Illinois Trade Secrets Act Does Not Preempt Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims, First District Rules


Our Chicago trade secrets litigation lawyers were interested to see a recent case pitting a school bus company in Cook County against competitors and former employees. Alpha School Bus Company, Inc. v. Wagner, No. 1-06-3427 (Ill. 1st May 15, 2009). Alpha is owned by Cook-Illinois Corporation (collectively “Alpha”), which contracts to provide busing to school districts for special education students. Defendant Michael Wagner was an officer of Alpha and non-appealing defendant Leroy Meister was a managing employee. Barbara Ann Hackel owned Southwest Transit and Wagner owned Southwest Transit Leasing LLC, which leased buses to Southwest. Wagner and Meister left Alpha to join Southwest in 2003.

Alpha alleges that defendants, while employed at Alpha, conspired to secure a contract for Southwest by using their positions to make sure Southwest had a lower bid. Alpha also alleges that in forming Southwest, defendants conspired to drive Alpha out of business, sabotaged it, stole trade secrets and lured away employees. They allegedly hid their involvement in Southwest, solicited Alpha’s customers, falsified time sheets for Meister and other employees and had employees of Alpha stay to sabotage the company. Alpha sued for misappropriation of trade secrets, civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, antitrust violations and an injunction.

After Alpha filed several amended complaints, defendants moved to dismiss all of these claims, which the trial court granted with prejudice on all counts except the claim for misappropriation of trade secrets. The trial court found that all of the counts were based on the alleged theft of trade secrets and were therefore preempted by the Illinois Trade Secrets Act. Similarly, several other counts alleging conspiracy were preempted by the Antitrust Act. The remaining count was the claim for misappropriation of trade secrets, which the court dismissed without prejudice because it did not have enough information to state a cause of action. After an amended complaint that didn’t meet legal standards, the court dismissed that count with prejudice as well. The instant appeal followed.

The appeals court started by noting that Alpha did not submit a record of the trial, as required, so it could only consider the issues of law. It then took up the issue of whether the Antitrust and Trade Secrets Act preempt Alpha’s breach of fiduciary duty, conspiracy, trade secrets and antitrust claims. Alpha claims that Wagner used his position to prepare a lower bid for Southwest, which indeed would be a breach of fiduciary duty under caselaw. The court wrote that this would have involved the misappropriation of trade secrets, but does not depend on it. Thus, the Trade Secrets Act doesn’t preempt the breach of fiduciary duty claim and the trial court erred.

Similarly, the claim that Hackel induced Wagner to breach his fiduciary duty should not have been dismissed, the court wrote, because most of the allegations supporting it did not depend on misappropriation of trade secrets. And Cook-Illinois may sue Wagner for breach of fiduciary duty because Alpha properly asserted that Wagner was an officer of Cook-Illinois when he allegedly converted some of its trade secrets for use by Southwest. The First reversed the trial court on those three claims.

However, it upheld the trial court on all of the other claims. In many cases, the court wrote that the claims failed as a matter of law because of confusions between defendants as individuals and the corporations for whom they were acting as agents, or because of procedural errors. Furthermore, most of the trade secrets Alpha alleged were misappropriated failed to meet the definition of a trade secret under Illinois law: “Plaintiffs’ attempt to claim as a trade secret their “customer list,” i.e., the names of the school districts, is patently false because this information is glaringly nonsecret.” Finally, the court affirmed on the dismissal of the final complaint with prejudice, noting that the record shows no attempt by Alpha to amend its complaint again before the dismissal and appeal. Thus, the trial court was mostly affirmed and partly reversed.

Based in Chicago and Oak Brook, Illinois with offices near the court houses in Waukegan, Joliet, and Wheaton as well as near the federal and state courts in downtown Chicago, Lubin Austermuehle represents parties on all sides of complex, high-stakes trade secrets and breach of fiduciary duty matters. Our Illinois trade secrets litigators have more than 25 years of experience in business litigation and a strong record of success in trade secrets and restrictive covenant matters. We represent businesses of every size, from closely held family businesses to major corporations, in state and federal courts throughout the Midwest and the United States. To learn more about how our Chicago trade secrets attorneys can help, please call us toll-free at 630-333-0333 or send us a message through our Web site.

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