Articles Posted in Restrictive Covenants

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This video provides a very good summary of recent Illinois non-compete agreement law:

Our Chicago non-compete agreement and business dispute attorneys have defended high level executives in covenant not to compete and trade secret lawsuits. A case in which our firm defended a former Motorola executive was covered in Crain’s Chicago business. You can view that article by clicking here.

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A non-solicitation covenant is extremely helpful when it comes to protecting valuable business information when a company has expended substantial amounts to build a stable work force and has invested in developing permanent relationships or very long term relationships with its customers with long term contracts.  The Court in Instant Tech., LLC v. DeFazio, 12 C 491, 2014 WL 1759184 (N.D. Ill. May 2, 2014) recently addressed the enforceability of non-solicitation covenants of former employees of an information technology company. The non-solicitation agreements barred soliciting customers to go to a competitor as well as employees of the IT staffing company.

Not to be confused with a non-compete agreement, non-solicitation covenants do not put a restriction on one’s ability to practice their trade or prohibit them from pursuing their chosen profession, as a restrictive covenant would. In this case, the definition of a client versus a candidate is where the Court draws the line when determining whether a violation the non-solicitation covenant occurred. Continue reading

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Non-compete clauses have been included in employee contracts for decades now. These provisions ensure that employees do not walk off with valuable trade secrets or client lists and take them to a competitor. Putting such a clause in employee contracts makes sense, but only up to a point. A standards noncompete contract will prohibit an employee from working for a competitor within a certain geographical radius for a specified period of time. Six months to a year is pretty standard, but that time limit has been growing lately.

Non-compete agreements were first used largely by technology companies who need to guard their developments very closely. If an employee left to work for a competitor and took everything they knew about their former employer with them, the new employer would have an unfair competitive advantage. It therefore makes sense that companies would try to protect their business interests by preventing employees from going directly to work for a competitor.

The problem that employees have been facing lately is that non-compete agreements have spread beyond just those working in tech and sales. Now, everyone from camp counselors to hair stylists are being required to sign non-compete clauses. Hourly workers in these kinds of positions cannot afford to give up a year or two of work to wait for their non-compete agreement to expire and they have started to speak out against the restrictions that their employers are placing on them.

California and North Dakota already ban non-compete agreements. Now it looks like Massachusetts may be joining their ranks. Governor Deval Patrick has proposed legislation banning noncompete agreements except in a few situations. A committee in the Massachusetts House has already passed a bill incorporating the governor’s proposals, but the new law isn’t in the clear yet and supports and opponents of the bill are fighting furiously over the new measures it would impose. Continue reading

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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.

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1142325_15645008.jpgA former franchisee of a regional pizza restaurant chain were barred from operating pizza restaurants within certain geographic areas, according to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. In Singas Famous Pizza Brands Corp., et al v. New York Advertising, the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the defendant from opening two new pizza restaurants shortly after the termination of the defendant’s franchise agreement with the plaintiffs. The franchise agreement included a covenant not to compete, stating that the franchisee could not operate similar pizza restaurants within a specified geographic area. The defendant challenged the enforceability of the geographic restriction. The district court ruled for the plaintiffs, and the appeals court affirmed the ruling.

The plaintiffs, Singas Famous Pizza Brand Corp. and Singas Famous Pizza & Restaurant Corp., collectively referred to as “Singas,” operate or franchise multiple pizza restaurants in the New York City metropolitan area. Each restaurant uses Singas’ unique branding and menu. The defendants operated two pizza restaurants, a former Singas franchise in the East Village, Manhattan, and a new restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens. Singas obtained a preliminary injunction that barred the defendant from operating both restaurants. The defendant appealed only as to the Jackson Heights restaurant, arguing that the ten-mile geographic restriction was unduly broad.

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Non-compete agreements can be an incredibly useful tool to protect sensitive business information in today’s cut-throat business world. In the event that an employment relationship sours, there are often disagreements between employers and former employers regarding the scope and enforceability of a non-compete. At DiTommaso & Lubin, our skilled Chicago business litigation attorneys focus on representing clients facing unpleasant litigation that distracts from their ability to run their business.

What is a non-compete agreement?

A non-compete agreement is an agreement that an employer and employee will enter into in order to outline the business information that belongs to the business and cannot travel with the employee once the employment relationship is terminated. Non-competes will often set forth the parameters for future employment of the employee in order to protect sensitive business information and prevent the transfer of trade secrets, customer lists, and other business information.

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Every business has employees, and as business litigators, the attorneys at DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle pride ourselves on being knowledgeable about all the areas of law that affect our clients, including employment laws. Our Orland Park business attorneys recently discovered a case that has an impact on companies who utilize employment non-competition agreements with their employees.

