LACONIA — A Meredith health and beauty spa is asking a judge to order a local hairstylist to stop working at her current job, arguing the beautician is violating a non-competition agreement she had with the spa when she worked there.
The civil action was filed in Belknap Superior Court by Hampshire Hospitality Holdings LLC, which operates the Cascade Spa at Mill Falls against Koren W. Purinton, who worked there from 2007-12, and after an absence of four months, from 2013 until this past July, when she left Cascade Spa to take a job at a Meredith hair salon, Refuge for Healthy Hair.
Cascade Spa sued Purinton for violating a clause in her employment contract that states that if she ever leaves the spa she cannot work as a hairstylist within 25 miles of Meredith for one year after her departure. Refuge for Healthy Hair is located one mile from the Cascade Spa, according to the civil complaint.
Purinton is contesting the suit, arguing the non-competition clause is so broad that it unreasonably prevents her from making a living and being able to take advantage of employment opportunities to better herself personally and professionally.
In its civil action, Hampshire Hospitality Holdings is asking the judge to order Purinton to terminate her current job, or failing that, to provide no beautician services to Refuge for Healthy Hair customers who are past or present clients of the Cascade Spa.
Hampshire Hospitality Holdings charges that Purinton took “multiple clients with her to her new employment, therefore depriving the (spa) of current and future revenue from those clients.’’
However, Purinton’s attorney, Michael Persson, counters that the “vast majority of (Purinton’s clients at her present job), are the ones she inherited from a former Refuge for Healthy Hair stylist who left this past summer to move to Florida.”
In a hearing Tuesday before Judge James D. O’Neill III, Persson said the way Hampshire Hospitality Holdings is trying to enforce the non-competition agreement amounts to an overreach.
In court and in a written brief filed with the court Persson said, based on prior state Supreme Court decisions, non-competition agreements must be narrowly construed and that the restraints they impose have to be reasonable. Otherwise, they are invalid.
The brief cited one state Supreme Court decision which found, “It is well established in our case law that when the legitimate interest an employer seeks to protect with a restrictive covenant is its goodwill with customers, a covenant that restricts a former employee from soliciting business from the employer's entire customer base sweeps too broadly.”
In the brief Persson said further that extenuating circumstance involving Purinton’s life make the way Hampshire Hospitality Holdings is trying to enforce the agreement unreasonable. The brief notes that Purinton is a single mother with two young children and that the three of them live with Purinton’s parents in Moultonborough. The filing said “she shares expenses and a vehicle, and is responsible for picking up her father from work, her 13-year-old from school and her 2-year-old from daycare. (Purinton) would be unable to accept a position outside of the 25-mile non-competition zone and would be unable to work if the non-competition provision were enforced as written.”
Persson also argues that because Purinton’s former employer has shown bad faith in its dealings with her, it has forfeited its rights to having the agreement enforced.
Specifically, Persson noted that Cascade Spa did not require Purinton to sign a non-competition agreement when she was hired the first time, but she was required to sign one the second time. Since she felt she had no choice but to sign the agreement in order to get her job back, the agreement should not be considered legally binding.
“When an employer, through superior bargaining power, extracts a deliberately unreasonable and oppressive noncompetitive covenant he is in no just position to seek, and should not receive, equitable relief from the courts,” the Supreme Court ruled in another case which was cited in the brief.
In addition, the brief states that Cascade Spa pays lower commissions to its hairstylists than and other salons in the area and uses the non-competition agreement as a way of “keeping commissions at an artificially low rate given the ‘captive’ nature of her employment that resulted from the non-competition agreement.”
Hampshire Hospitality Holdings’ attorney, Joseph Driscoll was expected to file his own brief in the case with the court today.
A message left on the voicemail of one of Driscoll’s secretaries seeking comment was not returned Tuesday afternoon.
Hampshire Hospitality Holdings is requesting the court to render a decision as soon as possible. O’Neill took the matter under advisement at the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing.