. Bastanzi’s claim that the non-compete agreement was an incomplete document and therefore not binding upon the parties. To come to this conclusion, the court applied a very important contract principle, that of the Parol Evidence Rule. The rule prohibits the use of evidence outside the content contained within the four corners of the contract/agreement concerning matters discussed and governed by the finalized document. Mr. Bastanzi told the court that he received oral representations from management before he was hired stating he would not have to sign a non-compete agreement with United Rentals. The finalized document signed by Mr. Bastanzi and United Rentals however did not reflect any of these oral representations and there was not sufficient evidence that the terms of the non-compete agreement were designed to render the alleged representations binding upon the parties. Considering this and applying the parol evidence rule, the court ultimately concluded that the agreement was complete and Mr. Bastanzi’s claim lacked merit.