The Ontario Court of Appeal has issued two recent decisions dealing with breach of fiduciary duty in an employment context. In one case, GasTOPS Ltd. v. Forsyth (2012) ONCA 134, issued on March 1, 2012, the Court of Appeal upheld an award of almost $20M against a group of four former employees of GasTops. In the second case, Veolia ES Industrial Services Inc. v. Brulé (2012) ONCA 173, issued on March 20, 2012, the Court of Appeal overturned a trial award of $465,000 that had been issued against Mr. Brulé, a former employee of Veolia. Both cases provide some useful information about the nature of fiduciary duties in employment relationships and the potential costs of breaching these duties.
The GasTOPS case took seven years until it was completed. There were 295 days of evidence spread over 3 years, with 70,000 pages of exhibits and 3,000 pages of written submissions. It took the Court two years to produce the trial reasons, which were 668 pages in length. The Court of Appeal heard the appeal in the matter over a period of four days and issued a 32 page decision. One aspect of breach of fiduciary duty cases is that they can be very expensive and time consuming, regardless of who eventually wins.
The Trial Court had held that the four defendants were the designers of the core program of the GasTOPs products. They were part of the senior management. They all left to start up a new competing business together and took additional employees with them. They then pursued “virtually every existing and potential GasTOPS’ customer, used the confidential information that they had obtained while at GasTOPS and also used GasTOPS’ technical information. In short, they took virtually the whole of the business from GasTOPS and used it in their new venture. In their first three years of business, nearly 80% of their business came from GasTOPS’ clients. The Court ordered 10 years of lost profits against these four defendants and their new company. The Court of Appeal had little difficulty upholding the finding that all four employees were fiduciaries, that 10 years was a reasonable time period for measuring damages and that the four defendants were jointly and severally liable.
The other decision issued by the Court of Appeal very different. Mr. Brulé had been the acting CEO of Veolia ES Industrial Services Inc., a company that he had originally founded and then later sold. He had an employment contract with Veolia that contained a non-competition provision. The clause was poorly designed and did not wind up providing the protection that Veolia thought it had. Mr. Brulé resigned from Veolia and provided notice of resignation as he was required to do. On his way out the door, he made copies of company binders which contained various tenders and bids for public projects. A few months later, he successfully bid on a project with the City of Ottawa with his new company. Veolia sued for breach of fiduciary duty.
At trial, Veolia was awarded $465,000 plus costs against Mr. Brulé. The Trial Court held that the poorly worded employment contract should be “blue-penciled” and fixed in a way that seemed to reflect the parties’ intention. It ruled that Mr. Brulé was subject to a two year non-competition agreement and that he had breached it. On appeal of this issue, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned this finding. It referred to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in KRG Insurance v. Shafron and underscored the fact that Canadian courts will rarely “blue-pencil” non-competition agreements. Since the agreement could not be “fixed,” Mr. Brulé had not breached any agreement.
The Trial Court also held that Mr. Brulé breached his fiduciary duties. Since he took the binder and since he bid on the City of Ottawa project without telling his former employer, the Trial Court found him liable. The Court of Appeal overturned both of these findings. It held that the binders were filled with public documents and there was no proof that Mr. Brulé had taken or used anything that was confidential. Moreover, it emphatically stated that he had no duty to his former employer to tell them that he was bidding on a project against them. In short. unlike in the GasTOPS case, Mr. Brulé did not take a big chunk of his former employer’s business. He entered into a bidding competition and won it fairly, without breaching any duties. The Court of Appeal fully overturned the award of damages and ordered that Veolia pay Mr. Brulé’s legal costs.
Either or both of these cases may yet be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. But they each provide different information about the nature of fiduciary duty claims and non-competition issues. Where an employee or group of employees takes confidential information, uses it and competes unfairly against a former employee, significant damages may be awarded. But where an employee, even a very senior employee, leaves and winds up competing against his or her former employer, that is not a breach of fiduciary duty on its own. There must be some proof that the employee has misused confidential information that belonged to the former employer.