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
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
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.