Hardship to Former Employee Should Be Considered Outside Motion to Dismiss, First District Rules


A First District Court of Appeal ruling had an interesting lesson for our Chicago noncompete clause attorneys. In Baird and Warner Residential Sales Inc. v. Mazzone, No. 1-07-2179 (Aug. 15, 2008), the First ruled that a trial court needed more evidence in a dispute about a covenant not to compete before it could correctly grant a motion to dismiss. The case arose when Baird & Warner Residential Sales sued former employee Patricia Mazzone and her new employer, Midwest Realty Ventures (doing business as Prudential Preferred Properties). Both real estate companies have multiple branches and more than 1,000 employees in the Chicagoland area.

Mazzone was office manager for B&W’s Lincoln Park office for about 11 years before leaving for Prudential. During that time, she signed a contract that included a covenant not to solicit services from any B&W employees or independent contractors, or people who had left those jobs within the last six months, for up to a year after leaving. This contract contained a severability clause, and the “preface” to the contract specified that it applied “regarding the Lincoln Park office,” although the restrictive covenant referred to “Company.” In 2007, Mazzone resigned from her job and took another running Prudential’s Michigan Avenue office. About a month later, B&W sued for a temporary restraining order and injunction seeking to enforce the covenant and keep Mazzone and Prudential from soliciting B&W employees, alleging breach of contract by Mazzone, tortious interference with contract by Prudential, and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage by both parties.

After an injunction and expedited discovery, defendants moved to dismiss because the covenant was overly broad, alleging that it would keep any Prudential employee from soliciting any B&W employee or contractor from any office. B&W contended that the preface restricted the covenant to the Lincoln Park office and affirmatively stated that it did not seek to enforce it beyond that office. In the alternative, they argued that the severability clause should allow that portion to be separated from the rest of the agreement. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, saying the contract’s plain language related to all of B&W’s offices. Plaintiffs appealed this ruling.

The appeals court started its opinion by considering B&W’s claim that the nonsolicitation contract was not improper under the law. It noted that motions to dismiss are not necessarily appropriate in fact-intensive situations like this one, since the rules limit courts to consideration of facts in the complaint. It then turned to the controversy over whether the contract applied to all offices or just the Lincoln Park office and found that there was insufficient evidence. The record does not show enough evidence to determine whether the contract, as written, is overly broad and poses an undue hardship on Mazzone, the court wrote, or negative effects on the public from the restraint of trade. It also disagreed that enforcing the contract would “render Mazzone unemployable,” since she would be free to solicit employees of non-B&W brokers, even within the limited one-year period specified. Thus, the trial court should not have dismissed it without hearing more evidence, the court wrote. It reversed and remanded the case for more proceedings.

Lubin Austermuehle handles many similar cases involving controversies over a covenant not to compete, or other restrictive covenants. Our Illinois restrictive covenant attorneys represent clients in active litigation over the validity and enforcement of these covenants, as well as helping to evaluate whether litigation may arise over such a contract. With more than 25 years of experience, we have handled these claims for businesses of every size, from large corporations to family-owned businesses, as well as individual employees. Based near Naperville, Aurora, Wheaton, Wilmette, Evanston, Ill., and downtown Chicago, we represent clients throughout the state of Illinois, as well as in Indiana and Wisconsin. To learn more about how our Illinois covenant not to compete lawyers can help you, please do not hesitate to contact us through our Web site or call toll-free at 630-333-0333.

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