Articles Posted in Commercial Litigation

A new law in Illinois prohibits employers from entering into noncompete contracts with employees who earn $13 per hour or less. The Illinois Freedom to Work Act (Public Act 099-0860) became effective on Jan. 1, 2017. The law makes it illegal for an Illinois employer to enter into a “covenant not to compete” contract with any of its “low-wage employees.”

The term “covenant not to compete” is defined to extend to any agreement restricting a covered employee from the following:

  • Working for another employer for a specified period of time.
  • Working in a specified geographic area.
  • Performing other “similar” work for another employer.

Any contract with a “low-wage employee” who contains any covenant not to compete is “illegal and void.” The act is limited to agreements entered into after the effective date of Jan. 1, 2017. The act comes out of the movement to curb employers from locking lower-level employees into unfair noncompeting contracts.

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Generally the law in Illinois states that a guarantor is entitled to assert the same defenses that would be available to the principal obligor. W.W. Merck White Lead Co. v. McGahey, 159 Ill.App. 418 (1st Dist. 1911).

“Under Illinois law, ‘the liability of a guarantor is limited by and is no greater than that of the principal debtor and . . . if no recovery could be had against the principal debtor, the guarantor would also be absolved of liability.’ ‘Although the language of a guaranty agreement ultimately determines a specific guarantor’s liability, the general rule is that discharge, satisfaction or extinction of the principal obligation also ends the liability of the guarantor.’” Riley Acquisitions v. Drexler, 408 Ill.App.3d 392, 402 (1st Dist. 2011), quoting Edens Plaza Bank v. Demos, 277 Ill.App.3d 207, 209 (1st Dist. 1995).

In the Riley case, the guarantors were two joint obligations to the bank. The bank released one of the obligors. The other obligor was a dissolved corporation. Under the applicable state law, the five-year post-dissolution time period for collecting against the dissolved corporation had expired.

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The Illinois Appellate Court has ruled in a dispute regarding who should inherit a home in Highland Park, Ill. Although a trust instrument stated the house was part of the trust, there was no separate, formal documentation showing that a transfer of the house had been placed in the trust. The court In re Estate of Mendelson considered whether the house was properly transferred into the trust. The court noted that it could “find no Illinois authority on point.”

The Illinois Appellate Court held that the house was a part of the trust because it was described in it although there was no recorded deed transferring the real estate to the trust.

In the Mendelson case, the chain of title to the house was complex. In 2005, Diane Mendelson executed the deed that placed title to the house in joint tenancy with herself and her son. The deed was never recorded because she enjoyed a property tax benefit as the sole title owner of the property.

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The Illinois Appellate Court for the First District recently reviewed a case regarding the piercing of a corporate veil. Piercing the corporate veil is a practice in which a lawyer will prove that the corporation that would otherwise protect its shareowners from personal liability is really a façade or fiction that allows for the “piercing” of that veil to recover from the true owners. The appeals panel reversed a trial court’s decision that dismissed plaintiffs’ claim in a case involving whether the plaintiffs were employees or independent contractors.

Piercing the corporate veil is not a cause of action but instead a “means of imposing liability in an underlying cause of action.”

A firmly established corporate entity stands on its own unless its corporate veil is pierced for different reasons. In many cases, once a party obtains a judgment against a corporation, the party then may attempt to pierce the corporate veil of liability protection and hold the dominant shareholders responsible for the corporate judgment.

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The Neck & Back Clinic in Chicago was providing physical rehabilitation services to patients. In 1998, the clinic signed a series of leases for exterior building wall space to advertise its services. The clinic leased that advertising space through a company called Travisign, operated by David Travis. The Neck & Back Clinic alleged that Travis “represented that he was authorized to lease certain walls for advertising and that he had secured the requisite permits to place advertisements on the designated walls.”

However, in 2009, the clinic was notified that it had violated the Chicago Municipal Code by putting up advertisements without the proper city permits. The clinic was fined $3,000 and received another notice of violation. The clinic filed suit against Travis claiming breach of contract and fraud.

