Appeals Court Upholds Injunction Enforcing Salesman’s Covenant Not to Compete


A recent decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal caught the eyes of our Illinois non-compete agreement attorneys because it created a split with other Courts of Appeal that only the Illinois Supreme Court can resolve. In September, the Fourth ruled that a trial court was correct to grant a preliminary injunction to a company suing over a covenant not to compete. Sunbelt Rentals Inc. v. Neil N. Ehlers III and Midwest Aerials & Equipment, Inc., No. 4-09-0290 (Ill. 4th Sept. 23, 2009). Sunbelt sued former sales employee Neil Ehlers and his new employer, Midwest, alleging Ehlers violated restrictive covenants when he took the new job, and Midwest tortiously interfered with the agreement when it hired him.

Sunbelt sells and rents industrial equipment for business and individual use. Ehlers was a salesman there responsible for maintaining a customer base and relationships. When he took the job in 2003, he signed a contract agreeing that he would not, for a year after leaving the job, provide services or solicit business from customers that had used Sunbelt in the preceding 12 months, or customers with whom he had had “contact, responsibility or access to confidential information.” It also forbade him from joining or starting a business “substantially similar” to Sunbelt’s. Both clauses were restricted to designated geographic areas. The contract specifically said Sunbelt would be entitled to an injunction against any breach or threatened breach of the restrictive covenants.

Ehlers quit at Sunbelt in January of 2009 to join Midwest, which rents and sells aerial platforms to construction and industry. Four days after Ehlers left, Sunbelt sent him and Midwest a “cease and desist” letter alleging that Ehlers had breached his agreement. The next month, Sunbelt sued for breach of the covenant and tortuous interference and asked for a preliminary injunction to keep Ehlers from working for Midwest. Finding that the time and geographic scope of the agreement was reasonable, the trial court granted the injunction. Ehlers and Midwest appealed, arguing that Sunbelt had not shown that it had a legitimate business interest test first set forth in Nationwide Advertising Service, Inc. v. Kolar, 28 Ill. App. 3d 671, 673, 329 N.E.2d 300, 301-02 (1975), and thus failed to follow precedent.

The Fourth District disagreed. It started by examining the question of whether the “legitimate business interests” test was valid under Illinois Supreme Court precedent, particularly the recent Mohanty v. St. John Heart Clinic, S.C., 225 Ill. 2d 52, 866 N.E.2d 85 (2006). Although every Illinois appellate court has embraced the test, the Fourth District wrote, its analysis was flawed and the Illinois Supreme Court had never embraced it. In fact, in Mohanty and several other decisions, that court never actually used the test. Instead, the Fourth said, precedent says the validity of a covenant not to compete should be based only on time and territory restrictions in the contract.

The court next took up the argument by Ehlers that the restrictive covenant should be declared invalid because it is overly broad. Ehlers argued that the restrictions were so broad that he is precluded from working for any competitor in a Midwestern city, causing him undue hardship. The court interpreted the language of the contract differently; it said the restriction meant Ehlers could not work for a competitor within 50 miles of a branch of Sunbelt where Ehlers had worked, for a year after leaving. This is consistent with previous time-and-territory decisions on restrictive covenants, the court said. Thus, the contract was valid, meaning that the trial court’s decision to issue an injunction was not unreasonable.

Lubin Austermuehle represents businesses and individuals all over the Midwest in legal matters related to covenants not to compete. Our Chicago business litigation attorneys can review employment contracts to ensure that they meet the needs of both sides and determine whether they could form the basis of litigation. If a lawsuit is already filed, we defend both employers and employees against threats to their business and livelihood. Based in Oakbrook Terrace, near Wheaton, Joliet, Waukegan Woodstock, Naperville, Aurora, Wilmette, Northbrook, and downtown Chicago, we serve clients throughout Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. To speak confidentially about your case and your options to an experienced Illinois restrictive covenant lawyer, please call us toll-free at 630-333-0333 or contact us through the Internet.

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