First District Rules Plaintiff Not Entitled to Punitives in Noncompete Clause Lawsuit


An interesting case involving enforcement of an employment contract’s restrictive covenant was recently noted by our Illinois covenant not to compete attorneys. Cambridge Engineering Inc. v. Mercury Partners 90 BI, Inc., No. 1-06-0798 (Ill. 1st Dec. 7, 2007). The suit stems from an earlier lawsuit concluded in Missouri in 2001, in which Cambridge Engineering Inc. successfully sued former employee Gregory Degar and his new employer, Brucker Company (legally Mercury Partners 90 BI), to enforce a covenant not to compete signed by Degar. Cambridge then filed this suit against Brucker to recover punitive damages and attorney fees. Cambridge and Brucker compete in the residential and business heating market in the Midwest.

Degar worked at Cambridge as a sales representative starting in 1996, and signed a contract including noncompete and nonsolicitation covenants. The contract restricted him from competing in any way with Cambridge, or soliciting its employees or customers, anywhere in the United States or Canada, for 24 months after leaving. He was terminated in 2001 and was hired by Brucker about a month later as an inside support person rather than a salesperson. Nonetheless, he admitted to using customer contacts developed at Cambridge. Cambridge sued Deger, but not Brucker, in St. Louis and was granted a permanent injunction enforcing the noncompete clause. (At that time, Brucker fired Degar.)

Cambridge then sued Brucker in Illinois for compensatory and punitive damages, for tortious interference with contract. The parties stipulated to limit compensatory damages to attorney fees but said nothing about the punitive damages. The trial court directed a verdict against Cambridge on punitive damages, saying Cambridge hadn’t proven that Brucker’s actions were so outrageous that punitive damages were appropriate. At trial, the president of Cambridge testified that the company believed the contract would prevent Degar from holding any job, even a janitorial position, with any competitor, including in areas where Cambridge does not do business. The jury found for Cambridge on compensatory damages in the amount of $50,000, but Brucker successfully moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the basis that the noncompetition clause was overly broad and unenforceable. Cambridge appealed both judgments against it.

The analysis by the First started by noting that the dispute centered around whether the covenant not to compete was unenforceable under Illinois law. Cambridge argued that the covenant was reasonable on both geographic and activity (despite testimony disputing this), and that the trial court improperly excluded testimony that would show this reasonableness. The court disagreed on all counts. The geographic scope was unreasonable, the court wrote, because it restricted Degar from taking a job with a competitor anywhere in Canada even though Cambridge only had a small amount of business in Canada. This restriction did nothing to protect Cambridge from competitors gaining unfair advantage at its expense, the court wrote. And the evidence Cambridge said was incorrectly excluded would not have changed the court’s decision. Thus, the scope of the covenant was indeed unreasonable.

It next examined the question of the activities prohibited by the noncompete clause, which turned on the interpretation of the contract. However, the court found that the plain language of the contract supports Brucker’s assertion that the contract was overly broad: that Degar may not “engage in any activity for or on behalf of Employer’s competitors,” a phrase that could theoretically bar Degar from taking a job filing papers for a competitor. Furthermore, testimony from Cambridge’s president at trial confirmed this interpretation; he “agreed with counsel’s contention that the St. Louis action was brought to prevent Degar from working for a competitor in any capacity.” Thus, the clause was overly broad and not reasonable, and the trial court’s decision on that issue was also correct.

If you’re involved in serious litigation in Illinois over a covenant not to compete, the experienced Chicago restrictive covenant attorneys at Lubin Austermuehle can help. We have more than 25 years of experience as business litigators serving all sizes of business, from closely held private businesses to major corporations. In our noncompete agreement practice, our Illinois covenant not to compete lawyers represent both employers and employees in disputes over whether a contract is valid, enforceable or was broken. We also review contracts for validity and enforceability when appropriate. Based in Oak Brook, near Wheaton, Naperville, Waukegan, Wilmette and Highland Park, Illinois, and downtown Chicago, we serve clients in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. To learn more about how we can help with important business litigation, please contact us through our Web site or call us, toll-free at 630-333-0333 or at (630) 333-0333 in the Chicagoland area.

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