Texas Arbitration Provision Sounds Death Knell For Illinois Salesman’s Suit Against Former Employer – IL ND

(“Isn’t that remarkable…..”)

The Plaintiff in Brne v. Inspired eLearning, 2017 WL 4263995, worked in sales for the corporate publisher defendant.  His employment contract called for arbitration in San Antonio, Texas.

When defendant failed to pay plaintiff his earned commissions, plaintiff sued in Federal court in his home state of Illinois under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“IWPCA”). Defendant moved for venue-based dismissal under Rule 12(b)(3)

The Illinois Northern District granted defendant’s motion and required the plaintiff to arbitrate in Texas.  A Rule 12(b)(3) motion is the proper vehicle to dismiss a case filed in the wrong venue. Once a defendant challenges the plaintiff’s venue choice, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish it filed in the proper district.  When plaintiff’s chosen venue is improper, the Court “shall dismiss [the case], or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a).

Upholding the Texas arbitration clause, the Illinois Federal court noted the liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements except when to do so would violate general contract enforceability rules (e.g. when arbitration agreement is the product of fraud, coercion, duress, etc.)

The Court then turned to plaintiff’s argument that the arbitration agreement was substantively unconscionable.  An agreement is substantively unconscionable where it is so one-sided, it “shocks the conscience” for a court to enforce the terms.

The plaintiff claimed the arbitration agreement’s cost-sharing provision and absence of fee-shifting rendered it substantively unconscionable.

Cost Sharing Provision

Under Texas and Illinois law, a party seeking to invalidate an arbitration agreement on the ground that arbitration is prohibitively expensive must provide individualized evidence to show it will likely be saddled with excessive costs during the course of the arbitration and is financially incapable of meeting those costs.  The fact that sharing arbitration costs might cut in to a plaintiff’s recovery isn’t enough: without specific evidence that clearly demonstrates arbitration is cost-prohibitive, a court will not strike down an arbitration cost-sharing provision as substantively unconscionable.  Since plaintiff failed to offer competent evidence that he was unable to shoulder half of the arbitration costs, his substantive unconscionability argument failed

Fee-Shifting Waiver

The plaintiff’s fee-shifting waiver argument fared better.  Plaintiff asserted  then argued that the arbitration agreement’s provision that each side pays their own fees deprived Plaintiff of his rights under the IWPCA (see above) which, among other things, allows a successful plaintiff to recover her attorneys’ fees. 820 ILCS 115/14.

The Court noted that contractual provisions against fee-shifting are not per se unconscionable and that the party challenging such a term must demonstrate concrete economic harm if it has to pay its own lawyer fees.  The court also noted that both Illinois and Texas courts look favorably on arbitration and that arbitration fee-shifting waivers are unconscionable only when they contradict a statute’s mandatory fee-shifting rights and the statute is central to the arbitrated dispute.

The court analogized the IWPCA to other states’ fee-shifting statutes and found the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees section integral to the statute’s aim of protecting workers from getting stiffed by their employers.  The court then observed that IWPCA’s attorney’s fees provision encouraged non-breaching employees to pursue their rights against employers.  In view of the importance of the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees provision, the Court ruled that the arbitration clause’s fee-shifting waiver clashed materially with the IWPCA and was substantively unconscionable.

However, since the arbitration agreement contained a severability clause (i.e. any provisions that were void, could be excised from the arbitration contract), the Court severed the fee-shifting waiver term and enforced the balance of the arbitration agreement.  As a result, plaintiff must still arbitrate against his ex-employer in Texas (and cannot litigate in Illinois).

Afterwords:

This case lies at the confluence of freedom of contract, the strong judicial policy favoring arbitration and when an arbitration clause conflicts with statutory fee-shifting language.  The court nullified the arbitration provision requiring each side to pay its own fees since that term clashed directly with opposing language in the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.  Still, the court enforced the parties’ arbitration agreement – minus the fee provision.

The case also provides a useful synopsis of venue-based motions to dismiss in Federal court.

 

 

 

 

Marital Privilege Argument Premature in Insurance Broker’s Trade Secrets Case Against Former Agent – IL ND

The district court in Cornerstone Assurance Group v. Harrison discusses the Federal court plausibility standard for pleadings and considers whether Illinois’s marital privilege statute defeats an insurance broker’s trade secrets suit against a former employee.

The defendant signed an employment contract that contained a confidentiality provision covering plaintiff’s financial information, marketing plans, client leads, prospects, and lists along with fee schedules, and computer software.  Plaintiff paid defendant $1,000 not to disclose plaintiff’s confidential information.

The plaintiff alleged the defendant disclosed the information – including a protected client list and private medical data – to her husband, who worked for a competing broker.  The plaintiff alleged the competitor used that information to recruit plaintiff’s employees.  The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

Trade Secrets Claim

Denying the motion, the court first looked to the pleading requirements of a claim under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, et seq.To prevail on a claim for misappropriation of a trade secret under the [ITSA], the plaintiff must demonstrate (1) the information at issue was a trade secret, (2) that the information was misappropriated, and (3) that it was used in the defendant’s business.

ITSA defines a trade secret as information, data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers or suppliers, that is (1) sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (20 is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality. 765 ILCS 1065/2(d)

The law does not confer trade secret status for information “generally known or understood within an industry even if not to the public at large.”  A plaintiff also foregoes trade secret protection where it fails to take affirmative measures to keep others from using the proprietary information.  In addition to these statutory guideposts, Illinois case law considers several additional factors that inform the trade secrets analysis.  These include: (1) the extent to which the information is known outside of the plaintiff s business; (2) the extent to which the information is known by employees and others involved in the plaintiff s business; (3) the extent of measures taken by the plaintiff to guard the secrecy of the information; (4) the value of the information to the plaintiff s business and to its competitors; (5) the amount of time, effort and money expended by the plaintiff in developing the information; and (6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others.  No one factor predominates but the more factors present increases plaintiff’s chances of establishing a trade secret.

