By: Mark E. Furlane and Alan S. King
Two recent cases should give employers pause as to whether their restrictive covenants with their at-will employees are enforceable. On May 28, 2013, a United States District Court in Massachusetts held that under Massachusetts law, a confidentiality agreement signed by an at-will employee was unenforceable where the employee’s title, duties, remuneration and other terms of employment had materially changed since signing the agreement. Then, on June 24, 2013, an Illinois Appellate Court held that unless an at-will employee is employed for at least two years, restrictive covenants the employee signed at the beginning of employment are unenforceable for lack of adequate consideration. Moreover, the Illinois court held it was irrelevant whether the employee quits or is terminated before two years of employment. While the rulings rely on the applicable state law, they address important points that may have broader application than only in Massachusetts and Illinois.
In Smartsource Computer & Audio Visual Rentals v. Robert March et al, D. Mass. (May 28, 2013), Smartsource filed an action to enforce its noncompete agreements with its former employee, March. March was hired by Smartsource in 2006 as a Senior Account Executive, and signed an offer letter with a simple confidentiality agreement/restriction. In 2007, March was promoted to Branch Sales Manager, in 2008 to Regional Sales Manager, in 2010 to Regional General Manager, and again in 2012 to Regional Sales Manager. With each change his job responsibilities and compensation changed. Citing to Massachusetts law, the court denied the requested injunctive relief to Smartsource. Although stopping short of a definitive ruling on the merits, the court noted that “it may well be under [Massachusetts case authority], March’s 2006 confidentiality agreement has been abrogated, and he is not bound by any restrictive covenants.” March and the Massachusetts cases cited therein suggests that when material changes to an employment relationship are contemplated, the employer should consider revisiting the existing restrictive covenant agreement and consider whether a new agreement is advisable.
More recently, the Illinois Appellate Court for the First District (Cook County) in Eric D. Fiefield et al v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc., (Ill. App. Ct., 1st Dist. June 24, 2013), answered the question as yet definitively unanswered in Illinois: What additional employment period after the signing of a restrictive covenant agreement is sufficient consideration to make the agreement enforceable against an at-will employee? The Court answered at least two years, even where the employee signs the restrictive covenant at the outset of employment. Fiefield had worked for the predecessor company that was acquired by Premier. Fiefield was then hired by Premier in late October 2009, and as a condition of employment Fiefield was required to and did sign an employment agreement containing a two-year restrictive covenant. Fiefield signed the agreement on October 30, 2009 and started work on November 1, 2009. On February 12, 2010, Fifield resigned to go to work for a competitor. Fiefield and his new employer then filed suit against Premier seeking a declaratory judgment that the restrictive covenant agreement was unenforceable. The circuit court ruled the agreement was not enforceable because it lacked consideration. Premier appealed and the Appellate Court affirmed, agreeing that there was inadequate consideration. The court held that regardless of whether Fiefield had signed the agreement before he started work or after he started work, “Illinois courts have repeatedly held there must be at least two years or more of continuous employment to constitute adequate consideration in support of a restrictive covenant…This rule is maintained even if the employee resigns on his own instead of being terminated.”
The Premier decision will surely send employers in Illinois scrambling to reconsider the validity of their at-will employee restrictive covenant agreements in Illinois. However, help may be on the way as Premier has filed a petition for leave to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. Granting review is within the Court’s discretion, and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups are backing Premier’s bid. Even if the case is not reviewed or reversed, however, there are a number of possible solutions to the Premier consideration problem. These include offering employees consideration for the non-compete in addition to simply offering at-will employment (such as a “bonus” payment or possibly elaborating on the consideration offered to include, for example, training, access to customers and valuable confidential information and trade secrets) or offering employees some form of term employment contract.
If you have at-will employees with restrictive covenants less than two years old, and you view confidentiality and restrictive covenant agreements important to your business, or if your agreements with your employees significantly predate their current job positions, compensation and other conditions, these cases should sound the alarm to review your competitive advantage protections.