A judge has refused to block a top agricultural journalist from moving to The Farmers’ Journal from her former position with Agriland Media, a digital news publisher in the agri-sector who tried to enforce a three-month non-competition clause in her contract.
Judge John O’Connor said in the Circuit Civil Court that the departure from Agriland Media by Siobhan Walsh to The Farmers’ Journal after having given two months notice would not justify an additional three months unpaid leave until mid-February next.
The judge told barrister Shiela Reidy, counsel for Walsh, of Loughteague, Stradbally, Co Laois, that the court considered the clause too wide in scope. He issued a warning to new employees to take legal advice before committing to work contracts.
“It is in the interests of employers and employees to enter enforceable contracts of employment,” Judge O’Connor said. “If employees are afforded genuine legal advice both sides might have contracts and clauses that the courts can stand over. The best time to take legal advice is at the beginning of an employment , not when the work relationship breaks down.”
Too wide in scope
He said restraints that were too wide in scope had been shown time and again to be unenforceable by the Irish courts.
Ms Reidy, who appeared with Margaret Cordial of Smithwick Solicitors, was granted an order covering Ms Walsh’s legal costs.
Judge O’Connor said Ms Walsh was a highly qualified expert on tillage crops and had a PhD in agricultural science. Her €27,000 annual salary had been topped up to €33,000 in May last.
He heard that the 31-year-old journalist was now considered one of the top soils and crops experts in Ireland and was the “go-to” person by both RTÉ and Teagasc for comment and assistance.
Agriland Media director, Cormac Farrelly, told the Circuit Civil Court that over the last three years his company had expended considerable time and effort in building Walsh’s profile within the industry to the point she was now considered a top tillage adviser.
Judge O’Connor heard that Ms Walsh had been the latest to be head-hunted from Agrilife Media by an outside company.
Mr Farrelly outlined the poaching of Agriland Media staff by outside publishers in the agri-sector. He said that in the summer of 2016 he had been approached by Independent News and Media in relation to a potential acquisition or investment in Agriland which he had politely declined.
Shortly after this, Agriland’s editor, Margaret Donnelly, told him she had been head-hunted by INM to work for the Farming Independent, a publication being then set up to compete with Agriland.
“I recall her telling me two things in particular: firstly, that she would be successful with the Farming Independent and would ‘destroy’ Agriland; and secondly that she would be taking Agriland staff with her….and that I was powerless to stop her,” Mr Farrelly said.
Then a short time later journalist Ciaran Moran had left Agriland for the Farming Independent and in March 2017 journalist Amy Forde left Agriland for The Farmers Journal where she was now deputy editor.
Against the backdrop of these departures he decided the wording of Agriland’s employment contracts would have to be tightened to reduce the impact of such departures, introducing the non-competition clause.
Judge O’Connor said Ms Walsh had strongly refuted Agriland Media’s contention that the defendant had a strategic knowledge of its commercial business justifying its application for an interim injunction restraining her from immediately joining The Farmers Journal.