When determining the legitimacy of restrictive covenants, it is important for judges to consider all requirements of legitimacy and to do so consistently.
In a recent case, two former employees of Reliable Fire Equipment, a company which sells, installs, and services portable fire extinguishers and fire suppression and alarm systems, allegedly violated the non-competition agreement they had signed with their employer. Rene Garcia had been hired by Reliable in 1992 as a systems technician and was later promoted to sales. In 1998, Arnold Arredondo was hired by Reliable as a salesperson. Both signed non-competition agreements in which they promised not to compete with Reliable, either during their employment or for one year after ceasing to be employed by Reliable.
In early 2004, while still employed by Reliable, Arredondo began forming a company which would supply engineered fire alarm and related auxiliary systems throughout the Chicago area. The new company was christened High Rise Security Systems, LLC and Arredondo and Garcia signed an operating agreement for the company in August of that year.
That same month, Reliable’s founder and chairman heard of the two employees’ movements and confronted them. They both denied it. Arredondo resigned in September and, on October 1, Garcia was fired on suspicion of competition. In December, Reliable filed a complaint against Arredondo, Garcia, and High Rise, alleging that they had violated their non-competition agreements.
Arredondo and Garcia filed a counterclaim, alleging that the restrictive covenant was unenforceable. The court ruled that Reliable had failed to prove the existence of a legitimate business interest to justify the enforcement of the non-competition agreements and therefore ruled for Arredondo and Garcia on their counterclaim. The appellate court upheld that decision and Reliable appealed, sending the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Illinois Supreme Court has said that non-competition clauses in employment contracts are enforceable so long as consideration supports the agreements and the restraints are reasonable. To determine whether the restraints are reasonable, the court uses a three-pronged test: the restraint must be necessary to protect the legitimate business interest of the promisee; it must not impose undue hardship on the promisor or the public; and the scope of the restraint must be otherwise reasonable.
In putting forth this opinion, the Court corrected two recent opinions of the appellate court which did not require a test for legitimate business interest. In Sunbelt Rentals, Inc v. Ehlers, the 4th District Court of Appeals claimed that a court needed only to consider time and territory restrictions when determining for reasonableness in a restrictive covenant. It claimed that the Illinois Supreme Court had never accepted the legitimate business interest test but the Supreme Court said that was a mistaken assumption and that the appellate court had misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s opinion in Mohanty v. St. John Heart Clinic as well as other cases.
Having rejected the reasoning in Sunbelt, the Court clarified the proper standard for conducting the legitimate business interest test. According to the Court in Nationwide Advertising Service Inc v. Kolar, an employer will be considered to have a legitimate business interest subject to protection through non-competition employment agreements if two factors are present: the employees must have gained confidential information through their employment; and customer relationships must be near permanent as a result of the nature of the business.
The Illinois Supreme Court though, overturned the Kolar decision and instead put forth that, while those, as well as other factors might be helpful in determining the question of reasonableness and enforceability, any attempt to file a complete list of factors would be futile or would immediately become obsolete. Rather, the court maintained that determining the existence of a legitimate business interest will depend upon the totality of the circumstances of the individual case.
An employment attorney who represents management, said the decision is good for employers because it actually broadened the enforceability of non-competition agreements. Under the broader standard of considering “the totality of the facts and circumstances of the individual case”, employers could argue that the company’s reputation or goodwill are worth protecting with restrictive covenants.