There is a well-known principle that a restraint of trade is prima facie void as contrary to public policy because it discourages competition and the restrained party from earning a living. In considering whether a restraint of trade is void at common law, a Court will consider if as a threshold matter the restraint is no more extent than is reasonably necessary to protect the interests of the employer. Usually the permitted period of restraint is fairly short and is of limited geographic extent.
Contrasting the usual situation, the Full Court of the Federal Court has recently upheld a 2 year restraint of trade clause against an executive and the co-founder of a consultancy business: see Pearson v HRX Holdings Pty Ltd  FCAFC 111. The decision of the Court [link] demonstrates that if a restraint is carefully tailored by negotiation to the specific circumstances of the employer and employee, the parties bargain over the restraint’s key features and the reasoning for the duration and geographic reach is documented, and the employee receives independent advice, then restraints in excess of what might be considered the usual “rule of thumb” can be upheld.
The appellant, Brett Pearson, was a “co-founder” of a human resources consultancy called HRX Holdings. He had established the business with Katrina Leslie in 2005. Leslie was the effective controller of the company through shares held by her family trust. Pearson had been a director and an employees of the business until his resignation in July 2011. He left to join a competitor.
Pearson was the key employee of HRX: it built the whole business around him. He was at first the only employee. By the time of his resignation, he was one of 130. Pearson was a rainmaker. The industry saw him as a leading innovator in the HR consulting field, was the primary presenter to clients and had an ability to establish and renew contacts with the senior executives of clients. He also had full access to all of HRX’s confidential information, particularly its techniques for establishing and developing client relationships.
Pearson had negotiated an employment contract with HRX that was signed in December 2005, but was effective from February 2005. The contract had been negotiated over a period of some months. The restraint clause was a particularly heavily negotiated point: both Pearson and Leslie had recognised that Pearson was the face of the business and the key person whom it was being built around. Leslie gave evidence that the restraint of Pearson post termination was one of the biggest risks for the business to be managed. Eventually they agreed that the restraint period would extend to two years (not 6 months as Pearson had first proposed). Pearson obtained advice on all aspects of the contract from his own lawyers and accountants before he signed it.
The restraint clause is set out at paragraph  of the first instance judgment (HRX Holdings Pty Ltd v Pearson  FCA 161) [link]. It included the following features relevant to the Full Court’s judgment:
- a two-year restraint period;
- no express geographic limit;
- Pearson was to be restrained from (broadly speaking) participating in any way in what was defined as the “Restrained Business”, which meant “a business or operation similar to or competitive with the business of [HRX] …..at the time of leaving the company.”
- Pearson was to be paid for the two-year period of the restraint (on conditions).
At first instance, the restraint clause was upheld. Pearson appealed. There were several issues of interest in the appeal.
First, whether the breadth of the restraint was such that it was contrary to public policy. The Court upheld the decision at first instance that:
- The lack of a geographic restraint did not render the clause as a blanket restraint with worldwide operation. Rather, it had to be read consistently with the purpose of the restraint, which was to protect HRX’s business which was limited to Australia, New Zealand and other minor potential opportunities outside those markets, but was by no means global.
- The words “similar to or competitive with” had to be read together and construed consistently with the purpose of the restrain. They did not prohibit activity in a “similar” but not “competing” business. If the clause had been construed that way it would have been too wide.
- The limitation of the definition to businesses in which HRX was operating at the time of departure made the clause self-limiting, and less vulnerable to offending the rule against public policy.
Second, in applying the principle that the restraint would be permitted if it were reasonable, the Court took relied on the following matters:
- The restraint clause expressly acknowledged that Pearson was the key employee of the business and set out the reasons for that in some detail.
- Pearson had agreed to the definition of a Restrained Business without any negotiation.
- The extent of the negotiations of some months of the contract and over the period of restraint indicated a deliberate character to the execution of the contract including the restraint.
- The duration of the restraint was specifically negotiated.
- Pearson was to be paid during the restraint period.
- Pearson had sought and obtained independent legal and accounting advice.
- The parties expressly agreed that the restraints were reasonable.
- Pearson had been granted a free carry 8% shareholding, to be progressively released over the contract, as compensation for entry into the contract, and separately from his pay.
- Pearson and Leslie in combination had negotiated the contracts of various other HRX executives with similar (although shorter) restraints in them.
Pearson also argued that the restraint was unnecessary since confidentiality and non solicitation clauses operated post termination and that clause would protect HRX from exploitation of its confidential information by a new employer. The Court quickly demised that argument. Those clauses do not prevent the natural gravitation of clients, without solicitation, toward a key rain maker such as Pearson when he settles into a new role.
Although the case dealt with a very senior executive, it does have wider application. It emphasises the benefit of an employer carefully reasoning the extent of the restraint so that it meets the employer’s needs and doesn’t exceed them, bargaining the clause with the employee, ensuring independent advice is taken or at least an opportunity to get it is available, using a fair a degree of documentation of that process and even recording the reasoning and bargaining process within the contract itself. It also demonstrates that the external circumstances of the parties are very important, because the task of the Court is not limited to construction. The Court’s role is also assessment of whether the restraint is reasonable having regard to public policy and to the purpose of protecting the employer’s interest that is key, which is an issue of fact.
Finally, the case has application beyond employment, to sale of business and other commercial agreements containing restraint clauses where similar issues arise.