Illinois Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Enforcing Non-Compete Agreements

On December 1, 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its opinion in Reliable Fire Equipment Company v. Arredondo, et al., which resolved several years of confusion over the appropriate standard for enforcing non-compete agreements in Illinois.

The Confusion

For years, Illinois courts consistently explained that they would only enforce a non-compete agreement if: it was no more restrictive than necessary to protect an employer’s legitimate business interests; enforcement would not impose an undue burden on the employee; and enforcement would not injure the public. As a result, substantial case law focused on what would, and what would not, constitute a legitimate business interest sufficient to support the enforcement of a non-compete agreement.

In 2009, however, the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court issued its opinion Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Ehlers, 394 Ill. App. 3d 421 (2009). In that case, the court dismissed the requirement of a legitimate business interest as “judicial gloss” and explained that a non-compete agreement simply should be enforceable where its time and territory restrictions are reasonable. (According to the court, that analysis included consideration of whether enforcement would create an undue hardship on the employee or hurt the public.) The next year, the Illinois Second District Appellate Court issued its opinion in Steam Sales Corp. v. Summers, 405 Ill. App. 3d 442 (2010). While declining to directly address whether the Fourth District was correct in Sunbelt Rentals, the court nevertheless intimated that a 2006 Illinois Supreme Court case had imposed a standard different than the commonly used legitimate business interest test. Because Illinois courts generally follow the appellate courts in the jurisdiction in which they are located, after Steam Sales, the five appellate districts in Illinois were using at least three different approaches to analyze the enforceability of non-compete agreements.

The Fix

In May 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in the case of Reliable Fire Equipment Company v. Arredondo, et al. to resolve this confusion.

On December 1, 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its decision in Reliable Fire. In that decision, the court rejected the analyses of Sunbelt Rentals and Steam Sales Corp. and reaffirmed that a non-compete agreement is enforceable in Illinois only if: it is no greater than required to protect a legitimate business interest; it does not impose undue hardship on the employee; and it does not injure the public. The court also explained that whether or not an employer has a legitimate business interest depends on the totality of the facts and circumstances in each case. Some of the factors to be considered include the near-permanence of customer relationships, the employee’s acquisition of confidential information through employment, and the time and territory restrictions. However, the court also explained that those factors are merely some of the considerations, that they are not meant to be an exhaustive list of considerations, and that none of those factors carries any more weight than any other. Additionally, the court expressly stated that appellate court precedent concerning what will, and what will not, constitute a legitimate business interest remains intact, but that those cases should only be considered non-conclusive guidance.

The Practical Implications

While the Reliable Fire decision puts to rest any confusion caused by Sunbelt Rentals and Steam Sales, it provides little guidance to employers who are trying to craft or enforce non-compete agreements. Accordingly, employers will still need to pay close attention to the responsibilities of each position in crafting appropriate non-compete agreements, and pay close attention to the facts and circumstances of each potential violation to determine whether and how to enforce their non-compete agreements.

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