Former Employee’s Stock Options Remain Valid Under Employment Contract


As Chicago employment contract litigation attorneys, we noted a favorable decision for employees from the Seventh Circuit in October. Lewitton v. ITA Software, Inc., No. 08-3725 (7th Cir. Oct. 28, 2009) upheld a former employee’s right to buy stock options that had vested during his employment, even though he tried to make the purchase after leaving. Derek Lewitton was hired in April of 2005 as vice-president of sales at ITA Software, which makes a software program that compares the prices of airplane flights. His contract said some of his stock options would be forfeited if ITA didn’t meet certain revenue goals, subject to a time delay to account for delays in the development of a new program called 1U.

Unfortunately, 1U was never widely adopted among ITA’s clients, and ITA scaled it back considerably. Lewitton left ITA in May of 2007. In August of the same year, he tried to buy 138,900 shares of ITA stock. ITA let him buy only 34,722, arguing that the remaining 104,178 were forfeited under his contract. Lewitton sued ITA for breach of his employment contract. ITA removed the case to federal court under diversity jurisdiction, after which Lewitton moved for summary judgment, arguing that his employment contract was clear on his right to purchase stock options. The judge granted summary judgment, agreeing that the contract “unambiguously” granted 5,660 options for each month he was at ITA, and that no forfeiting events had taken place. ITA appealed.

The Seventh Circuit started by examining whether the language of Lewitton’s employment contract was ambiguous under Illinois law, which both parties agreed applies. The principal question, the court wrote, is whether the contract unambiguously allows Lewitton to buy the 5,660 shares per month he claims. The contract specifies that those shares are forfeited if ITA didn’t meet certain goals in by the end of an assessment period, but that assessment period would be deferred it the development schedule for 1U was “materially deferred.” In trial court, both sides agreed that 1U’s development didn’t go the way it was expected to go. On that basis, the trial court found that the assessment period was never triggered, and thus the stock options were not forfeited. On appeal, ITA argued that “materially deferred” was ambiguous and not intended to apply when ITA put the program on indefinite hold.

The Seventh disagreed, finding the term unambiguous. The ordinary dictionary definitions of the words are clear, the court wrote. And in fact, the contract includes parts that explain a material deferral by using the words “defer” and “delay” interchangeably. That example clearly shows that the parties agreed to delay the assessment period until after 1U was launched. Because 1U was never launched, the assessment period was never started, the court wrote, and thus the stock option forfeiture provision does not apply. The court dismissed ITA’s argument that the contract was never intended to give Lewitton more shares than other ITA executives. That argument was supported by negotiations and internal ITA communications, the court wrote, and caselaw requires it to consider none of that extrinsic evidence. Furthermore, the contract had a clause specifying that it supersedes all prior “agreements, understandings or negotiations.”
ITA also argued that even if the contract is unambiguous, the case presented an issue of material fact inappropriate for summary judgment. The issue in question, ITA said, is whether ITA really did delay the 1U program rather than ending it altogether. However, the court found that this was “just another attempt to create ambiguity where none exists.” At the district court, the Seventh Circuit noted, ITA made several statements through affidavits and discovery conceding that work was still being done, although resources devoted to it were significantly reduced or nonexistent. Nothing in the record points to a genuine issue of material fact on this question, the court wrote, so the trial court was upheld in its summary judgment order. Finally, the Seventh dismissed ITA’s contention that the district court should determine whether the options are valid under Delaware law (it’s a Delaware corporation), because it had explicitly waived that argument in an agreed order. Thus, the Seventh upheld the district court on all issues.

Lubin Austermuehle has practiced business litigation law in Illinois for more than two decades. Our Northbrook, Ill. breach of contract attorneys represent both defendants and plaintiffs in disputes over the meaning and enforcement of all types of contracts, including real estate, construction, intellectual property, vendor contracts and many more. We also review contracts to ensure that they fairly represent our clients’ interests and help clients avoid litigation in the first place. Our Chicago contract litigators have represented business of all sizes, from closely held and family businesses to major corporations. Based in Chicago and Oak Brook, Ill., near Naperville, Oak Brook, Evanston, Waukegan, Aurora, and Elgin our Chicago business law lawyers represent people in state and federal courts throughout Illinois, the Midwest and the United States.

If you’re embroiled in a contract dispute and you’d like to learn more about how Lubin Austermuehle;s Chicago business law attorneys can help, don’t hesitate to contact us. For a consultation on your case and your legal options, you can call us toll-free at 630-333-0333 or contact us online.

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