Reliable Fire Equipment Company v. Arredondo pits an employer against two former employees, Defendants Arredondo and Garcia, who worked as fire alarm system salesmen for Plaintiff. Each Defendant signed an employment agreement where Defendant’s would allegedly earn commissions of varying percentages of the gross profits on items or systems sold. After working for Plaintiff for several years, Defendants created Defendant High Rise Security Systems, LLC., which was allegedly a competitor to Plaintiff’s business. Plaintiff eventually became aware that Defendants were starting an alleged competitor company, and asked Defendants if in fact they had created a fire alarm business. Defendant Arredondo allegedly denied that he was starting such a business, and resigned shortly afterward, with Defendant Garcia tendering his resignation two weeks after Arredondo.

Plaintiff then filed suit alleging breach of the duty of fidelity and loyalty, conspiracy to compete against Plaintiff and misappropriation of confidential information, tortious interference of prospective economic advantage, breach of the employment agreements, and unjust enrichment. The trial court held that the employment agreements were unenforceable because of unreasonable geographic and solicitation restrictions and the fact that language of the agreements was unclear. A trial on the issues unrelated to the employment agreement ensued, and Defendants successfully moved for a directed verdict because there was insufficient evidence that Defendants competed with Plaintiffs prior to Arredondo’s resignation.

Plaintiff then appealed the trial court’s ruling that the employment agreements in question were unenforceable and the directed jury verdict. The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s directed verdict, stating that the lower court had properly weighed the evidence in finding a total lack of competent evidence. The Court then analyzed the restrictive covenants under the legitimate business interest test and found that the geographic restrictions were not reasonable and therefore the trial court did not err in ruling that the restrictive covenants were unenforceable.

Reliable Fire Equipment Company v. Arredondo illustrates why it is so important for business owners to keep an eye on their employees, and serves as a warning for companies wanting to sue former employees based upon non-competition agreements. Furthermore, the case shows that courts frown upon the use of vague language in such agreements, and it is always in your best interests to keep the terms of employment agreements reasonable.

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DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle has successfully litigated many business disputes, and in our many years of experience we have found that contract claims are among the most contentious conflicts. Because so many of our clients deal with breach of contract issues, our Elmhurst business attorneys are always mindful of new court decisions issued in this area of the law. In fact, our lawyers just discovered one such case, Jumpfly Inc. v. Torling, in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Jumpfly Inc. v. Torling pits a Plaintiff employer against two former employees who allegedly violated the non-compete agreements signed when they were hired by Plaintiff. Plaintiff contends that Defendant Torling started a competing pay-per-click internet advertising side-business while in Defendant’s employ, and upon discovering its employee’s side-business, fired him and sent a cease and desist letter demanding that he stop violating the non-compete. The parties eventually negotiated a settlement allowing Torling to continue his business, but the agreement prohibited him from soliciting any of Plaintiff’s employees. Torling allegedly solicited Defendant Burke — who was working for Plaintiff at the time under a similar non-compete agreement — and got him to quit his position with Plaintiff to work for Defendant Torling.

1279664_sale_webbutton.jpgPlaintiff then filed suit against the two individuals and the new company (Windy City) that they worked for — alleging rescission of a settlement agreement, breach of contract, violations of the Lanham Act and Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and intentional interference with contract based upon non-compete agreements between the parties. Plaintiff’s requested the Court to enjoin Defendants’ competitive business conduct and for monetary damages. In response, Defendants filed a motion to strike Plaintiff’s request for injunctive relief and filed a motion to dismiss under 12(b)(6).

The Court granted the motion to strike as to the breach of contract claim because the two year term of the non-compete agreement had already expired and an injunction would result in an unreasonable restraint of trade. The Court also noted that Plaintiff’s seven-month delay — after discovery of the illicit conduct — in asking for an injunction also weighed in favor of Defendants. The Court denied the motion to strike as to the statutory claims, however, because injunctive relief is provided by both laws which rendered the motion premature.

Next, the Court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss the breach of contract and intentional interference with contract claims due to pleading insufficient facts that Defendant Windy City induced either of the individual Defendants to breach their contracts with Plaintiff. In dismissing Plaintiffs conspiracy to interfere with contract, the Court applied the Intracorporate Conspiracy Doctrine and declined to agree with Plaintiff’s argument that Defendants’ conduct fell with in an exception to the rule. Finally, the Court denied the motion to dismiss the settlement agreement breach claim as the effect of Defendants’ breaches had yet to be determined.

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Business litigation is necessarily an adversarial process – the stakes are high and as such the opposing parties in most lawsuits will fight over many issues during the case. One of the most contentious segments of any case is the discovery process. Because the information obtained during discovery can make or break a case, it is important to understand the law in this area. In that vein, our Berwyn business attorneys would like to share a recent Illinois Appellate Court decision that may affect many of our clients the next time they go to court.

