Third Party Enforcement of A Non-Compete and Trade Secret Pre-emption – IL Law

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In Cronimet Holdings v. Keywell Metals, LLC, 2014 WL 580414 (N.D.Ill. 2014), the Northern District of Illinois considers whether a non-compete contract is enforceable by a stranger to that contract as well as trade secret pre-emption of other claims.

Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff, who previously signed a non-disclosure agreement with a defunct metal company (the “Target Company”) it was considering buying, filed a declaratory action against a competitor (“Competitor”) requesting a ruling that the non-disclosure agreement and separate non-competes signed by the Target Company’s employees were not enforceable by the competitor who bought  the Target Company’s assets. The NDA and non-competes spanned 24 months.

The plaintiff moved to dismiss eight of the ten counterclaims filed by the Competitor.  It argued the Competitor lacked standing to enforce the non-competes and that its trade secrets counterclaim (based on the Illinois Trade Secrets Act, 765 ILCS 1065/1 (“ITSA”)) pre-empted several of the tort counterclaims.

In gutting most (8 out of 10) of the counterclaims, the court applied the operative rules governing when non-competes can be enforced by third parties:

 Illinois would likely permit the assignment of a non-compete to a third party;

Enforcing a non-compete presupposes a legitimate business interest to be protected;

– A legitimate business interest is a fact-based inquiry that focuses on whether there is (i) a “near-permanence” in a customer relationship, (ii) the company’s interest in a stable work force , (iii) whether a former employee acquired confidential information and (iv) whether a given non-compete has valid time and space restrictions;

A successor corporation can enforce confidentiality agreements signed by a predecessor (acquired) corporation where the acquired corporation merges into the acquiring one;

– A successor in interest is one who follows an original owner in control of property and who retains the same rights as the original owner;

– The ITSA pre-empts (displaces) conflicting or redundant tort claims that are based on a defendant’s misappropriation of trade secrets;

– Claims for unjust enrichment, quasi-contract relief or unfair competition are displaced by the ITSA where the claims essentially allege a trade secrets violation;

– The ITSA supplants claims that involve information that doesn’t rise to the level of a trade secret (e.g. not known to others and kept under ‘lock-and-key’);

(**4-5).

The court found that since a bankruptcy court (in the Target Company’s bankruptcy) previously ruled that the Competitor didn’t purchase the non-competes, and wasn’t the Target Company’s successor, the Competitor lacked standing to enforce the non-competes.

The Court also held that once the Target Company stopped doing business, its non-competes automatically lapsed since it no longer had any secret data or customers to protect.

The Court also agreed that the Company’s ITSA claim pre-empted its claims that asserted plaintiff was wrongfully using the Target Company’s secret data.  The court even applied ITSA pre-emption to non-trade secret information.  It held that so long as the information sought to be protected in a claim was allegedly secret, any non-ITSA claims based on that information were pre-empted.

Afterwords:

(1) A non-compete can likely be assigned to a third party;

(2) Where the party assigning a non-compete goes out of business, the assignor no longer has a legitimate business interest to protect; making it hard for the assignee to enforce the non-compete;

(3) ITSA, the Illinois trade secrets statute, will displace (pre-empt) causes of action or equitable remedies (unjust enrichment, unfair competition, etc.) that are based on a defendant’s improper use of confidential information – even where that information  doesn’t rise to the level of a trade secret.

No Punitive Damages Allowed In Statutory Replevin Action – IL 2d District

In Sensational Four, Inc. v. Tri-Par Die and Mold Corporation, 2016 IL App (2d) 150468, the food company plaintiff filed a replevin action against a manufacturer to recover  plaintiff’s injection molding equipment used to make jars and lids.

When the defendant failed to return plaintiff’s equipment despite a court replevin order to do so, plaintiff filed a rule to show cause motion and amended its complaint to assert various tort and contract claims.

The trial court claim found for the plaintiff after a bench trial and assessed punitive damages of $100,000 against the defendant for its “egregious” and malicious refusal to return the plaintiff’s equipment.  The defendant appealed on the basis that its due process rights were violated by the punitive damage award.

Held: Reversed.

Rules/Reasons:

Punitive damages aren’t favored in Illinois. Their purpose is to punish a defendant and deter others from acting with willful disregard for others’ rights.

Replevin is a statutory proceeding that requires a plaintiff to follow the replevin statute’s (see 735 ILCS 5/19-101, et seq.) provisions to the letter.

When construing a statute, a court looks first to the statutory language to divine the legislature’s intent.  And courts generally should not graft language on to a silent statute since this encroaches on the legislature’s drafting role.

