Employment Contracts and Non-Compete/ Non-Solicitation Agreements
I have extensive experience reviewing and negotiating employment contracts and non-compete/ non-solicitation agreements (including for jurisdictions in Illinois as well as in most other states - note that I have certain valuable research tools at my fingertips covering this area of the law for Illinois as well as most other states), and have litigated these matters in federal and state courts.
Employment Contracts. Employment contracts are frequently prepared by the employer’s attorney, and therefore often contain clauses that disproportionately favor the employer - and that place the employee at a legal disadvantage if problems arise, which can place the employee at financial risk.
- A few examples of this, amongst many, include: absent, vague or one-sided termination of employment “for cause” terms; the absence of a provision providing for you to receive severance if you are terminated not for cause; overreaching non-compete agreements that continue for an unreasonably long period of time and that apply to situations where they should not properly apply; attorney fee clauses; one-sided penalty clauses for alleged violations of the employment contract; and clauses that set the jurisdiction of claims, and the choice of law, in states that are inconvenient for you and/or hostile to employees; etc.
Consulting with me before entering into an employment contract will help return some leverage to you (as well as enable you to better understand your rights, and very possibly enable the employment contract to be revised to be fair/ less one-sided and to better protect your rights and post-employment opportunities). I also may be able to make good practical suggestions, propose strategies, and propose valuable revisions and additions to the not-yet-signed employment contract that can provide additional/better monetary and benefit compensation for you. See, in particular, Executive Compensation.
Once an employment contract has been entered into, I still can advise you concerning the legal ramifications and likely enforceability of particular clauses, as well as provide you with advice regarding your options (including risks, and perhaps opportunities, that you were not aware of) and potential winning strategies. I also can and frequently do provide advice to my clients about how to exit your current Employer, whether or not to inform your current Employer about where you are going, and what to do if your Employer subsequently sends you a cease and desist letter - for each of these issues my advice is dependent on the specific facts of the matter, the law, and good practical considerations that I have honed through my years of experience in this area.
Non-Solicitation/Non-Compete Agreements. In this day and age Employers have greatly expanded the usage and attempted scope of restrictive covenants over what had been done merely 5 - 10 years ago, in an attempt to not merely protect their bona-fide trade secrets and maintain their relationships with longtime customers, but also to improperly overly-severely restrict the post-employment options of their employees - which can negatively affect individuals not just after their employment ends (by potentially reducing post-employment options and post-employment contacts), but also during their employment (by resultantly reducing their bargaining positions).
Restrictive covenants generally fall into three categories: non-solicitation clauses; non-compete clauses; and confidentiality provisions.
- Non-solicitation clauses can restrict you from soliciting: a) employees of the Employer (e.g. – preventing you from attempting to request/ solicit the employees to leave their Employer to join you elsewhere); b) clients of the Employer (judges frequently look closely as to whether such clients of the Employer were “permanent”, and other such factors); or c) both a and b.
- Non-compete clauses can restrict you from working in your chosen profession in certain geographic areas, for certain lengths of time (e.g. – for 1-2 years, or longer).
- Confidentiality provisions can restrict you from disclosing particular categories of information that allegedly are secret/confidential, with Employers sometimes attempting to define/use such provisions in an overbroad way to prevent you from rightfully using information/skills that you have obtained during your employment with the Employer in your subsequent employment/ endeavors.
A potential ramification of a restrictive covenant is that you may be precluded from working (not just with or for certain clients, but you may also be precluded from working in your chosen profession) in a certain geographic area (e.g. 5 mile radius, 10 mile radius, Chicago, or even all of Illinois or the entire United States) for anywhere from 6 months to 2 years or more - which may or may not be reasonable under the circumstances.
The Illinois Supreme court, in the 2011 decision Reliable Fire Equip. Co. v. Arredondo, established what it called a “rule of reasonableness test” to determine the enforceability of a restrictive covenant, with the Court providing that a restraint on trade is reasonable only if it:
- is no greater than is required to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer;
- does not impose undue hardship on the employee; and
- is not injurious to the public.
Furthermore, the activity, time, and geographic restrictions must be reasonable.
Generally speaking, there are two categories of potentially protectable “legitimate business interests” that can support an Employer’s attempted enforcement (against a former employee) of a restrictive covenant in an employment agreement. In this regard, such a legitimate business interest can exist: (a) where former employees acquired confidential information through employment and subsequently attempted to use it for their own benefit; or (b) where the employer has near-permanent customer relationships and where, but for their employment, former employees would not have had contact with the customers in question.
The Court in Reliable Fire held that “[W]hether a legitimate business interest exists is based on the totality of the facts and circumstances of the individual case.” Factors considered to be relevant to this analysis “include, but are not limited to, the near-permanence of customer relationships, the employee’s acquisition of confidential information through his employment, and time and place restrictions.” No single factor bears greater value in the Court’s assessment, and the Court must weigh each factor depending upon “the specific facts and circumstances of the individual case”.