In Mueller Industries Inc. v. Berkman, Defendant Berkman worked for Plaintiff as president of a company owned by Plaintiff pursuant to an employment contract. During his employment, Defendant formed an investment partnership and obtained a 10% ownership interest in a company that was one of Plaintiff’s primary suppliers. Defendant’s lawyer – whose firm was also counsel for Plaintiff – advised him how to structure the investment venture so as to not run afoul of his employment contract with Plaintiff. The initial employment agreement subsequently expired, and a new open-ended agreement was consummated that contained a non-compete clause and other restrictive covenants governing outside financial interests and business opportunities. Defendant then had his attorney form a new company to compete with Plaintiff, and Defendant subsequently resigned his position with Plaintiff.

Plaintiff filed suit for breach of his employment contract and breach of fiduciary duty, alleging Defendant profited personally at the expense of Mueller through his investment partnership. A discovery dispute ensued when Defendant refused to produce documents related to his investment in the supply company and his creation of the competing company. Defendant refused production based upon the 5th amendment and attorney-client privileges. Plaintiff filed a motion to compel production, which was granted by the trial court.

Defendant appealed the trial court’s grant of the motion, and reasserted that the documents were privileged. The Appellate Court reversed in part, holding that Defendant’s pre-existing relationship with his lawyer kept all communication prior to the attorney’s firm’s representation of Plaintiff privileged. However, all communications after the dual representation began were no longer so protected because Defendant no longer had any reasonable expectation of confidentiality. Finally, the Court found that Defendant had failed to demonstrate that producing the requested documents would amount to incriminating testimony, but remanded the case with orders for the lower court to perform an in camera review of the disputed documents and urged the trial court to make a detailed record of its findings.

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Our Chicago trade secrets attorneys were interested to see a recent trade secrets lawsuit coming from the high-dollar world of professional sports. Palace Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Detroit Pistons basketball team, is suing rival venue and sports company Olympia Entertainment Inc., plus nine ex-employees who moved to Olympia, for alleged theft of its confidential trade secrets. Crain’s Detroit Business reported that the claim stems from the movement of ten Palace employees to Olympia, starting in February when Palace president Tom Wilson left to run a new venture for Olympia and its parent company, Ilitch Holdings. This venture was to look into a new venue for the Detroit Red Wings, also owned by Ilitch. Nine people followed Wilson, including two executive vice presidents. In Michigan state court, Palace accuses them of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair competition, conspiracy, conversion, tortious interference and misappropriation of trade secrets.

According to the complaint in Palace Sports & Entertainment Inc. v. Olympia Entertainment Inc., dated June 8, 2010, Palace is accusing the ex-employees of taking and misusing trade secrets, despite having signed different versions of a confidentiality agreement that gave them a fiduciary role in Palace’s confidential information. The contract also contained restrictive covenants not to disclose such information to people outside the company, or use it for their own or anyone else’s gain. Confidential information was defined broadly, including “any technical, economic, financial, marketing or other information, which is not common knowledge.” Palace alleges that the ex-employees misappropriated information including suite prices, customer and prospect lists and sales notes, a business plan, marketing plans, suite assignments, appointment logs, proposals, vendor lists and at least one contract. When Palace notified Olympia of the first theft, it said, Olympia provided physical documents and lists of files. But Olympia did not provide the electronic data behind those files, Palace alleged and has even put some of the data on its own computers.

Palace demanded that Olympia return all of the electronic files and physical documents; that each ex-employee swear an oath that all of the information has been returned; and that a third-party expert be allowed to comb Olympia’s computers and the ex-employees’ personal computers for the information. Olympia has not complied. In its lawsuit, Palace said this caused it immediate and irreparable harm by enabling unfair competition. Olympia said publicly that it believed Palace simply did not like losing its employees. No further court documents are freely available, but trial is set for May 27, 2011.

This case generated great interest in the Detroit press, in part because Ilitch was considering buying the Pistons from Palace. But as Illinois business lawyers, we would like to discuss the strength of Palace’s case, judging by the allegations made in its complaint. Specifically, we suspect that the defendants could consider a defense based on whether the information they are accused of stealing was actually confidential trade secrets. Under the laws of Michigan, Illinois and other states, some information is not a trade secret because it is widely available to the public and not valuable. Thus, a trade secrets lawsuit cannot survive if it is based on the use of information such as lists of businesses copied from a phone book. Even if Palace’s confidentiality agreement defines such information as confidential, employees would be under no obligation to comply. The agreement cited in the complaint may also be subject to a challenge for being overly broad or vague because its definition of confidential business information includes “any information, not known to the general public.” This could easily include information with no special economic value.

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