Some statutes explicitly provide for punitive damages while others implicitly allow them. See Public Utilities Act (punitive damages expressly allowed); Nursing Home Care Act (implied punitives allowed where statute references “any other type of relief”). (¶ 25)

The Illinois replevin statute says nothing about punitive damages. It allows a plaintiff to recover damages sustained by the wrongful detention of the property in question along with costs and expenses related to the replevin. 735 ILCS 5/19-101, 120, 125. (¶¶ 26-28).  Nowhere does the statute mention punitive damages.

The Court reversed the punitive damage award since the replevin statute doesn’t explicitly allow punitive damages.  The Court noted that the legislature could have easily provided for a punitive damages remedy in the statute’s text if that was its intent.

Take-aways:

This case serves as a straight-forward example of a court refusing to inject meaning into a statute whose text is clear.  Where a statute doesn’t specifically allow for punitive damages, a plaintiff will have difficulty convincing a court to award them.  By contrast, if the statutory language is open-ended, like the Nursing Home Care Act’s “any other type of relief” language, a plaintiff may have a claim for punitive damages if it can prove a defendant’s intentional and extreme conduct.

Supplemental Jurisdiction Quick-Hits : A Case Note

Southern OceanOcean Tomo v. Barney, (http://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2012cv08450/275661/76) states the governing supplemental jurisdiction rules in a business battle over the rights to a patent valuation system.

The defendant, the developer of the system, was a member of the plaintiff financial services firm (an LLC) for several years when the relationship broke down over various issues.  Citing the company’s intolerable conditions, the defendant left with a company laptop.

The plaintiff filed a state court suit under various claims including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the defendant removed the case to Federal court.  There, the defendant counterclaimed for breach of contract and other state law business tort claims in addition to his own CFAA claim against the plaintiff.

Plaintiff moved to dismiss the state law claims on the basis that the court lacked supplemental jurisdiction over them.

Ruling: Motion denied.  Defendant can proceed on his state law counterclaims.

Reasons:

Supplemental jurisdiction principles are codified at 28 U.S.C. 1367.  This section provides that in any case where a Federal court has original jurisdiction, the Federal court has “supplemental jurisdiction” over related state law claims.

Supplemental jurisdiction is proper where the state law claims are so related to the Federal ones that they form part of the same cause of action and stem from a common nucleus of operative fact.  Even a “loose factual connection” between the state and Federal claims will generally provide a predicate for supplemental jurisdiction.

A district court can decline supplemental jurisdiction where: (1) the claim raises a novel or complex issue of State law, (2) the state law claims substantially predominates over the Federal claims; (3) the Federal court has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction, or (4) exceptional circumstances or other compelling reasons exist for declining jurisdiction.  

The defendant’s Counterclaims alleged that plaintiff violated the LLC operating agreement by withholding profits from the plaintiff and a separate shareholder agreement.  The defendant also alleged a tortious interference with contract claim against the plaintiff.
Defendant’s lone Federal claim was the CFAA one – premised on the allegation that plaintiff was trying to reverse engineer defendant’s patent system, repackage it and sell it to third parties.
Denying the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss, the Northern District found that the defendants state law counterclaims were factually connected to the plaintiff’s Federal CFAA claim. The Court held that, at bottom, Plaintiff’s counterclaims were premised on allegations that Plaintiff engaged in a lengthy fraudulent scheme to steal defendant’s patent ratings system.
And while allowing that defendant’s state law counterclaims (breach of contract, tortious interference, misappropriation) involved a broader set of facts (than plaintiff’s CFAA count), they still derived from the same operative facts that were the foundation of the plaintiff’s claims.

The Court noted that defendant’s counterclaim allegations of plaintiff’s lengthy pattern of duplicitous conduct related directly to defendant’s claim that the plaintiff was trying to pilfer defendant’s patent ratings system.  This pattern of conduct was relevant both to plaintiff’s Federal computer fraud claims and to defendant’s state law counterclaim counts.

Since plaintiff’s motive (was it really trying to reverse engineer and steal the ratings system?) was key to the parties’ state and Federal claims , the Court found they were factually linked and supplemental jurisdiction was proper.

Afterword:

Ocean Tomo provides a succinct summary of supplemental jurisdiction rules.  As long as the state law claims are temporally related and at least loosely factually connected to the Federal claims, a Federal court can – but doesn’t have to – retain jurisdiction over state law claims that normally couldn’t be filed in Federal courts.