Illinois courts have routinely stricken restrictive covenants that did not advance the legitimate business interests of the Employer, and in this regard the 2007 decision in Cambridge Engineering, Inc. v. Mercury Partners 90 BI, Inc. is instructive. In that case the Court held that “[r]estrictions on activities ‘should be narrowly tailored to protect only against activities that threaten the employer’s interest.’ ” (quoting Lawrence & Allen, Inc. v. Cambridge Human Resource Group, Inc.). A restrictive covenant is not valid if it is broader than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests. Id. Restrictions on competing will be narrowly construed to protect against only the activities that threaten the Employer’s interests, and will be balanced against the hardship to the Employee. Id.
Likewise, a non-solicitation clause is only valid if “reasonably related to the employer’s interest in protecting customer relations that its employees developed while working for the employer... As a result, courts are reluctant to enforce provisions that prohibit former employees from servicing customers that they never had contact with while working for their original employer.” (quoting Lawrence & Allen).
“Sufficient Consideration” for the Non-Compete Agreement. Of particular note for employees is that in Illinois in order for a non-compete agreement to be enforceable, among other things, there must be “sufficient consideration”. This requirement of “sufficient consideration” is more stringent than requiring merely that there be “consideration” for a contract.
- By way of explaining the difference, generally for contracts to be enforceable there just needs to be “consideration”, which can be something very minimal (such as a “peppercorn” or a nominal sum such as one dollar).
- But the requirement of “sufficient consideration” is a higher requirement. In this regard, several Illinois appellate courts (such as the lead case of Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services from 2013) have ruled that for there to be “sufficient consideration” an employee must be employed for at least 2 years before a non-compete is enforceable against the employee (even if the employee chooses to voluntarily resign before 2 years).
- There are conflicting court decisions on this issue, and a fact intensive and legally intensive analysis is needed (with Employers sometimes using something called “garden leave” to potentially enable the Employer to get around the 2-year requirement - which itself is a double-edged sword for the Employer and the Employee).
Although all other parts of this website address Illinois and/or Federal Law, there was a recent Wisconsin case that is quite interesting on this issue (and it would be good if Illinois would follow this case’s lead). In Manitowoc v. Lanning (Jan. 2018) the Plaintiff Employer had imposed a non-solicitation of employees provision as part of an Employee’s employment agreement. The provision prohibited the Employee from soliciting, inducing, or encouraging any employee of the Employer to terminate his or her employment or to accept employment with a competitor, supplier or customer of the Employer. The Employer claimed that the Employee engaged in actions that violated the non-solicitation of employees’ provision.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the Employer’s non-solicitation of employees provision was a restraint of trade governed by Wisconsin Statute 103.465 and was unenforceable under the statute because it did not meet the statutory requirement that the restriction be “reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer”.Confidentiality Clauses
With regard to Confidentiality clauses, while certainly some information is legitimately confidential and deserving of protection (e.g. – the formula for Coke), Employers frequently make the overbroad claim that everything that an employee heard/saw during their employment (including also the color of the kitchen sink) is confidential. This is oftentimes claimed by an Employer as a back-door way of attempting to prevent an Employee for working for a competitor - which, by its nature, is a restraint on trade. One such phrase that Employers sometimes use in this regard is “inevitable disclosure” (which is an easy phrase for an Employer to throw out there, but not so easy a claim for the Employer to succeed on).
There is a great deal of information that is not “generally” known to the public; yet not all of it merits protection under a confidentiality provision. See the 2012 decision in Rubloff Development Group, Inc. v. SuperValu, Inc., citing Reliable Fire, for the general observation that:
“Illinois views post-employment restrictive covenants that insist on absolute secrecy of any and all information as unreasonable and unenforceable because a person is allowed to make a living, and cannot possibly not utilize any information from his past job”.
Indeed, the general rule is that companies have a legitimate business interest in “confidential particularized information disclosed to [the employee] during the time the employer-employee relationship existed which are unknown to others in the industry and which give the employer advantage over his competitors.” Giffney Perret, Inc. v. Matthews.
Confidential information need not rise to the level of a trade secret in order for it to support a restrictive covenant. With regard to claimed confidential pricing information, Illinois courts have held that pricing information can qualify as confidential where both the employer attempts to keep it secret and competitors could use the information to undercut the employer.
Yet Illinois courts have likewise held that claimed confidential information cannot qualify as confidential if it is “readily available to competitors through normal competitive means.” Moreover, in assessing the totality of the facts toward determining whether customer information will constitute confidential information Illinois Courts look closely to whether the information has been developed by the employer over a number of years at great expense, and whether or not such information was kept under tight security.
Lastly, on the issue of claimed misuse of confidential information, courts have held that under Illinois law an Employer must produce evidence not only that it had confidential information but also that the accused employee took the information and attempted to use it for his/her own benefit.
Attorney Fee Clauses. This is a huge issue. Under Illinois law, whether or not a non-compete/ non-solicitation agreement contains an attorney fee clause can make a huge financial risk/ reward difference to both the Employer and the Employee - and can be the key factor to whether or not: a) an Employer may or may not pursue litigation against a former Employee (which Employee one day could be you); and b) whether or not I would recommend an Employee take certain actions.
