Illinois 4th District Appellate Court Refuses 30-Year “Legitimate Business Interest” Test As Made Of Whole Cloth

Neil Ehlers worked as a salesman for Sunbelt Rentals, a seller and renter of industrial equipment. After about five years, Ehlers left Sunbelt and went to work for Midwest Aerials & Equipment, a company that competed with Sunbelt. Sunbelt sued Ehlers and Midwest to enforce restrictive covenants in Sunbelt’s employment agreement with Ehlers. Sunbelt got a preliminary injunction against Ehlers and Midwest, who then appealed.

One of the issues on appeal was whether the trial court properly followed the “legitimate business interest” test when it analyzed the propriety of the restrictive covenants. That test had been used by Illinois appellate courts for more than 30 years.

But the Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court ruled that it didn’t matter because the “legitimate business interest” test had been “spun out of whole cloth” and never had been adopted by the Illinois Supreme Court. The appellate court ruled it was not constrained to abide a standard set by other state appellate courts despite 30 years of acceptance and use. Here’s the court’s rationale:

[E]ven assuming that Ehlers and Midwest are correct that the trial court was bound by appellate court precedent to apply the “legitimate-business-interest” test and failed to do so, we decline to reach the merits of their argument because, unlike the trial court, this court is not required to follow the decisions of its sister districts or, for that matter, our own prior decisions … (“[T]he opinion of one district, division, or panel of the appellate court is not binding on other districts, divisions, or panels”.) Thus, having repudiated the validity of the “legitimate-business-interest” test earlier in this decision–assuming it was ever valid–we need not address the argument of Ehlers and Midwest that the trial court was bound by precedent to apply it in this case. Any error by the trial court in this regard simply no longer matters at this stage of proceedings.

This opinion is important to appellate practitioners as a reminder not to take the “long-established black letter law” for granted. Maybe it’s not so established. In this case, the appellate court referred to the “legitimate business interest” test as “nothing more than a judicial gloss incorrectly applied to this area of law by [other] … appellate courts.”

In the end, the appellate court affirmed the preliminary injunction. Read the whole case, Sunbelt Rentals v. Ehlers, No. 4-09-0290 (9/23/09), by clicking here.