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.

Vague Oral Agreement Dooms Mechanics Lien and Home Repair Act Claims – IL First Dist.

The First District recently examined the quantum of proof necessary to prevail on a breach of oral contract and mechanics lien claim and the factors governing a plaintiff’s request to amend its pleading.

In Link Company Group, LLC v. Cortes, 2018 IL App (1st) 171785-U, the Defendant hired the plaintiff – his former son-in-law – to rehab a residence in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. After a dispute over plaintiff’s construction work and billing issues, the plaintiff sued to foreclose a mechanics lien and for breach of contract. The defendant counter-sued and alleged plaintiff violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act (IHRRA) requires, among other things, a contractor to provide certain disclosures in writing to a homeowner client. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s lien and contract claims and denied summary judgment on defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. All parties appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first took aim at the plaintiff’s breach of contract and mechanics lien claims.

While oral contracts are generally enforceable, they must contain definite and essential terms agreed to by the parties. For an oral contract to be enforceable, it must be so definite and certain in all respects that the court can determine what the parties agreed to.

Here, the substance of the oral contract was vague. When pressed at his deposition, the plaintiff was unable to articulate the basic terms of the parties’ oral construction contract. Since the court was unable to decipher the key contract terms or divine the parties’ intent, the plaintiff’s breach of contract failed.

The plaintiff’s inability to prove-up its oral contract claim also doomed its mechanics lien action. In Illinois, a valid mechanics lien foreclosure suit requires the contractor to prove an enforceable contract and the contractor’s substantial performance of that contract. Since the plaintiff failed to establish a binding oral contract, by definition, it couldn’t prevail on its mechanics lien claim.

The First District also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend its complaint. While amendments to pleadings are generally liberally allowed in Illinois, a court will not rubber stamp a request to amend. Instead, the court engages in a multi-factored analysis of (1) whether the proposed amendment would cure the defective pleading, (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice by virtue of the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend the pleadings could be identified.

Here, the plaintiff’s proposed implied-in-fact contract was “nearly identical” to the stricken breach of oral contract claim. An implied-in-fact contract is one where contract terms are implicit from the parties’ conduct. Here, the parties conduct was too attenuated to establish definite contract terms. As a result, the proposed implied-in-law contract claim was facially deficient and didn’t cure the earlier, failed pleading.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s failure to allege an enforceable oral agreement also precluded summary judgment on the defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. A valid IHRRA claim presupposes the existence of an enforceable contract. Since there was no written agreement and the parties’ oral agreement was unclear, there was no valid contract on which to hook an IHRRA violation.

Afterwords:

This case cements proposition that a valid oral contract claim requires proof of definite and certain terms. A plaintiff’s failure to allege a clear and definite oral agreement will prevent him from asserting either a mechanics lien or Home Repair Act claim based on the putative oral agreement.

Link Company also illustrates the four factors a litigant must satisfy in order to amend a pleading. If the proposed amended complaint fails to allege a colorable cause of action, a court can properly deny leave to amend despite Illinois’ liberal pleading amendments policy.

New Lessor’s Vie for Radio Station Tenant’s Past-Due Rent Squelched – IL First Dist.

The First District of Illinois recently considered whether a new landlord for commercial premises has standing to sue a tenant for unpaid rent accruing before the new landlord’s purchase of premises.

Soon after buying the commercial premises, the new landlord in 1002 E. 87th Street, LLC v. Midway Broadcasting Corporation, 2018 IL App (1st) 171691 started giving the radio station some static over past-due rent that was owed to the prior landlord.  The defendant’s silence in response spoke volumes and the dispute swelled to an irreconcilable impasse.  The plaintiff sued to recover about $70K in past-due rent. The tenant then turned the tables on the landlord, filing a wave of defenses and counterclaims and a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s suit. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s suit for lack of standing and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the trial court, the appeals court examined the doctrine of standing in the context of a Code Section 2-619 motion filed in a lease dispute. The Court amplified its lease law analysis with a recitation of the applicable rules governing attorneys’ fees provisions.

