Today’s post wraps up the Trade Secret Litigator’s Five Golden Rules for on-boarding a new employee and, fittingly, falls on Halloween. Today’s remaining Golden Rules primarily address the steps an employer needs to take in managing the employee who has been hired, and, as the case law reveals, may prevent various tricks (and rarely treats) to the new employer.
Golden Rule No. 3. The Visentin Rule: Protect the Legitimate Business Interests of the Former Employer. Having taken the steps to avoid or minimize risk during the hiring process, an employer still has to properly manage the employee once he/she joins the company, especially if that employee has a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement with his/her former employer. Fortunately, one of the leading cases on managing an employee with a covenant not to compete provides a textbook example of how to handle this situation. That case, IBM v. Visentin, came out of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2012. In Visentin, the new employer, Hewlett-Packard undertook a number of affirmative steps to ensure that IBM’s trade secrets were protected and agreed that the new employee would not solicit his former customers for the remainder of the term of the non-compete.
The Southern District and Second Circuit approved of these efforts and refused to enjoin the employee – a mid-level manager – from working at HP. In the absence of any proof of misconduct by the employee, those courts found that this was a proper way to protect IBM’s trade secret and customer relationship interests while balancing the former employee’s right to find proper gainful employment.
The Visentin approach was also applied effectively by Google earlier this year in a high-profile dispute over its hiring of a cloud computing services manager who had worked previously for Amazon.com and was subject to a non-compete. As in Visentin, the Washington district court found that in the absence of evidence of misconduct by the former employee, Amazon.com’s interests were adequately protected by the safeguards put in place by Google to protect its trade secrets.
Of course, this approach is not foolproof, as the holding in a recent Massachusetts case, Aspect Software v. Barnett, unfortunately demonstrates. In that case, despite similar good faith efforts by the new employer and former employee, the court still enforced the non-compete at issue, although it commended the new employer and former employee for their efforts.
At the end of the day, an employer will increase its odds of avoiding litigation or minimizing its risk in that litigation by taking affirmative steps to prevent the use or disclosure of the competitor’s trade secrets and minimize intrusion into legitimately protected customer relationships. I have found that these steps are particularly effective in the “cease and desist” letter stage because they serve to put the former employer on notice that it may not have a basis for a lawsuit and can effectively give that employer pause before initiating litigation.
Golden Rule No. 4: If Litigation is Possible, Preserve, Preserve, Preserve. Given the reality of BYOD and the overlap between work and personal time, it is practically inevitable that some confidential information will make its way onto an employee’s personal computer or devices. This sometimes puts an employee between the proverbial rock and a hard place: if the employee deletes the information, there may be a claim of spoliation of evidence or a claim of some nefarious purpose behind the deletion. Alternatively, if the employee does not remove or delete the confidential information, he or she will almost certainly be accused of having improperly used or taken it.
As a result, if there is a chance of litigation, it is critical to preserve what was on the devices before deleting it. This means that forensic computer consultant will need to be engaged and likely image all devices before the information is removed and the devices sanitized under the guidance of counsel and that consultant. The images will then need to be kept by outside counsel so that they can be produced in litigation, if necessary.
Golden Rule No. 5: Keep a Close Eye on Mass Hirings. As readers of this blog know, cases involving the hiring of a team of people from a competitor (especially a sales team) generate the greatest waves and present the greatest risk of trade secret litigation by a former employer. The group dynamics in these situations also seem to foster greater opportunities for mischief — i.e., more pressure on business units and new hires to perform, the fact that the team may have been hired for a specific product, client or opportunity, etc. This means that in-house counsel and HR administrators need to monitor, follow up on, and continue to train these teams on the importance of preserving the confidentiality of the legitimate trade secrets of their former employer.
Last year’s Allergan v. Merz case out of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California illustrates the special dangers associated with hiring teams of people. In that case, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction enjoining the rollout of the cosmetic drug Xeomin for 10 months because he found that a sales team hired from Allergan had improperly used confidential marketing and customer information for Botox in connection with the prospective launch of Xeomin. Based on statements made at an early hearing, the outside and in-house counsel did not know about communications between the new sales team and its managers disseminating that confidential information and argued that Merz had no intention of using Allergan’s trade secrets. However, a year after defeating a TRO, Merz’s counsel produced documents that were contrary to those representations.
How can in-house counsel and outside counsel avoid this disaster? It starts with a culture of security and responsibility. Both in-house and outside counsel need to know that their business people have their back and that a culture respecting the rules outlined above will be enforced. In the Allergan v. Merz case, the disconnect between what was apparently going on at the Merz business level and what the lawyers understood was going on is striking. This suggests, at least to me, that the appropriate follow up was not done to ensure that counsel’s representations about not using Allergan’s trade secrets would be followed.
The best way to ensure new teams are following the rules of their new employer includes: (1) an emphatic initial face-to-face meeting communicating the importance of leaving the prior employer’s trade secrets behind, preferably chaired by the head of the business group, (2) periodic follow up, certifications and acknowledgements that no trade secrets or confidential information are being used or retained, and (3) training to reinforce those principles. However, all of the follow up in the world will be ineffective if managers and supervisors have not bought into these principles and do not enforce them among their team.
In sum, as these cases illustrate, courts will generally reward the employer who imposes safeguards and acts responsibly; conversely, the failure to on-board properly can be catastrophic.