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Federal District Court Rejects State Interpretation of Legitimate Business Interests Test

 

Our Chicago covenant not to compete lawyers wrote a blog post last autumn about an interesting case from the Illinois Fourth District Court of Appeal. In Sunbelt Rentals v. Ehlers, No. 4-09-0290 (Ill. 4th Sept. 23, 2009), the appeals court rejected the “legitimate business interests” test used by Illinois courts to determine whether a contract’s non-compete clause is enforceable against a former employee. It said the test had never been valid, particularly in light of Mohanty v. St. John Heart Clinic, S.C., 225 Ill. 2d 52, 866 N.E.2d 85 (2006). This was a departure from previous rulings and created a split with other state appeals courts, but has not yet been challenged in the Illinois Supreme Court. However, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois rejected the Fourth District’s reasoning in a December decision.

In Aspen Marketing Services, Inc. v. Russell and Eventnext Marketing, Inc., 2009 WL 4674061 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 3, 2009), defendant Yvon Russell and his new business, Eventnext, were sued by Russell’s former employer, Aspen. Russell had formerly been Group President for Aspen, after it bought a previous marketing company of his. When that purchase took place, Russell signed a contract with non-compete, non-solicitation and non-disclosure covenants. It barred Russell from disclosing any non-public information about Aspen, ever; soliciting Aspen clients, former clients or prospects for a year and a half after leaving; and competing with the company in any business for six months after leaving.

Russell was terminated on June 27, 2007, and started Eventnext on November 27, 2007. Aspen sued, claiming Russell successfully solicited at least one Aspen client shortly afterward. In federal district court, Russell moved to dismiss all counts, saying the restrictive covenants were overly broad and thus unenforceable. In particular, he argued that the geographic limit of the non-compete clause was overbroad because it covered the entire United States. The court found that this was not unreasonable in scope, given the nationwide nature of Aspen’s business.

It went on to consider the second half of the Illinois test of enforceability of covenants not to compete: whether the restriction serves a legitimate business interest. In a footnote, the court acknowledged the Sunbelt ruling, but said it was not binding because it had not been taken up by the Illinois Supreme Court, the Seventh Circuit or the federal district court. Aspen alleged that Russell had “near exclusive” knowledge of its business, had confidential information and used it in Eventnext. Taking those assertions as true, the district court concluded that the geographic scope was reasonable. It also rejected an argument about scope of competition barred, noting that the clause barred all competition for only six months. For those reasons, Russell’s motion to dismiss on that count was denied. The court also rejected several other motions, though it granted one as to tortious interference. The case continues.


DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle are interested in this case because it shows that backers of the Sunbelt ruling have a hard road ahead. We keep watch on developments like these so we can provide the best possible legal advice to clients facing make-or-break litigation in Illinois state courts. Our Illinois non-compete clause attorneys represent clients throughout the state of Illinois, which means we may take cases in the Fourth District as well as outside it. We also handle cases in Indiana and Wisconsin. Our clients are businesses of every size as well as individuals seeking to protect their businesses and their livelihoods from litigation over breaches of contracts with covenants not to compete.

If you’re considering litigation over a non-compete clause, or are already involved in it, you should call the Wheaton, Ill. covenant not to compete lawyers at DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle. To learn more at a consultation, please call us toll-free at 1-877-990-4990 or contact us through the Internet.