The Court held the plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to show that some of the information allegedly misappropriated was a trade secret.  Under Illinois law, a list of actual or potential customers as well as insurance claims data can qualify as a trade secret under certain facts.  The plaintiff’s Complaint allegations that it spent several years developing the confidential data at issue and that it wasn’t accessible to others satisfied the pleading requirements for a valid trade secrets case.

Marital Communications Privilege

The Court held it was too soon to address Defendant’s argument that the marital privilege statute negated Plaintiff’s claims.  The marital privilege attaches to husband and wife communications.  But a spouse’s communication to a third party waives the privilege and a litigant is free to use that communication against its adversary.  The marital privilege also doesn’t extend to subsequent uses of protected communication.  See 735 ILCS 5/8-801 (husband and wife may not testify to communication or admission made by either of them to each other.)

While the court opted to table the privilege issue until after discovery, the Court noted the plaintiff alleged the defendant disclosed trade secrets not only to her husband but to a third party – the husband’s employer. Since the Complaint established it was possible the defendant shared information with someone other than her husband, the marital privilege didn’t bar plaintiff’s claims at the case’s pleading stage.

Afterwords

This case represents a court flexibly applying Rule 12’s plausibility standard in the trade secrets context.  Solidifying the proposition that a plaintiff doesn’t have to plead evidence or try its case at the pleading stage, the Court makes clear that disclosure of a trade secret to even a single competitor can satisfy the misappropriation prong of a trade secrets claim.  Harrison also shows the marital communications privilege won’t apply to information that escapes a husband-wife union.  A complaint’s plausible allegation that protected information went beyond the confines of the marital union nullifies the marital privilege.

‘Salesy’ LinkedIn Posts Can Violate Ex-Employee’s Noncompete – Minn. Federal Court

In July 2017, a Federal court in Minnesota grappled with the in-vogue issue of whether a former employee violates post-employment nonsolicitation provisions by asking her network for business on LinkedIn.

The warring factions in Mobile Mini v. Vevea, (see here) are direct competitors in the portable storage business.  Plaintiff sued when the defendant, a former sales representative for plaintiff, went to work for a competitor in violation of noncompete requirements in her employment agreement.  After the defendant posted on LinkedIn where she was working and requested viewers to call her for quote, the Plaintiff sued.

Partially granting the request for an injunction, the Court examined the pleading and proof elements for injunctive relief and whether a social media post can support a nonsolicitation violation.

Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs preliminary injunctions.  The moving party must establish: (1) the likelihood of the moving party’s success on the merits; (2) the threat of irreparable harm to the moving party; (3) the state of balance between the alleged irreparable harm and the harm that granting the injunction would inflict on the other party; and (4) how the public interest is impacted if an injunction does/doesn’t issue.  The critical question on a request for an injunction is whether a Court should “intervene to preserve the status quo” until it determines the merits of the case.

Likelihood of Success on the Merits

The Court found plaintiff’s prospects for winning on the merits were strong.  To prevail on a non-compete claim in Delaware (Delaware law governed the parties’ agreement), a plaintiff must prove (1) the existence of a valid, enforceable contract; (2) breach of a contractual obligation by the defendant; and (3) damages.

A Delaware non-compete agreement is valid if it its duration and geographic reach are reasonably limited and the non-compete’s purpose and effect is to protect a legitimate employer interest. The Court found the subject agreement met these requirements

Next, the court turned to defendant’s LinkedIn activity and whether that amounted to a breach of the employment agreement.  The Court found the plaintiff breached the contract by making “two blatant sales pitches” for her new employer before the noncompete lapsed.

The court viewed the defendant’s solicitations as going further than simple status updates.  It held that had defendant simply posted her new position and contact information, it likely wouldn’t have run afoul of the defendant’s employment contract. For support, the Court pointed to an Ohio Federal court and a Mass. state court which held that a defendant’s social media postings did not rise to the level of an actionable noncompete claim. See Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. v. Anthony, 2016 WL 4523104, at *15 (N.D. Ohio 2016) (press release posted on LinkedIn and Twitter announcing that an employer had hired a new employee was not a solicitation); Invidia, LLC v. DiFonzo, 2012 WL 5576406, at *5 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2012) (hair stylist’s Facebook post announcing new job not a solicitation).

Since the defendant’s purpose in her LinkedIn postings was to entice business from her network and not simply announce a job change, the Court held that defendant likely violated the the employment contract.

Other Injunctive Relief Factors

The Court then found the plaintiff satisfied the irreparable harm element.  It noted defendant’s past and threatened future noncompete violations and that they could imperil plaintiff’s future customers, goodwill and reputation.

On the noncompete’s start date (the plaintiff wanted the court to reset the time to the date of the court’s order on the plaintiff’s preliminary injunction motion – several months after suit was filed), the court sided with the defendant.  The Court agreed that restarting the clock would give the plaintiff a windfall and impede defendant’s ability to earn a living.

Take-aways:

This case is instructive on how the line between digital self-promotion and blatant sales pitches can blur.  One of the case’s chief lessons is that while noncompetes are not favored,  social media posts can still violate post-employment restrictions.  Those who sign noncompetes should be careful whether their post-employment LinkedIn posts can objectively be viewed as a sales pitch.