Employers Should Ensure They Have Adequate Evidence Before Filing Suit Against Former Employees

Most employers at some point will face the prospect of an employee failing to perform their job adequately. Additionally, some employees breach fiduciary duties owed the company or commit fraud and other harmful acts during the course of their employment. Hytel Group, Inc. v. Butler is a recent case out of the Appellate Court of Illinois that is just such a dispute between a Plaintiff employer and its Defendant ex-employee. Our Schaumburg business litigation attorneys discovered this decision and want to pass along the information to our readers.

In Hytel Group, Inc. v. Butler, Plaintiff Hytel Group initially hired Defendant Butler as comptroller for the company in February of 2008 and fired Butler four months later in June of that year. During Butler’s employment, Hytel’s lender, GBC Funding, filed suit in response to Hytel allegedly defaulting on several obligations under their loan agreement and Hytel’s failure to respond to the notices of default sent to them by GBC. Furthermore, GBC alleged that Hytel failed to cooperate with a restructuring officer approved by GBC pursuant to another agreement. This agreement was for GBC to refrain from exercising their rights under the loan agreement in exchange for Hytel’s cooperation with the restructuring officer. Hytel then filed the action in question in December 2008 against Defendant Butler alleging that she breached her fiduciary duty of loyalty and committed fraud when she failed to perform certain job duties because of a relationship she developed with GBC.

After Butler was fired by Hytel, but before Hytel filed suit, she filed a claim with the Illinois Department of Labor for unpaid final wages, and she moved to dismiss Hytel’s lawsuit under the Citizen Participation Act. The motion was based upon the allegation that Hytel was suing her in retaliation for filing the wage claim. Butler also moved to dismiss Hytel’s suit on procedural grounds because Hytel failed to properly state a cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty or for fraud. In dismissing Hytel’s claims, the trial court found that the Citizen Participation Act did apply to Butler’s wage claim, that she did not have a fiduciary relationship with Hytel, and that Hytel did not sufficiently allege all the elements of fraud. Plaintiff Hytel appealed the trial court’s ruling on the basis that Butler’s wage claim was a private dispute and the Citizen Participation Act is concerned with protecting free speech and citizen participation in government.

The Appellate Court reviewed the legislative intent behind the Citizen Participation Act and found that the state of Illinois intended the law to be construed broadly. As such, the Court found that Butler’s wage claim was an exercise of her right to petition for redress of grievances and therefore fell within the express language of the Act that protects actions taken in furtherance of a citizen’s right to petition. The Court went on to hold that the Act contains no public concern requirement and the fact that the wage claim was a private dispute did not matter. Finally, the Court found that Hytel’s suit was retaliatory in nature and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the action and the award of attorneys fees under the Act.

This case provides a warning for business owners who file suit against former employees for a breach of duty, particularly if there is an existing wage or other employment dispute between the parties. Hytel Group, Inc. v. Butler shows that Illinois courts will dismiss such claims pursuant to the Citizen Participation Act if there evidence that the suit filed by the employer is retaliatory in nature. As such, employers should ensure that they have ample evidence to show the legitimacy of their claims before filing, as they may be on the hook for the opposing party’s attorneys fees should the court find a retaliatory impetus for the action.

Lubin Austermuehle is a full-service litigation firm based in Chicago, Illinois that represents businesses in all manner of legal disputes. We represent both plaintiffs and defendants, and we have experience representing clients in matters ranging from shareholder disputes to breache of fiduciary duties. Our attorneys have over twenty years experience in litigating these matters and have won multiple “bet the business” lawsuits. Lubin Austermuehle is a firm that can identify and understand the legal issues in a dispute, no matter how complex they may be. We will use our resources and knowledge to formulate a plan of action that will help further your interests, resolve your problems, and get you back to growing your business. If your business is being sued or you are seeking advice to stay out of court, call our Chicago business lawyers to discuss what Lubin Austermuehle can do for you. For a consultation, call 630-333-0333 or send us an email through our website.

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