Lack of standing is an affirmative defense under Code Section 2-619(a)(9). Standing requires a plaintiff to have an interest in a given lawsuit and its potential outcome. The defendant claiming a lack of standing has the burden of proving the defense.

In the commercial lease milieu, a landlord has standing to sue for unpaid rent and where a landlord conveys property by warranty deeds without reserving any rights, he/she also conveys the leases for the property and the right to receive unaccrued rent. However, the new landlord does not have a right to recover rent that came due before it owned the property. The right to recover those rentals remains with the original landlord. [⁋ 17]

The Court wasn’t receptive to the plaintiff’s arguments that it was entitled to recover past-due rent owed to the prior landlord.  The court distinguished this case’s underlying facts from a recent case – A.M. Realty Western v. MSMC Realty, LLC, 2012 IL App (1st) 121183 – where a landlord sold a building and was still able to sue for rent that accrued during its tenure as building owner.  Midway Broadcasting’s facts plainly differ since the plaintiff was suing to recover rents that came due before plaintiff became the premises landlord.

Another factor weighing against the plaintiff landlord was Illinois’ venerable body of case law that holds that rent in arrears is not assignable. This is because past-due rent is viewed as a chose in action and not an incident of the real estate that passes from a seller to a buyer. And since there was no evidence in the record establishing that the prior landlord intended to assign its right to collect unpaid rents, plaintiff’s argument that the previous landlord assigned to it the right to collect defendant’s delinquent rent, missed the mark.

In a sort of reverse “you can’t transmit what you haven’t got” maxim, the plaintiff here had no legal basis to assert a past-due rent claim against the tenant since all unpaid rent came due during the prior landlord’s tenure.  Since that former landlord never assigned its right to collect rents, the plaintiff’s claim fell on deaf ears.

Next, the Court affirmed the tenant’s prevailing-party attorneys’ fees award and signaled that to “prevail” in a case, a party must win on a significant issue in the case. Like most leases, the operative one here provided that the winning party could recover its attorneys’ fees.  Illinois follows the American Rule – each side pays its own fees unless there is a contractual fee-shifting provision or an operative statute that gives the prevailing party the right to recover its fees.  Contractual attorneys’ fees provisions are strictly construed and appeals courts rarely overturn fee awards unless the trial court abuses its discretion.

In the context of attorneys’ fees disputes, a litigant is a prevailing party where it is successful on any significant issue in the action and receives a judgment in his/her favor or obtains affirmative recovery.  A litigant can still be a prevailing party even where it does not succeed on all claims in a given lawsuit. Courts can declare that neither side is a prevailing party where each side wins and loses on different claims. However, a “small victory” on a peripheral issue in a case normally won’t confer prevailing party status for purposes of a fee award.  [¶ 36]

The Court rejected the lessor’s claim that it was the prevailing party since the court entered an agreed use and occupancy award.  Use and occupancy awards are usually granted in lease disputes since “a lessee’s obligation to pay rent continues as a matter of law, even though the lessee may ultimately establish a right to *** obtain relief.”  [¶ 32].  Because of the somewhat routine nature of use and occupancy orders, the court declined to find the landlord a prevailing party on this issue.

Afterwords:

I found this case post-worthy since it deals with an issue I see with increasing frequency: what are a successor landlord’s rights to prior accruing rents from a tenant?  In hindsight, precision in lease drafting would be a great equalizer.  However, clear lease language is often absent and it’s left to the litigants and court to try to divine the parties’ intent.

The case and others like it make clear that rents accruing before a landlord purchases a building normally belong the predecessor owner.  Absent an agreement between the former and current lessors or a clear lease provision that expressly provides that a new owner can sue for accrued rents, the new landlord won’t have standing to sue for accrued unpaid rent.

The case also makes it clear that small victories (here, an inconsequential dismissal of one of many counterclaims) in the context of larger lawsuit, won’t translate to prevailing party status for that “winner” and won’t give a hook for attorneys’ fees.