Canada: Restriction territoriale des clauses de non-concurrence dans l'industrie technologique – lorsque la limitation semble elle-même avoir une limite

Les clauses de non-concurrence sont régulièrement utilisées tant dans le cadre de contrats commerciaux que dans le cadre de contrats d'emploi. Ces clauses pondèrent d'un côté les intérêts légitimes commerciaux de l'entreprise au droit notamment de l'employé de gagner sa vie. Elles sont donc une exception à la règle de la libre concurrence et, afin d'être légales et légitimes, se doivent d'être limitées raisonnablement quant au temps, au lieu et avoir un objet circonscrit. Lorsque l'une de ces trois (3) limitations impose toutefois une restriction qui va au-delà des intérêts légitimes en cause à protéger, la clause de non-concurrence risque d'être jugée déraisonnable par les tribunaux québécois. Ce constat emporte automatiquement son invalidité totale et sa non-application, et ce, sans la possibilité de la réécrire ou de la modifier. Dès lors, la rédaction d'une clause de non-concurrence doit être méticuleuse et une attention particulière doit être portée notamment quant à l'identification de la restriction territoriale applicable à celle-ci.

Le principe entourant la détermination de la restriction territoriale

De façon générale, le territoire visé par la clause de non-concurrence doit être limité à celui dans lequel s'exerce le commerce ou les activités de l'entreprise. Il vise habituellement son achalandage. Le caractère raisonnable du territoire dépendra de la nature des activités poursuivies par l'entreprise.

L'enjeu actuel des entreprises technologiques

La notion d'intérêts légitimes de l'employeur peut varier selon le secteur d'activité de l'entreprise en cause. En effet, une clause de non-concurrence visant un vaste territoire tel que plusieurs pays pourra être considérée raisonnable par les tribunaux lorsque l'entreprise agit notamment dans des activités spécialisées. Les tribunaux en pareil contexte, afin d'établir le caractère raisonnable de la limitation territoriale en cause, considéreront le marché spécifique et concurrentiel de l'entreprise et l'étendue territoriale de sa clientèle, souvent dispersée dans plusieurs régions du monde. Lors de cette évaluation, les tribunaux tendent de plus en plus à prendre en considération les changements dans l'économie moderne imposés par les technologies de l'information.

Or, cette évolution soulève plusieurs questions nouvelles: en matière commerciale, qu'arrive-t-il lorsque l'entreprise Suvre dans le domaine de la haute technologie qui ne connaît en pratique pas de frontières? En matière d'emploi, comment peut-on limiter la concurrence d'un employé pouvant travailler à distance, et ce, à partir de n'importe quel endroit dans le monde?

Malgré ce nouveau paradigme, la jurisprudence québécoise rendue en matière de clause de non-concurrence continue présentement à exiger dans ces clauses la présence d'une limitation territoriale sous peine d'emporter la nullité de celles-ci.

Aux États-Unis

Du côté des États-Unis, la validité des clauses de non-concurrence peut varier en fonction des états. Alors qu'elles sont proscrites en Californie, une nouvelle loi loi est entrée en vigueur le 1er octobre 2018 au Massachusetts ayant pour effet d'en préciser les conditions de validité. Une des particularités de cette loi est qu'elle précise que la clause sera présumée raisonnable si le territoire visé est limité aux régions dans lesquelles l'employé, durant les deux dernières années d'emploi, a fourni des services ou avait une présence ou une influence importante. Cependant, la loi ne définit pas les termes « présence » et « influence ». Il sera donc intéressant de voir l'application d'un tel article dans l'industrie des technologies, puisqu'un employé Suvrant dans ce domaine peut avoir une influence et une présence sur un large territoire.

Recommandations

Le législateur et les tribunaux québécois seront inévitablement appelés à se prononcer sur ces questions contemporaines qui découlent du développement des technologies de l'information et qui font désormais partie du quotidien de nombreuses entreprises. Le Québec s'inspirera alors peut-être des législatures étrangères afin d'adresser cet enjeu grandissant de la limitation territoriale des clauses de non-concurrence dans le domaine des hautes technologies.

La prudence est de mise

D'ici là, il demeure prudent de limiter la portée territoriale des clauses de non-concurrence afin que celles-ci soient considérées comme étant raisonnables. Une pratique à adopter est de jumeler à la restriction de non-concurrence, une restriction visant la confidentialité et la non-sollicitation notamment des clients de l'entreprise. Concernant cette dernière restriction, une clause de non-sollicitation n'a pas à être restreinte à un territoire spécifique contrairement à la non-concurrence, permettant d'éviter du même coup la question épineuse de la limitation territoriale en matière de non-concurrence. Ce principe généralement reconnu n'est cependant pas suivi par tous. Un certain courant observé en jurisprudence est d'avis que la clause de non-sollicitation doit elle aussi contenir une limitation territoriale, sans quoi, sa validité serait compromise. Ce courant jurisprudentiel demeure toutefois marginal en date de ce jour et est questionnable selon nous suivant l'application de l'article 2089 du Code civil du Québec. Dans l'incertitude, et si cela s'avère être possible, mieux vaut donc prévoir une limitation territoriale à l'ensemble de vos clauses restrictives.

L'auteur souhaite remercier Me Meghan Allard et Me Vincent Caron pour leur collaboration à la rédaction de ce billet.


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