Scope of Injunctions Enforcing Restrictive Employment Covenants Must Be Clear, Fourth District Decides

Our Illinois noncompete clause attorneys recently noted an important case addressing the standards for a preliminary injunction in Illinois lawsuits over covenants not to compete. In Lifetec, Inc. v. Edwards, No. 4-07-0300 (Ill. 4th Nov. 6, 2007), Lifetec sued former salesman Peter Edwards for breach of three restrictive covenants in his employment contract. It also sued his wife, Carol Edwards, and new employer, Patterson Medical Supply Inc., for tortious interference with the contract. Trial court granted Lifetec a preliminary injunction, and Edwards filed the instant appeal.

Lifetec sells medical devices and products. When Edwards began working there as a salesman, he signed a contract agreeing not to:

  • Compete with Lifetec, or sell or lease the products he had been assigned during the last 18 months of his employment, or competing products, within the territory assigned to him in the last 18 months of his employment.
  • Directly or indirectly solicit purchase or lease of the product or competing products within the same territory.
  • Work as a distributor or sales representative for any manufacturer that was a client of Lifetec, or for a competitor that also handles the client’s products, within the last 12 months.

The restrictive covenant applied for 24 months after the employment agreement was terminated.

Edwards left Lifetec for Patterson, a larger competitor, after 10 years. According to the opinion, he knew the move could cause Lifetec to sue and gave Patterson a copy of the agreement, but Patterson said it would take care of him in any lawsuit. Several months later, he admitted to a former colleague that he was working for Patterson. Months later, Lifetec sued him for breach of contract and requested a preliminary injunction. At an evidentiary hearing, evidence was introduced that Edwards had solicited Lifetec customers, but he said all Lifetec customers were also Patterson customers because the bulk of Patterson’s business was from national contracts. On the basis of the evidence at this hearing, the trial court granted a preliminary injunction stopping Edwards from violating the contract.

Edwards appealed, asking only for a decision on whether there was enough evidence to support the granting of the injunction. The appeals court said there was. The question, the court wrote, was whether Edwards had used protectable confidential information gained at Lifetec for his own gain. Lifetec contended that its “open quotes” to buyers constituted protectable information, although not all open quotes necessarily resulted in sales. The court took it one step further, saying the way those quotes were calculated was the real confidential information, as the quotes themselves were not secret once submitted to customers. Edwards’ knowledge of the reasoning behind the bids could give Patterson an advantage in the competitive medical supply industry. The defendants’ arguments that Lifetec should have alleged that Edwards misappropriated its trade secrets also fail, the court wrote, since Lifetec is making no such claim. All of this is sufficient to raise fair questions of fact, the court said, so an injunction was proper until the merits of the case could be decided.

A special concurrence filed by Presiding Justice Robert Steigmann agreed with the outcome, but said the court was incorrect to use the “legitimate business interests” test. This test is three decades old, the justice wrote, but the Illinois Supreme Court had never embraced it and in fact failed to use it at all in its 2006 decision in Mohanty v. St. John Heart Clinic, S.C., 225 Ill. 2d 52, 866 N.E.2d 85 (2006). Because of this, he wrote, the court should have stopped its analysis after finding that the time and territory restraints in the covenant were reasonable. The majority noted, however, that the parties made no argument on this basis.

Based in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, and Chicago with offices near Wheaton< Aurora and Naperville, Lubin Austermuehle has more than 25 years of experience representing people involved in make-or-break business litigation. We have represented both employers and employees in litigation over covenants not to compete and other employment contract provisions. Our Illinois restrictive covenant lawyers also review employment contracts to ensure that they are fair for all parties involved and help parties understand their risks of litigation before signing. In addition to helping clients in the Chicagoland area, our Illinois business litigation attorneys represent clients throughout Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. If your business is threatened by noncompete litigation and you’d like to learn more about your options for fighting back, please call us toll-free at 630-333-0333 for a free consultation or send us a message thorough our Web site.

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