A federal court in Colorado recently upheld a franchisor’s non-competition provision despite that state’s strong public policy against non-competes. The franchisor prevailed due to its thoughtful contract drafting and ability to effectively communicate the unique nature of franchising to the court.
In-home care franchisor Homewatch International, Inc. and its franchisee, Prominent Home Care, Inc., signed a franchise agreement that terminated on June 30, 2016. The next day, Prominent’s sole shareholder and officer (the “Defendant”), started a competing company. Homewatch sued the Defendant for breach of contract, seeking to enforce the non-competition provisions in their agreements.
The Defendant made two arguments in her defense (i) the franchise agreement’s non-competition provision did not bind her because she signed the franchise agreement only in her executive capacity on behalf of Prominent; and (ii) the non-competition provision was unenforceable under Colorado law.
Argument 1: Parties Bound
The franchise agreement stated that, after the term of the franchise agreement, Prominent and its officers and shareholders could not own or operate a competing business within a twenty-five mile radius of a Homewatch location. Only Prominent (not the Defendant) signed the franchise agreement. However, the franchisor had also required the Defendant to sign a personal guaranty. The guaranty stated that the Defendant would be bound by the non-competition covenant in the franchise agreement.
The court ruled in the franchisor’s favor. It held that the guaranty unambiguously stated that the Defendant—in her individual capacity—would be bound by the franchise agreement’s non-competition provisions.
Argument 2: Colorado Policy
Colorado law generally disfavors non-competition provisions. One exception to this rule is for a contract for the purchase and sale of a business. This exception promotes the purchase and sale of businesses by protecting the good will of the business being sold (i.e., a purchaser may be less likely to buy a business if it cannot obtain an enforceable non-compete from the prior owner).
Prior to Homewatch, the courts had not definitively decided whether the sale of a franchise qualified for this exception under Colorado law. The Defendant argued that the exception did not apply because the sale of a franchise is not a sale of a business—instead it is the sale of a license to the franchisor’s methods and intellectual property for a certain term.
The court rejected this argument, holding that the exception applied and the non-compete was enforceable. The court concluded that the “good will” rationale was just as important in the franchise context, noting that a significant portion of the value of a franchise system is its good will. (It should be noted, however, that Homewatch is a federal court opinion. A Colorado state court could come to a different conclusion; however, the state court would likely consider the Homewatch rationale in its decision.)
Franchisors should take note of the Homewatch decision and ensure that their franchisees’ owners and key employees, especially those with access to confidential materials and training, sign non-competes in their individual capacities. This is often addressed in the personal guaranty, as it was in Homewatch. Franchise systems in states that frown upon non-competition provisions should be aware of the Homewatch rationale in the event they need to enforce their non-competes. Franchisors should also make sure to use experienced franchise counsel. In Homewatch, counsel was able to communicate the unique franchise model to the court and to persuasively argue why the court should apply a law that was probably not drafted with franchising in mind. The result was a win for the franchisor and also franchising, which relies on non-competes to mitigate risks inherent in the franchise model.