Latest Illinois Case on Restrictive Covenants Increases Uncertainty, Burden For Employers

English: A customer signing the at A Stone's T...
English: A customer signing the at A Stone’s Throw Jewelers in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiff in this declaratory judgment action had been employed by a subsidiary of an insurance company that marketed finance and insurance products to the automotive industry. After a sale of that business, plaintiff’s employment was terminated, but he was offered employment conditioned upon his acceptance of an “Employee Confidentiality and Inventions Agreement” (the agreement) which included non-solicitation and non-compete provisions. The agreement states in pertinent part:

“Employee agrees that for a period of two (2) years from the date Employee’s employment terminates for any reason, Employee will not, directly or indirectly, within any of the 50 states of the United States, for the purposes of providing products or services in competition with the Company (i) solicit any customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers, PARCs, and/or producers to cease their relationship with the Company *** or (ii) interfere with or damage any relationship between the Company and customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers , PARCs, and/or producers *** or (iii) *** accept business of any former customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers, PARCs, and/or producers with whom the Company had a business relationship within the previous twelve (12) months prior to Employee’s termination.”

Plaintiff successfully negotiated with Premier a provision that the restrictive covenants would NOT apply if he was terminated without cause during the first year of his employment (the first-year provision). Three months later, plaintiff resigned, began working for a competitor and sued to have the restrictive covenants held unenforceable stating that plaintiff had no access to confidential and proprietary information. The trial court held that the restrictive Covenants were unenforceable for lack of “consideration” – a legal term of art that generally means a bargained-for exchange of value. The appeals court affirmed.

ANALYSIS

Defendant argued that the non-solicitation and non-compete provisions were enforceable because the offer of employment was adequate consideration, there was a mutual exchange of promises (employment in exchange for restrictions), and the covenants were pre-employment, not post- employment. Defendant further argued that “the purpose of Illinois law regarding restrictive covenants is to protect against the illusory benefit of at-will employment” which was “nullified by the inclusion of the first-year [non-enforcement] provision in the agreement.”

Plaintiff countered with the argument that the provisions in the agreement are unenforceable because Illinois law requires employment to continue for a substantial period of time and that “Illinois courts have repeatedly held that two years of continued employment is adequate consideration to support a restrictive covenant…regardless of whether an employee is terminated or decides to resign on his own.”

The appellate court agreed with plaintiff citing Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Mudron, 379 Ill. App. 3d 724, 728 (2008) which held that the promise of continued employment in the context of post-employment restrictive covenants may be an illusory benefit where the employment is at-will. “Illinois courts have held that continued employment for two years or more constitutes adequate consideration. Id. at 728-29.”

TAKE AWAYS

The Fifield decisions has already generated a great deal of discussion from corporate board rooms to legal blogs. Unfortunately for businesses and their lawyers, the case leaves many unanswered questions.

For example, the court does not discuss whether the outcome would have been different if the employee were a high-level executive with immediate access to a wide range of highly sensitive confidential and proprietary information. At best,mother court simply mentions the plaintiff’s allegations that he had no access to such information.

Another area of uncertainty impacts start-up and early stage businesses. Very young businesses are often highly dynamic and early employees have access to a broad swath of the company’s Intangible assets such as business and revenue models, marketing plans, computer software and hardware and prospective customers, regardless of whether they serve a customer service function or “C-suite” executive function. The requirement that an employee have two years continued employment before a restrictive covenant becomes enforceable ignores the very real dynamic of start-up companies.

Lastly, an important question that went unanswered is whether the employer can offer some other “consideration” besides two years continued employment. For example, is there a pure monetary consideration that would support enforcement of the covenant? What if the covenant only lasted as long as the period of the departing employee’s employment?

NEXT STEPS

If you have restrictive covenants in your agreements with employees, it is strongly recommended that you meet with your lawyer to discuss the impact of this case on these agreements and your business. At the very least, you should carefully review your non-compete and non-solicitation agreements to see if they are supported by adequate consideration. If you have questions or concerns, or just don’t know how to begin, feel free to contact the lawyers at Leavens, Strand, Glover & Adler for a free, in-person or over-the-phone consultation. You can also email the author here: dadler@lsglegal.com.

Social Media Legal Issues: Trade Secrets & Social Media Accounts

Is it “misappropriation of a trade secrets” to contact each person who follows an ex-employer’s Social Media profile for purposes of promoting a competing business?

Early in my law school career, one phrase stuck with me right away: “tough cases make bad law.” This, of course, begs the question, what makes a “tough” case. Usually it’s a unique fact pattern that has limited applicability to a broader spectrum of cases. In the nascent and growing area of Social Media law, there is no shortage of quirky cases.

My hat is off to Eric Goldman who recently blogged about a social media case that is “tough” because of the way that the lawyers framed the issue. On its face, the case of Christou v. Betaport is an unfair competition case between a night club owner and one of his former partners. The case, being tried in a federal court in Denver, Colorado, involves  trade secret theft and antitrust allegations and alleged misuse of MySpace “friends.” Essentially, the complaint alleges that Roulier, a principle of Beatport and former associate of Christou, used a MySpace account to promote his club at the expense of Christou.

Goldman gets to the heart of why this case is tough: “the plaintiffs allege that they “secured the profiles through web profile login and passwords.” This is a garbled allegation.” Put another way, the lawyers whose job it is to supply the facts that frame the issues, probably meant to say something else. According to Goldman the plaintiffs probably meant that the defendants accessed an account impermissibly and in so doing accessed information they did not have a right to access. In terms of a claim for trade secret misappropriation, the harm came when defendants used that information.

I like Goldman’s article because he takes the time to break down both the confused framing of the issue, but also the court’s apparent confusion with how to address it. It’s a short article and definitely worth the few minutes it takes to read.

From my perspective the key take-away is a perspective on the trade secret implications of Social Media accounts. Business and their lawyers are constantly trying to evaluate the legal risks of Social Media and provide guidance on how best to mitigate those risks.

Protecting a Social Media account as a trade secret seems a tricky proposition. Ostensibly, the primary “value” of an account is the list of “followers.” A list that is publicly available is, therefore, not a secret. A better approach is to treat the login credentials themselves as the trade secret since this control’s ones ability to access the account and to communicate with those followers.

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