Sometimes this is the key issue for whether an individual should be agreeable - or not - to sign such a proposed agreement.
The attorney fee clause issue is also an issue which if an Employee/ potential Employee has not yet signed the proposed non-compete/ non-solicit agreement, the Employer may be willing to remove or revise such a clause. Note also that not all such clauses are written the same (sometimes the clause, if included, is written to only favor the Employer, and sometimes it is written to favor the prevailing party). My preference though, on behalf of Employees is almost always that there not be an attorney fee clause in the non-compete/ non-solicit agreement.
Blue Pencil Clauses. Employers frequently rely on a “savings” clause” (in legal jargon it is called a “blue pencil” clause) to make enforceable an otherwise overbroad non-compete clause. This can make it even more difficult (for individuals as well as lawyers) to determine whether or not a non-compete clause would be held to be enforceable (in whole or even in part) by the Courts.
Fortunately, a positive development for employees is that a recent decision (AssuredPartners, Inc. v. Schmitt, IL Appellate Court, Oct. 27, 2015) held that non-compete agreements that are built to scare (e.g. - grossly overbroad) may be entirely unenforceable, and may not be saved by a blue pencil clause. In this regard:
In AssuredPartners the Employer sought to prevent the now-former employee (an insurance executive) from working anywhere in the United States within particular segments of the insurance industry that he had worked in during his entire career (professional liability insurance). The Court found that such clause was overbroad, and that the agreement was “not a candidate for judicial reformation” despite the existence of a blue pencil clause. The Court went on to importantly hold that blue-penciling is only appropriate when the over-reaching language of the non-compete was minor. As a result, the now-former employee was not bound by the non-compete agreement.
Illinois recently passed a new law that protects “low wage employees” from the trend of Employers over-using non-compete agreements (defined above) to prevent such employees from going out and getting new employment in their same occupational field - which restrictive covenants frequently had the actual purpose/ effect of keeping wages down because such employees were less able to leave their employment and go out in the marketplace to obtain new employment utilizing their most marketable asset (the heard-earned skills that they had acquired and honed through their employment and otherwise).
The Illinois Freedom to Work Act applies to any non-compete agreement entered into on or after January 1, 2017, and this Act prohibits private Employers of any size from entering into non-competition agreements with “low wage employees” (which under the Act are defined as employees earning less than $13.00 per hour, or earning applicable federal, state or local hourly minimum wage, whichever is greater), and declares such agreements to be “illegal and void”.
The enactment of this law was influenced by the recent news - and outrage - of the Illinois-based franchise, Jimmy John’s, having required their sandwich making staff to sign non-compete agreements that provided that such employees were barred from working for any other sandwich shop within two miles - which news also spurred state attorney generals to take action against Jimmy John’s.
Notably, while the Act restricts non-compete clauses from being used against “low wage employees” it is less clear whether the Act also applies to non-solicitation clauses (as discussed above non-solicitation clauses pertain to restricting employees from the solicitation of other employees and/or customers of the Employer as opposed to non-compete clauses that pertain to an employee being restricted from working for a competing Employer).
Strong Recommendation that you have your Restrictive Covenant reviewed by an Attorney. The above paragraphs contain an overview of many general over-arching principles regarding restrictive covenants in Illinois, yet a proper legal analysis is highly dependent on both the facts of a particular matter and a consideration of prior case precedent - and accordingly it is strongly encouraged that if you have a particular restrictive covenant that you are trying to understand, that you should have it analyzed by an attorney knowledgeable in this area of the law.
In particular, due to the very serious potential financial ramifications to you of a restrictive covenant it is very important that you consult with an attorney (preferably before entering into an employment agreement containing a restrictive covenant, but at the least when you are considering leaving such employment, or if the Employer sends you a letter after your employment with the Employer has ended threatening to enforce such covenant - which is generally done by an Employer through a “cease and desist letter”) who is familiar with such clauses - to inform you of your rights and options.
I frequently consult with employees to so advise them of their rights and options, and to advise them how they can best be protected.
I can help you understand your rights and options. I also may be able to negotiate (directly or indirectly) with your employer to tailor the terms of the non-compete so that you will be able to go out and earn a living, and so that it is not unreasonably burdensome to you.
Some employers attempt to coerce employees to sign non-compete agreements only after the employee has been working for the employer for a substantial period of time, and under certain circumstances such an agreement will not be binding against the employee.
Sometimes there is language missing from the employment contract that should properly be in the contract - and I frequently directly (through speaking with the employer/ employer’s attorney) or indirectly (through my client speaking with the employer) can correct the situation and protect my client.
Call me to briefly discuss if it makes sense for you to come in for an appointment to my Chicago loop office to further discuss your employment situation.
Note that although my preference is to meet with you in person, as a convenience for individuals who are unable to get to my office (due to distance, work schedule, disability, or other reasons), you can call me to alternatively arrange to have a telephone consultation (which I frequently do) where - after briefly speaking with me - you would then send me relevant documents by scanned e-mail/fax, and then we would have a formal and detailed consultation by telephone.