Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A hypnotic tale about choice of law and non-compete agreements

Choice of law is one of the most important, and, often, most ignored decisions you can making in drafting a non-competition agreement. Lifestyle Improvement Centers, LLC v. East Bay Health, LLC (S.D. Ohio 10/7/13), illustrates how the choice of which state’s law will govern the contact can govern the enforceability of the restrictive covenant.

Patrick Porter owned Positive Changes Hypnosis Centers, a successful hypnosis-therapy center, which included a network of franchises. In 2003, Porter sold the business to an Ohio-based company, Lifestyle Improvement Centers. Years later, while running a competing California-based self-improvement company called East Bay Health, Lifestyle reached out to the Porters for help with a struggling Positive Changes franchise in California. Ultimately, the Porters acquired the struggling Positive Changes franchise from Lifestyle. The Porters’ company, East Bay, entered both a franchise agreement and a non-compete agreement with Lifestyle.

The Porters spent a year trying to turn around the Positive Changes franchise location, ultimately concluding it was a lost cause. The Porters shut down the franchise and converted it into The Smart Body Institute, operated through their East Bay Health company. When the Smart Body Institute entered the hypnotherapy business, Lifestyle sued under the non-compete agreement, which stated that Ohio law governed the parties’ relationship.

The Porters and East Bay argued that because California law forbids non-compete agreements, it violates the law and public policy of the state in which their business is located to enforce a non-compete agreement under a competing state’s law. The Ohio federal court hearing the dispute agreed, concluding that despite the Ohio choice of law provision, California law applied. Thus, an Ohio company, with an Ohio choice of law contract, in an Ohio court, could not enforce its non-compete agreement.

In this case, the court ignored the parties’ choice of law because of the strength of the public policy of the state in which the competing business was located. Yet, this case illustrates a larger point. Choice of law can be outcome determinative in non-compete cases. Because state law governs the enforceability of non-compete agreements, there are 50 different possible sets of rules for your contract. The set that you choose could determine your case. For example, Ohio enforces non-compete agreements based on their overall reasonableness. California, on the other hand, has decided that its public policy renders most non-compete agreements per se unenforceable. Do not ignore the selection of the controlling law in your non-competition agreements. Otherwise, you could be missing a golden opportunity to dictate the terms of the agreement’s interpretation, and, ultimately, its enforceability.