Fed. Court ‘Blue Pencils’ Telecom Employer’s Overbroad Nonsolicitation Term – IL ND

In Call One, Inc. v. Anzine, 2018 WL 2735089 (N.D.Ill. 2018), the Northern District of Illinois provides a useful gloss on Illinois restrictive covenant law in the context of a trade secrets action filed by a call center employer against a long-time employee.

The defendant worked for the plaintiff as a sales representative for 15 years. About a decade into her employment tenure, the defendant signed a non-compete agreement which, among other things, prevented her from soliciting plaintiff’s “prospective customers” for a 12-month post-employment period.

After talks for defendant to become an independent distributor of the plaintiff broke down and defendant quit her job, plaintiff sued when it learned defendant altered a Customer Report and e-mailed it to her personal email account. The defendant countersued for a declaration that the non-solicitation clause was overbroad.

Granting summary judgment for the ex-employee on her counterclaim, the Northern District judge set forth applicable Illinois law on restrictive covenants.

  • Restrictive covenants are scrutinized carefully since they are restraints of trade. The key inquiry is whether a given restriction is reasonable and necessary to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer.
  • A post-employment restrictive covenant is reasonable only where (1) it is no greater than necessary for the protection of a legitimate business interest of an employer, (2) does not impose an undue hardship on the employee, and (3) is not injurious to the public.
  • When determining whether an employer has met the legitimate business interest test – prong (1) above – the court considers whether an employer enjoys near-permanent relationships with its customers, whether the employee acquired confidential information during her employment and time and place restrictions contained in the subject covenant.
  • Courts are reluctant to prohibit former employee’s from servicing customers they never had contact with while working for an employer.

Applying these factors, the court found that the non-solicitation term excessive. It specifically viewed the restriction broader than necessary to protect Plaintiff’s ongoing client relationships.

According to the court, to prevent defendant from soliciting anyone who was ever a customer of plaintiff over the past 15 years was facially overbroad and not necessary to protect plaintiff’s current customer relationships. Another reason the court found the non-solicitation provision too expansive was it prevented defendant from contacting plaintiff’s clients with whom she never had any direct contact and didn’t even know about.

The agreement also contained a severability or “blue pencil” provision. Such a provision allows a court to modify an overbroad restrictive covenant in some settings.

Here, because the 12-month non-solicitation provision was chronologically reasonable in scope, the Court reformed the covenant to only prevent defendant from contacting any entity (a) who was a current and prospective customer of plaintiff as of defendant’s January 2018 termination date and (b) for which defendant had responsibility at the time of her separation.

The Court also granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s claim premised on the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, the statute that gives a trade secrets plaintiff access to Federal courts. To prove a Federal trade secrets act claim, the plaintiff must establish (a) the existence of a trade secret, and (b) misappropriation.

Misappropriation includes unauthorized disclosure of a trade secret by a person who used improper means to acquire knowledge of the trade secret and unauthorized disclosure of a trade secret by a person who knew or had reason to know that knowledge of the trade secret was “acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain the secrecy of the trade secret.” 18 U.S.C. ss. 1839(5)(B)(i)-(ii).

Plaintiff failed to adduce evidence that defendant owed a duty to protect the confidentiality of the Customer Report when it was never labelled as confidential.  As a result, no reasonable jury could find defendant acquired the Report through improper means by breaching a duty to maintain its secrecy.

Afterwords:

An employer suing a former employee for violating a restrictive covenant must demonstrate the existence of near-permanent customer relationships or confidential information. As long as the time and space limitation is objectively reasonable, a court can edit and contract the scope of a post-employment restriction.

Where an employer cannot demonstrate that an employee had a duty to maintain the secrecy of the information the employer is trying to protect, it likely can’t establish Federal trade secrets misappropriation.

The plaintiff’s elaborate information security policies worked against it here. By failing to label the subject Report as confidential (which was required per the employee handbook), the Court refused to find the Report sufficiently confidential to impose a duty on the defendant to keep it secret.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.