The Corporate Opportunity Doctrine: An Illinois Primer

I typically encounter a corporate opportunity issue (a claim that a defendant usurped a corporate opportunity) in situations where a former employee goes to work for a competitor and the ex-employer claims the employee is exploiting a business opportunity he learned of solely through his association with the employer.

The employer will usually sue for injunctive relief and money damages under a breach of fiduciary duty theory premised on the assertion that the employee violated the corporate opportunity doctrine. The employee typically defends by arguing that he didn’t compete with his former employer and that any business he now does is purely the product of his own initiative and was developed outside the confines of his prior position.

Illinois state and Federal cases through the decades have sharpened the doctrine’s contours to these fine points:

– A corporate officer has the duty to act with “utmost good faith and loyalty” in managing the company;

– A corporate officer breaches his fiduciary duties where (i) he tries to enhance his personal interests at the expense of the corporate interests, or (ii) he hinders his corporate employer’s ability to carry on its business;

Where a corporate officer solicits business for his own benefit or uses his employer’s facilities or resources to further his personal interests without informing the company, he breaches his fiduciary duties to that company; the core principle of the doctrine is that a fiduciary will not be permitted to usurp an opportunity developed through the use of corporate assets;

 A plaintiff alleging a defendant usurped a corporate opportunity must show that the company benefitting from the officer’s actions are in the same line of business as the plaintiff/employer; but the companies don’t have to be direct competitors;

 – A corporate opportunity exists when a proposed activity is reasonably incident to the corporation’s present or prospective business and is one in which the corporation has the capacity to engage;

– Where a corporate officer uses corporate assets to develop a business opportunity, he can’t then argue that his former employer lacked the ability to pursue that opportunity;

– Two key factors are: (1) whether the corporation had an actual or expected interest in the opportunity and (2) whether the acquisition of the questioned opportunity would impede the (ex-employer, e.g.) corporation’s ability to carry on its day-to-day business;

Additional corporate opportunity factors include: (1) the manner in which the offer was communicated to the officer, (2) the good faith of the officer, (3) the use of corporate assets to acquire the opportunity, (4) the financial ability of the corporation to acquire the opportunity, (5) the degree of disclosure made to the corporation, (6) the action taken by the corporation in response to any disclosure, and (7) the need or interest of the corporation in the opportunity;

Case Examples Of Corporate Opportunity Breach

Corporate officers have been found in breach of their fiduciary duties when, while still employed by the company, they:

(i) failed to inform the company that employees are forming a rival company or engaging in other fiduciary breaches;

(ii) solicited the business of a customer before leaving the company;

(iii) used the company’s facilities or equipment to assist in developing their new business;

(iv) solicited fellow employees to join a rival business;

(v) used the company’s confidential business information for the new business; and

(vi) orchestrated a mass exodus of employees shortly after resigning from a company.

Afterwords: The above provides a good framework for handling a corporate opportunity breach. When representing a plaintiff in this type of case, I argue that the above factors weigh in favor of a finding of breach and will focus on any secret conduct of the defendant. The more clandestine, the better. 

Conversely, when defending a corporate opportunity suit, I stress that the opportunity was developed independently of my client’s former association with the plaintiff and that it (the opportunity) came to fruition by my client’s own efforts and not from the plaintiff’s resources.

Sources:

Drench, Inc. v. South Chapel Hill Gardens, Inc., 274 Ill.App.3d 534 (1st Dist. 1995);

Star Forge, Inc. v. Ward, 2014 IL App (2d) 130527-U;

Foodcomm Int’l v. Barry, 328 F.3d 300, 303 (7th Cir. 2003);

Lindenhurst Drugs, Inc. v. Becker, 154 Ill.App.3d 61, 68 (2d Dist. 1987)

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PaulP

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