Illinois may not get a resolution any time soon to whether an employer is required to prove that a non-compete covenant must support a recognized, legitimate business interest. By now, lawyers and commentators are fully aware of the Fourth District's ruling in Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Ehlers and its repudiation of a decades-long test used to determine the validity of non-competes. Though that test had a somewhat bizarre development, courts throughout Illinois recognized it.
Applying the test in practice perversely has made litigation more expensive for employees, as cases frequently devolved into lengthy discovery disputes over the so-called protectable interest and whether it was threatened. Often times the concept of "reasonableness" gets lost in the shuffle. Still, many employers lost cases after failing to prove a legitimate business interest was at stake.
But Ehlers settled his case with Sunbelt Rentals, and so there won't be a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court any time soon on the inter-district conflict. For now, that means that outside of the Fourth District, courts are still applying the legitimate business interest test. District Judge Gettleman recognized as such this week in Aspen Marketing Services v. Russell, when he denied a motion to dismiss a non-compete suit. Gettleman expressly noted the ruling in Sunbelt Rentals and declined to apply it, noting that the Illinois Supreme Court and other Illinois courts outside the Fourth District haven't weighed in.
On a separate note, the idea of challenging the validity of a non-compete on a motion to dismiss is rarely a good one. Almost invariably, this results in an early loss for the defendant, since the concept of "reasonableness" cannot be examined under the pleadings alone. Unless there is some obvious defect (such as a nationwide covenant when the contract specifies a very limited area of responsibility), lawyers ought not to count on dismissal of a non-compete claim until at least summary judgment.
Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
Opinion Date: 12/3/09
Cite: Aspen Marketing Svcs., Inc. v. Russell, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112982 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 3, 2009)