No Commercial Disparagement Or Non-Compete Equals Denial Of Injunction – IL Court

In Xylem Dewatering Solutions, Inc. v. Szablewski, 2014 IL App (5th) 140080-U,  the plaintiff corporation sued some of its ex-employees after they joined a competitor and started raiding plaintiff’s office staff.

The trial court denied plaintiff’s request for an injunction and then it appealed.

Result: Trial court’s order upheld. Plaintiff loses.

Reasons: To get a preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must establish (1) a clearly ascertained right in need of protection; (2) irreparable injury; (3) no adequate remedy at law; and (4) a likelihood of success on the merits.

The plaintiff must establish a “fair question” on each of the four elements. A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy that is only granted in extreme, emergency settings. (¶¶ 20-21).

Irreparable harm can result from commercial disparagement of a plaintiff’s product but the plaintiff must show the defendant repeatedly made false or misleading statements of fact regarding the plaintiff’s goods and services to establish irreparable harm.  Statements of opinion (“their services suck!”, e.g.) don’t qualify as commercial disparagement. 

Here, the Court found that there were no repeated factual statements made by the defendants.  In addition, all statements that were attributed to the defendants were purely interpretive: they weren’t factual enough to be actionable.  (¶¶ 23-24).

In finding that the plaintiff lacked a protectable interest in its employees or customers, the court pointed out that neither individual defendant signed a non-compete and didn’t violate any fiduciary duties to the employer.

In Illinois, absent a non-compete, an employee is free both to compete with a former employer and to outfit a competing business so long as he doesn’t do so before his employment terminates.  And while a corporate officer owes heightened fiduciary duties not to exploit his position for personal gain, the ex-employee defendants were not corporate officers. (¶ 26).

Plaintiff also failed to establish a protectable interest in its pricing and bid information.  The Illinois Trade Secrets Act, 765 ILCS 1065/1 et seq. (“ITSA”) extends trade secret protection to “information” that is (1) sufficiently secret to derive economic value, from not being generally known to others who can obtain economic value from its use, and (2) that is the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain the information’s secrecy (i.e., “kept under lock and key”)

Information that is generally known in an industry – even if not to the public at large – isn’t a trade secret. Also, information that can be readily copied without a significant outlay of time, effort or expense is not a trade secret. 

The pricing data the plaintiff was trying to protect was several years old and the defendants testified that the bidding information was well known (and therefore not secret) in the pumping industry.  In combination, these factors weighed against a finding of trade secret protection for the pricing and bidding information. (¶¶ 29-31).

Afterwords:

(1) Stale data likely won’t qualify for trade secret status – no matter how arcane the information;

(2) If information is well known or can be easily accessed within an industry, it won’t be given trade secret protection;

(3) Noncompete agreements can serve vital purposes.  If a business fails to have its workers sign them, the business risks having no recourse if an ex-employee joins a competitor and later raids the former employer’s personnel.

Non-Compete Signed 16 Years After Employment Start Date Is Too Late (To Be Enforced) – Says KY High Court

In prior articles, I’ve discussed how restrictive covenants (i.e., non-disclosure, non-solicitation and non-competition provisions) are staples of modern-day employment contracts and business sale agreements.  In Creech, Inc. v. Brown (http://law.justia.com/cases/kentucky/supreme-court/2014/2012-sc-000651-dg.html) the Supreme Court of Kentucky struck down a non-competition provision in a hay supplier’s written contract the supplier made a long-time employee sign several years after he started working there.

The defendant worked for the plaintiff in various capacities through the years.  Sixteen years into his tenure, plaintiff’s new management asked the defendant to sign a Conflict of Interest Agreement (the “Agreement”) that contained broad non-disclosure provisions and a non-competition clause.  The non-compete spanned three years and had no geographic boundaries.  Fearing job loss, defendant signed the Agreement.  The defendant continued to work for the plaintiff for a couple more years when he took a job with a rival supplier.  Plaintiff then sued to enforce the Agreement’s non-competition provision.  The trial court sided with the defendant and the appeals court reversed.  On remand, the trial court entered summary judgment for the plaintiff employer and found that the defendant violated the Agreement.  This time, the appeals court upheld the non-competition clause.  Both parties appealed to Kentucky’s Supreme Court.

Held: Reversed.  The non-competition provision is unenforceable because it lacks consideration.

Reasons:

The defendant worked for nearly two decades for the plaintiff hay supplier and wasn’t asked to sign a non-compete until more than sixteen years after his start date.  The plaintiff gave defendant nothing in exchange for defendant signing the Agreement.  It didn’t give the defendant a raise, didn’t change the defendant’s job duties and offered no training or other benefits.  There was no consideration flowing to the defendant to bind him to the non-competition provision’s three-year term.

Consideration means a benefit to the party making a promise and a loss to the party to whom the promise is made.  Each side gives and gets something.  Benefit means the promisor has gained something to which he is not otherwise entitled.  Detriment or loss means that the promisee has given up something in exchange for the promise.  (p. 12).

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the defendant’s continued employment was sufficient consideration.  The plaintiff didn’t give the defendant anything in exchange for him signing the Agreement.  The Agreement was silent on defendant’s job duties or rate of pay and as a result couldn’t be considered a “rehiring.”  Nor did the Agreement alter defendant’s employment terms.  He remained an at-will employee at the same pay rate. (p. 14).  The Agreement imposed a three-year restriction on defendant seeking alternative employment without giving him any corresponding benefit.  Since the Agreement didn’t require plaintiff to give up anything in exchange for the defendant signing the Agreement, the non-competition provision lacked consideration and wasn’t enforceable.  (p. 15).

