A set of former franchisees are prohibited from violating the terms of a non-compete clause with franchisor Wild Bird Centers of America (“WBCA”) for two years after the Fourth Circuit recently upheld the denial of their petition to vacate an arbitration award imposing the injunction. The franchisees had continued to operate a Wild Bird Center store after their ten-year franchise agreement expired and they chose not to renew it. WBCA submitted the dispute to mandatory arbitration, and the arbitrator issued an injunction prohibiting the franchisees from violating the non-compete.
First, the franchisees argued the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law, exceeded his powers, and failed to issue an award from the essence of the franchise agreement by applying the non-compete clause. The court rejected these claims as merely alleging the arbitrator misinterpreted the agreement. The non-compete clause’s language suggesting application “after termination” in contrast to a later section’s language suggesting application “[i]n the event of termination or expiration” of the franchise agreement was “at worst ambiguous” and “at best, support[ed] WBCA’s position.” Therefore, the arbitrator’s application “arguably” construed the contract sufficient to warrant confirmation.
Second, the franchisees claimed that, even if the non-compete clause applied, the arbitrator erred by extending the clause’s terms to two years because such an interpretation did not draw from the essence of the agreement. The court rejected these claims based on another case which held it reasonable to enforce compliance with a non-compete to include the total time which the aggrieved party was entitled to under the non-compete clause. Further, the franchisees failed to show the arbitrator acted from personal notions of right and wrong or disregarded the correct legal standards. Specifically, the court noted the limited nature of the injunction term and lack of demonstrated prejudice from the extension because the franchisees had yet to stop operating the competing business. The court affirmed the district court’s order confirming the award. , Case No. 17-1346 (4th Cir. Nov. 27, 2017).