As Chicago business law attorneys, we were interested to see a recent appellate opinion reminding Illinois businesses that severability clauses won’t necessarily protect contract provisions from other clauses that have been voided. That was what happened in Kepple and Company, Inc. v. Cardiac, Thoracic and Endovasclar Therapies, S.C., No. 3-09-0033, Ill. 3rd. Dec. 16, 2009. In that case, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld a Peoria trial court’s ruling that an entire services contract between a medical biller and a medical corporation was void, because a fee-sharing provision violated the Medical Practice Act of 1987.
Kepple is a medical billing and collection services company. Cardiac, a medical corporation run by a single doctor, hired Kepple in 2003. Their services contract contained a fee-sharing clause allowing Kepple to retain 5% of all the money it collects for Cardiac. It also had non-compete, non-solicitation and no-hire clauses forbidding either company to solicit or hire away the other company’s employees without a release. And it had a severability clause specifying that if one part of the contract was found void, other parts should still be enforceable.
Cardiac became unhappy with Kepple’s services in mid-2006 and called a meeting on Aug. 3, 2006. Two days later, Kepple’s vice president, Debra Hawley, gave notice that she would leave on Nov. 3. Hawley was the sole person handling Cardiac’s work. Her employment contract had a non-compete clause preventing her from joining a company with 50% or more of its business from medical billing within one year of leaving Kepple. On Sept. 13, Cardiac gave notice that it was terminating its contract with Kepple as of Nov. 10. On Nov. 13, Hawley started working for Cardiac.
Kepple sued both of them when it found out and requested a preliminary injunction keeping Hawley from working at Cardiac. The trial court turned this down, finding that Hawley’s employment contract didn’t apply, since Cardiac is not a competitor to Kepple, and that the non-compete clause of the services contract was unenforceable because it had no time limit. It also found that Hawley was solicited, but not hired, while she was at Kepple, but that suing was an adequate remedy for this. An interlocutory appeal to the Third District upheld these findings.
On remand, the defendants promptly filed for summary judgment based on both courts’ findings. The trial court granted it, saying that the service contract’s fee-sharing clause violated the Act, which prohibits physicians from sharing fees with anyone other than physicians practicing in the same business. Thus, the court said, the contract was void in its entirety. And even if the contract was severable, the trial court had already found that Cardiac did not induce Hawley to leave her job at Kepple. Thus, there was no violation of the non-solicitation clause, the trial court found. Kepple appealed, arguing only the severability issue. It agreed that the Medical Practice Act banned the fee-sharing agreement, but said other provisions are severable and enforceable.
In its opinion, the Third District said that under the Second Restatement of Contracts, the essential issue was whether the voided part of the contract was an essential part of the contract. In this case, the court said “there can be no dispute” that it was. The fee-sharing clause is “the very essence” of the agreement, the court said, and thus the entire contract is void and unenforceable. That means the trial court was correct to grant summary judgment in Cardiac’s favor. With that settled, the appeals court noted that it did not have to consider the remainder of either side’s arguments. It also dismissed an argument by Kepple as waived on appeal because it was not raised in trial court.
With offices in Oak Brook and downtown Chicago, Lubin Austermuehle represents parties throughout Illinois in non-compete clause litigation. Our Illinois business law and covenant not to compete attorneys handle contract disputes on behalf of individuals as well as businesses of all sizes. We also help parties review a contract before they sign it, to prevent expensive and unnecessary litigation down the road. Depending on the circumstances, our Wheaton non-compete lawyers can make a variety of arguments about the enforceability, reasonableness or severability of contractual provisions. If you’d like to talk more about how our Naperville, Evanston,and Chicago business law atttorneys, and trade secret and covenant not to compete lawyers can help protect your business and your ability to make a living, you can contact us online for a free consultation or call 630-333-0333 today.