Travis and the clinic filed motions for summary judgment claiming that the other had failed to live up to its contractual obligations. The Circuit Court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the clinic finding that “Travis never secured the proper permits” and that he “did not perform his contractual obligations.” The Circuit Court judge awarded more than $10,000 in damages to the clinic. After dismissing a secondary claim against another party, Travis appealed.

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In October 2006, Stericycle Inc. entered into a contract with RQA Inc. to buy a segment of its business for $8 million.

Stericycle acquired the unlimited right to use RQA’s software. In addition, the two companies entered into a non-competition agreement. In 2010, the two companies contracted again, this time entering into an asset purchase agreement for $18 million.

One of the assets purchased was RQA’s “Recall and Retrieval Business Services Unit,” which was called the RR assets. The agreement made note that Stericycle would be refunded a portion of the purchase price if Stericycle did not achieve certain pre-set revenues.

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Late in 2002, the developer of 1717 S. Prairie Ave. in Chicago, Ill., retained the defendant Hansen & Hempel Co. to complete the masonry work for a 23-story condominium complex. When the building was nearly finished in March 2004, it started to experience water leakage. The condominium association, Board of Directors of the Prairie District Homes Tower Condominium Association, hired an engineering firm to design and implement a repair that was estimated to cost over $6,500,000.

Because of the report on the defects to the building, the association filed a lawsuit wherein the case was tried to a jury on the sole issue of breach of implied warranty of habitability.

The plaintiff board of directors of the condominium association contended that 90% of the through-wall flashing in dams installed by the defendant masonry company were either missing or installed improperly and claimed that because of those material defects it allowed water to penetrate the inner cavity of the building.

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Larry Fabian was hired in 2001 by Cantor Fitzgerald to be a broker at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In 2007, he was transferred to BGC, which was a spinoff company of Cantor Fitzgerald.

In 2008, Fabian was named as a partner of “Founding Partner No. 69.” According to Fabian, he earned 100,393 “founding partner units” which could later be converted into common stock of the company.

On March 27, 2009, Fabian quit working for BGC to work for another securities firm. Shortly after leaving BGC, Fabian initiated arbitration before the Chicago Mercantile Exchange where he received $121,758 in commissions that he was owed from Cantor Fitzgerald. This did not include any reimbursement for his “founding partner units.”

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At the beginning of January 2015, the Law Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., will begin its new mandatory arbitration program for certain cases. The program is targeted for cases that have value of less than $75,000. In order to file and hear a case in Law Division, the value of the matter must exceed $50,000.

The eligibility categories of cases that will be involved in the mandatory arbitration program include breach of contract, employment disputes, including discrimination, whistleblowing cases, civil or commercial fraud or conspiracy, business interference and shareholder disputes.

The program gained approval by the Illinois Supreme Court, and then the Circuit Court Judges voted to adopt the new local rule in December 2014. The presiding judge of the Law Division is Judge James T. Flannery Jr., who said that judges would begin referring cases at the start of 2015. Arbitration sessions will begin in April or May 2015.

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Dr. Linda Bluestein was a shareholder in Central Wisconsin Anesthesiology S.C. and a member of its board of directors. After losing the vote that terminated her employment contract, Bluestein filed a lawsuit against the corporation for allegedly violating three statutes that protect “employees.” Those statutes were the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The presiding federal judge concluded, however, that Bluestein was an employer of the corporation and not an employee. The court granted Central Wisconsin’s motion for summary judgment disposing of her lawsuit.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed the trial judge’s order and applied the “non-exclusive list of six factors” that the U.S. Supreme Court adopted in Clackamas Gastroenterology Associates, P.C. v. Wells, 538 U.S. 440 (2003), as criteria for determining whether a shareholder qualifies as an employee under statutes that don’t provide a “working definition” of the word.

The U.S. Court of Appeals tangled with the question of determining the meaning of the term “employee.” The Supreme Court reasoned that, when the statute (ADA) does not provide a working definition, the courts should turn to the common law test for determining who qualifies as an employee. Clackamas Gastroenterology Associates, P.C. v. Wells, 538 U.S. 440 (2003).

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