Besides defendant’s job description and pay remaining static, the plaintiff hay supplier also didn’t offer any specialized training to the defendant after he signed the Agreement.  A contract law axiom posits that a promise devoid of a reciprocal flow of benefits and detriments can’t be enforced.  (pp. 15-17).  By not giving up anything in consideration for defendant executing the Agreement, the plaintiff’s offer of continued employment was illusory.

Afterword: I’ve never practiced in Kentucky but the case is relevant to Illinois restrictive covenant law since it’s congruent with Fifield’s (Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc., http://www.state.il.us/court/Opinions/AppellateCourt/2013/1stDistrict/1120327.pdf) two-year rule. (Two years of continued employment is required for a non-compete to have adequate consideration.)  

The result in Creech seems fair.  An employer shouldn’t be able to unilaterally foist a non-compete on a long-time employee without providing some additional benefit to him.  For employers, the lesson is clear: if you’re going to have an employee sign a restrictive covenant after he’s started working, you should pay the employee a bonus, give him a raise or provide some other tangible benefit so that there is sufficient consideration – loss or detriment –  flowing to the employee so that you can bind him to a non-competition provision.

 

IT Recruiting Firm’s Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Claims Against Former Employees Fail – ND IL (Part I of II)

In Instant Technology, LLC v. DeFazio, 2014 WL 1759184, the Northern District of Illinois examines Illinois non-compete law, trade secrets rules and a slew of business torts in the context of a heated battle between rival recruiting firms and some of their key employees.  This article distills the case’s key restrictive covenant principles.  Part II of the post will summarize the court’s ruling on the plaintiff’s trade secrets, tortious interference, and civil conspiracy claims.

The plaintiff staffing firm sued several former employees and their current employer – a rival recruiter – for violating restrictive covenants contained in their employment contracts and for disclosing the plaintiff’s trade secrets in connection with their current position with the competing firm.  Plaintiff sued when it found out that the defendants had contacted some of plaintiff’s clients and job placement candidates in violation of their non-compete and non-solicitation provisions.  After a several-day bench trial and hearing testimony from almost 20 witnesses, the Court ruled in the defendants’ favor on all of the plaintiff’s claims.

Illinois Non-Compete Rules

The Court found that the defendants’ non-compete provisions were unenforceable because they lacked consideration and because the plaintiff couldn’t establish a legitimate business interest to be protected by the non-competes.  Under Illinois law, when assessing a restrictive covenant (here, a “non-compete”), the court looks to whether (1) the covenant is ancillary to a valid contract, and (2) whether it’s supported by consideration.  Consideration to support a non-compete is lacking if an employee can be fired the minute after he signs it and will only have adequate consideration only if, after signing the covenant, the employee remains employed for a substantial period of time – defined as two years or more of continued employment. See Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc. 2013 IL App (1st) 120327.

Aside from requiring at least two years of continuous employment, a valid non-compete has to be “reasonable.”  The reasonableness of a non-compete turns on whether it (1) is no greater than necessary to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer; (2) the non-compete doesn’t impose an undue hardship on the employee; and (3) it’s not injurious to the public. 

A legitimate business interest will usually exist where (a) the employee has access to the employer’s confidential trade information; and (b) the employee is tampering with the employer’s established customer relationships.  Other factors a court considers when determining whether an employer has a legitimate business interest include (i) the “near-permanence” of customer relationships; (ii) whether the employee’s acquired the employer’s confidential information; and (iii) the non-compete’s time and space restrictions.

Near-permanency (of customer relationships) depends on the nature of the business involved.   Businesses that engender customer loyalty and that offer specialized, unique services have a better chance of establishing a near-permanent client relationship than do companies whose services are more generic and disposable.   An industry marked by high turnover or one in which customers uses many vendors – like the recruiting business (or a large corporation that uses regional law firms) – will not meet the near-permanence criterion.

Under these guideposts, the Court invalidated the former employees’ non-competes.  First, several of the employees didn’t work the requisite two years to support the non-competes: they lacked consideration.  In finding the non-competes substantively unreasonable, the Court noted that the staffing industry is mercurial and subject to “massive turnover.”  The recruiting industry also uses elemental (read: not secret) sales techniques like cold calls to make sales and identify potential prospects.

And while maintaining workforce stability can be a legitimate business interest (as the plaintiff argued), where an industry is subject to rampant turnover – with frequent employee departures and terminations – the workforce stability argument fails.  The Court held that enforcing the defendants’ non-competes wasn’t likely to enhance the plaintiff’s workforce stability given the high turnover in the recruiting business and its basic, non-specialized sales techniques (cold-calling, e.g.).

Afterwords: Instant Technology is significant and instructive for its expansive analysis of Illinois non-compete principles, its validation of the two-year employment rule announced in Fifield (see http://paulporvaznik.com/fifield-case-two-years-of-continous-employment-sufficient-consideration-to-enforce-employee-restrictive-covenants/1261) and its discussion of the legitimate business interest non-compete clause prong.  The case illustrates that with a business that is historically subject to high turnover and that utilizes direct selling techniques, it will be hard for an employer to establish near-permanence with its customers ad, by extension, difficult to show a legitimate and protectable business interest.