Signal 88 Security Case Illustrates the Challenge of Obtaining A Preliminary Injunction to Enforce a Franchise Non-Compete
A covenant not to compete is typically included in a franchise agreement to ensure that customer goodwill, once developed in the name of franchise, is not destroyed by former franchisees. The ultimate weapon for a franchisor to enforce a covenant not to compete is obtaining a preliminary injunction against the former franchisee. However, many courts place a heavy burden on the franchisor to prove that a preliminary injunction is proper. The recent case of Colorado Security Consultants, LLC v. Signal 88 Franchise Group, decided in March 2017 by the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, illustrates how difficult that burden can be to meet under unfavorable facts.
Colorado Security Consultants, LLC (CSC), had a three year franchise agreement with franchisor, Signal 88 Franchise Group, Inc., to provide on-site security guard services within a territory in Colorado Springs. CSC also had a right of first refusal over additional franchises to be added within a radius of Colorado Springs. At the end of the initial term, the franchisor and franchisee continued the franchise agreement on a month-to-month basis, subject to 30-day notice of termination. Signal 88 informed CSC that another person, Rebecca Resendes, wished to enter into a franchise agreement for a territory in the right of first refusal area where CSC had developed contracts with some customers. Resendes and CSC negotiated for several months over her either purchasing CSC's franchise or compensating CSC for customers it had developed in her contemplated territory. When no agreement was reached Resendes signed a direct franchise agreement with Signal 88. After additional negotiations between CSC and Resendes failed, Signal 88 told CSC that it had to stop serving customers in Resendes' territory and then terminated CSC's franchise entirely. CSC began providing security services under the name “Guardhail”, and then Signal 88 sued CSC for violation of the 2 year post termination non-compete and sought an injunction to stop it from providing any security services.
To obtain an injunction Signal 88 had to demonstrate the following: (a) without an injunction it would suffer irreparable harm greater than the harm the franchisee would suffer from its issuance; (b) it had more than 50% likelihood of demonstrating violation of an enforceable non-compete by CSC, and (c) the injunction would serve the public interest.
Signal 88 alleged that CSC was causing it irreparable harm because it “contacted Signal 88's customers, undercut Signal 88 on price, and caused a number of customers to cancel contracts with Signal 88.” CSC responded that it did not use “any of the names or trademarks of Signal 88” nor did they use any confidential materials. All customer contracts in the Signal 88 system are entered into in the name of the franchisor, which also does billing and collection. So if Guardhail sought to continue to serve the customers that CSC recruited for Signal 88 (as seems likely) then CSC would have had to utilize the customer contact information and likely would have made offers that were more attractive than the pricing offered under the franchise.
Nevertheless, in declining to issue a preliminary injunction, the Court determined that Signal 88 failed to show that the “harm is certain and great and of such imminence that there is a clear and present need for equitable relief,” because Signal 88 failed to show that in the harm of CSC's actions “threatened the very existence” of Signal 88's business. Accordingly, even if there is a loss of customers and revenue for Signal 88, money damages would still suffice without the “extraordinary” measure of a preliminary injunction.
Signal 88 also argued that failing to enforce the non-compete would cause “irreparable harm to its franchise system”, presumably by encouraging other franchisees to not renew and to flout the non-compete. The court said that Signal 88 had no evidence to back up that general supposition. Since a preliminary injunction would effectively put CSC out of business and would moot the parties' claims before addressing the merits of the case, including CSC's breach of contract counterclaim, the court found that the balance of hardships heavily favored CSC.
Despite the case being heard in Signal 88's hometown of Omaha and the franchise agreement stating that Nebraska law governed, the Court held that Colorado had a greater material interest in the franchise agreement and therefore its laws regarding non-competes applied. Under Colorado law non-compete provisions are disfavored except to protect trade secrets or if issued when selling one's business. The Court found that the evidence presented did not demonstrate CSC's use of Signal 88's trade secrets with any specificity. Moreover, CSC argued that, as Signal 88's selling and servicing agent when dealing with the customers, its principals were Signal 88's employees – an allegation that, if proven, would cause the non-compete being held to very strict scrutiny under applicable law. Since that determination is fact-specific the Court would not make such a decision at the preliminary injunction stage.
It is likely that these factors heavily influenced the Court's denial of the preliminary injunction: (a) CSC recruited and developed the Signal 88 security customers in Colorado Springs, probably through the sales efforts of its owners more than franchisor-provided marketing; (b) accordingly CSC was not provided a customer list and did not inherit a list of long-standing Signal 88 customers, so the Colorado Springs customer list was not trade secret provided by Signal 88; and (c) Signal 88 terminated its relationship with CSC, apparently without cause, and allowed new franchisee Resendes to service all of CSC's contracts without requiring her to pay for the goodwill that CSC had developed in them.
As this case shows, absent favorable facts it is very difficult for a franchisor to obtain a preliminary injunction enforcing a non-compete. Accordingly, certain franchisors may be well-served by adding a provision requiring a former franchisee that violates a post-expiration covenant not to compete to pay 2 years' worth of continuing franchise fees. Such a liquidated damages provision is more easily enforced and represents a fair compromise between franchisor's interest in retaining customer goodwill and franchisees' interests in making sure that the franchisor's brand and business system continue to provide value.