Earlier this year, the Georgia Court of Appeals made news in Atlanta Bread Company Int’l v. Lupton-Smith, Court of Appeals Case No. A08A0348, when it struck down in-term restrictive covenants of a franchisee on the grounds that the in-term restrictive covenants did not pass the test of reasonableness applied to post-term restrictive covenants. In this case, the franchisee had opened several allegedly competing stores at the same time that he was operating Atlanta Bread Company franchises. Atlanta Bread Company then terminated his franchise. The Court of Appeals ruled that the post-term restrictive covenants and the in-term covenants were inextricably tied and because the post-term restrictive covenants did not pass muster, the in-term covenants also failed.
The case has sparked great interest within the franchise community, as the International Franchise Association has indicated that the lower court decision would wreak havoc on franchise systems in Georgia by rendering “unenforceable the in-term restrictive covenants in the vast majority of franchise contracts for businesses operated in Georgia, including many of the most well-known and respected franchises in the world.” The Court of Appeals ruling was cast as opening the door for franchisees potentially to compete with their own franchisors during the term of the franchise agreement. Georgia applies strict scrutiny review to post-termination restrictive covenants between franchisees and franchisors, which is the same standard applied to such agreements between employees and employers. As a result, Georgia will not blue pencil such an agreement, even though it will blue pencil a non-competition covenant contained in the sale of a business.
On October 6, 2008, The Georgia Supreme Court granted Atlanta Bread Company’s petition for certiorari. The Court agreed to hear, in particular, the following questions:
1. Did the [Court of Appeals] err in holding that under Jackson & Coker v. Hart, 261 Ga. 371 (1991), the reasonableness standard applicable to post-termination restrictive covenants also applies to in-term restrictive covenants?
2. Did the [Court of Appeals] err in applying to in-term restrictive covenants in franchise agreements the rule against allowing the blue-pencil doctrine of severability.
The Supreme Court’s decision to grant certiorari means that oral argument is mandatory. The case will proceed on the January 2009 oral argument calendar.