Dan Churney Jun. 20, 2016, 10:51am

A judge has ruled a former CEO of Chicago coffee house chain Intelligentsia has grounds to continue his suit against his ex-business partners, who fired him and then allegedly refused to pay him more than $15 million in profit shares and his cut from the proceeds of the company’s sale.  

The ruling was delivered June 3 by Cook County Circuit Court Judge John C. Griffin, denying Intelligentsia’s motion to dismiss the action brought by its former co-chief executive officer and president Robert Buono on Nov. 19, 2015, against Intelligentsia and its cofounders, Doug Zell and Emily Mange. 

Buono said Zell and Mange fired him from his post at Intelligentsia without cause in July 2014, after he had worked in the coffee house chain’s top executive office for about three years. 

Buono said in his suit Zell was a friend, who came to him in the mid-1990s for help in setting up Intelligentsia. At that time, Zell was married to Mange, but according to Buono, the marriage was foundering by 2011, causing disarray in the company and making profits fall off. As a result, Buono said he accepted an offer to take on a leadership position with Intelligentsia to get the business back on its feet. Buono said he managed to increase profits 61 percent, but in so doing, took actions that were unpopular with other executives, leading to his termination. 

Buono, a lawyer and onetime real estate developer, said defendants violated the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act and breached his employment contract when they removed him from the company. 

Buono is contending defendants have refused to pay him his profit shares for 2012, 2013 and part of 2014, as well as his percentage of the sale of Intelligentsia to Peet’s Coffee for a reported $100 million. The sale was announced Oct. 30, 2015. Buono says he is owed in excess of $15 million. 

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the suit, saying Buono is seeking payment of “shared profits” though the Wage Payment and Collection Act, but the Act does not cover such profits. However, Judge Griffin found the Act does apply, because it covers “wages” and “final compensation,” and the Act’s definitions of those terms do not exclude shared profits. 

Griffin also concluded Buono put forth sufficient allegations Zell and Mange knowingly violated the Act. 

Likewise, Griffin determined Buono advanced allegations adequate to support his breach of contract claim. Griffin said Buono met his burden by pleading he performed his end of a valid and enforceable employment agreement with defendants, an agreement which defendants allegedly breached, inflicting damages on him. 

“Plaintiff has reasonably informed Defendants of the nature of his claims and discovery will quickly establish whether Plaintiff can sustain his burden, and, if not, there are efficient procedures available to dispose of this matter,” the judge said. “The issues raised by Defendants do not warrant extensive and costly motion practice regarding the sufficiency of the Complaint.” 

Chicago firms are representing the parties – Novack and Macey for Buono, and Winston & Strawn for Intelligentsia, Zell and Mange. The next hearing is July 6.

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Organizations in this Story

Winston and Strawn LLP
35 W Upper Wacker Dr
Chicago, IL 60601

Novack and Macey LLP
100 North Riverside Plaza, Suite 1500
Chicago, IL 60606

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