In the detritus of Illinois law following the Fifield v. Premier Dealers Services case, one federal case actually appeared to have the potential to reshape how state courts (not to mention an increasing number of lower federal courts) viewed the issue of non-compete consideration for at-will employees.
Instant Technology, LLC v. DiFazio (7th Circuit, Nos. 14-2132 & 14-2243) was one of the diversity cases where the court followed Fifield and endorsed the two-year, bright-line consideration rule, which holds that non-compete/non-solicit covenants are enforceable only if an at-will employee has been employed two years or more. (This, of course, assumes the only consideration offered was employment itself, not something more tangible.) Other diversity cases declined to follow Fifield on the grounds that it did not accurately state the law in Illinois. Those cases have said that if the Illinois Supreme Court were confronted with the issue, it would come out with a different rule than that set forth in Fifield.
Instant Technology was always somewhat of a flimsy candidate for a broad, doctrinal repudiation or endorsement of Fifield, since the case appeared to founder on whether the covenants in the IT staffing business supported a "legitimate business interest." The district court found not, and the Seventh Circuit held that this finding was supported by the evidence. And on that score, Judge Easterbrook's opinion in Instant Technology gave nary a mention of Fifield or the current debate over consideration.
However, at oral argument, the Court discussed Fifield at length. And Judge Easterbrook is not the kind to wilt away and blindly assume the appellate court got it right in Fifield. He would seem to have little trouble excoriating the state court rule if he felt the legal standard was groundless. But his opinion avoided the issue, so we have nothing authoritative from a case that at least held out the possibility of being a game-changer in the consideration debate.
But, not surprisingly, Judge Easterbrook used the opportunity to take a not-so-veiled shot at Illinois law, and in particular the "totality of the circumstances" test from Reliable Fire Equipment Co. v. Arredondo. That case changed the analytical framework for determining how an employer can establish a legitimate business interest to support a non-compete. It discarded the traditional approach - which looked at whether an employer had a near-permanent relationship with clients or whether it sought to protect confidential business information the employee subsequently tried to use - and set forth a rather malleable (cavernous?) test that considered the totality of the facts from the case.
In Instant Technology, the IT staffing firm disputed the district court's analysis and basically said the judge didn't consider "everything," without specifying what it exactly it was that the court missed.
Judge Easterbrook says:
"Making validity turn on 'the totality of the circumstances' - which can't be determined until litigation years after the events - makes it hard to predict which covenants are enforceable. If employers can't predict which covenants courts will enforce, they will not make investments that may depend on covenants' validity, and they will not pay employees higher wages for agreeing to bear potentially costly terms. Both employers and employees may be worse off as a result. Risk-averse employees who hope that their covenants will be unenforceable, but fear that they will be sustained, may linger in jobs they would be happier (and more productive) leaving. But our rule of decision comes from state law. Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938). Reforming that law, or trying to undermine it, is beyond our remit."
This passage largely pivots off many of the questions Judge David Hamilton asked during oral argument in the case. Judge Hamilton was concerned about the blank-slate landscape of Illinois law (a term used by Instant Technology's counsel) and the lack of apparent predictability in an area that demands it. Predictability and certainty usually arrive in the form of bright-line rules, which (oddly enough) Fifield establishes. As for the broader question of reasonableness, the Seventh Circuit seems to be saying that Illinois employers got what they asked for: flexibility. The price? Often times, disappointment.
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