Our Illinois trade secrets attorneys were pleased to see an evenhanded ruling handed down by the Second District Court of Appeal. In Stenstrom Petroleum Services Group, Inc. v. Mesch, No. 2-07-0504 (Ill. 2nd Sept.7, 2007), Stenstrom sued former employee Robert Mesch for breach of a noncompete clause, breach of fiduciary duty and violations of the Illinois Trade Secrets Act. The case arises out of Mesch’s decision to leave Stenstrom and join Precision Petroleum Installation Inc., a competitor with nearly the same name as a company that Stenstrom bought. The trial court granted Stenstrom a preliminary injunction on its breach of contract claim, but denied injunctions on the other claims.
Mesch had worked in the petroleum industry since 1974, eventually becoming a project manager and salesman. Stenstrom installs, maintains and repairs petroleum equipment, such as tanks, pumps and electronics. Mesch had been working for Precision Petroleum Inc. when Stenstrom bought it in 2003. Mesch was hired during the acquisition to do the same work, and signed noncompete and confidentiality agreements. The noncompete agreement restricted Mesch from working in excavation or equipment repair in Winnebago and Boone counties for six months after his employment ended. When estimating and making bids for Stenstrom, Mesch testified that he used a crude spreadsheet inherited from his old company, rather than the estimating software other project managers at Stenstrom used.
In December of 2006, Mesch left Stenstrom and joined Precision Petroleum Installation Inc., a new company at which he had the opportunity to earn a share of profits as well as a salary. He acknowledged that PPI has bid on and discussed jobs only for Stenstrom customers, and its one client as of the hearing was a Stenstrom customer. He testified that he uses the same Excel spreadsheet and other Stenstrom data to estimate bids for PPI, but said purchasing differences between the companies mean he uses different information to calculate the bids. He also said PPI does not do excavation or repair work, relying on subcontractors. He acknowledged copying Stenstrom’s files for PPI’s use while he was at Stenstrom, but destroyed some data and handed over other data as part of the case. It would not be difficult to recreate the spreadsheet from memory, he said, because he created it, had Stenstrom discounts committed to memory and could get manufacturer prices from public knowledge.
Stenstrom president David Sockness testified at trial that the Excel spreadsheet was acquired in the 2003 purchase, is full of valuable Stenstrom information and is being used by other project managers. He said PPI had bidded on work for some of its best clients, but acknowledged that there was no exclusive agreement with several of these clients and that some take competitive bids. Stenstrom IT manager Brian Cotti testified that records show Mesch tried unsuccessfully to print a bidding report to which he did not have access. Two clients testified that their lengthy relationships with Mesch influenced their bidding decisions. At the conclusion of all of this, the trial court issued a preliminary injunction to enforce the noncompete covenant Mesch had signed until the end of the six-month period, saying it was reasonable. However, it found on the other counts that Stenstrom had failed to show it was likely to win at trial or that there was no other legal remedy available. Stenstrom and Mesch both appealed.
The Second District started by rejecting Stenstrom’s argument that the six-month restrictive covenant should have been calculated from the date Mesch ceased breaching it. The court flatly rejected this, saying the contract’s language clearly pegged the period from the day Mesch left his job at Stenstrom. It also rejected Stenstrom’s claim that it should have received a preliminary injunction based on Trade Secrets Act violations. This is based on the Excel spreadsheet Mesch used to create bids at Stenstrom and later at PPI, which Stenstrom said were full of protectable information and the result of significant investment. However, the appeals court said, Stenstrom failed to rebut Mesch’s testimony that the spreadsheet was based on publicly available information and memory, so it failed to raise a fair question about whether the information was secret enough to qualify as a trade secret.
Next, Stenstrom argued that the trial court should have granted an injunction against Mesch based on his alleged breach of fiduciary duty, a claim it said it made to avoid Stenstrom’s solicitation of its customers. Mesch was working for PPI when he copied Stenstrom’s files, the company said, and used it for PPI’s benefit. However, the Second District wrote, much of Stenstrom’s argument on breach of fiduciary duty rests on its Trade Secrets Act claim. That issue was settled above, the court said. Furthermore, Stenstrom waived its breach of fiduciary duty claim by failing to argue it clearly, the court said.
Finally, the court rejected Mesch’s argument that the trial court should have entered no preliminary injunction at all on the breach of restrictive covenant claim. Mesch is wrong to argue that the enforcement of the restrictive covenant will affect the independent Trade Secrets Act and breach of fiduciary duty claims, the court wrote. But in any case, it said, the issue is moot because the preliminary injunction period ended before the case came to the Second District. And thanks to the court’s decision on Stenstrom’s argument to change the period when the restrictive covenant applies, there’s no need to consider it. Thus, all of the trial court’s decisions were affirmed.
Lubin Austermuehle represents businesses and individuals in emergency business litigation critical to the future of their business and work lives. Our DuPage County trade secrets lawyers have handled claims involving businesses of every size, from Fortune 500 companies to closely held family businesses. We help clients understand their contractual rights and responsibilities; enforce contracts; and review objectionable clauses for potential renegotiation at the start of a business relationship. Based in Chicago and Oakbrook Terrace, near Woodridge, Highland Park, Wheaton, Wilmette Evanston, and Naperville, we practice law in all Illinois state and federal courts as well as in Indiana, Wisconsin and around the United States. If you’re facing litigation that threatens the future of your business, don’t hesitate to contact our Chicago trade secrets attorneys and Chicago business law lawyers for help. To set up a consultation, you can reach us toll-free at 1-87-990-4990 or contact us through our Web site.