Given the ubiquity of thumb-drives and use of personal devices for work, it should come as no surprise that former employees frequently download and even retain their former employer’s sensitive information on their personal devices. A Symantec study in 2013 found that ½ of the employees surveyed admitted to keeping confidential corporate data from their previous employer and 40% planned to use it in their new jobs. However, is the fact that an employee downloaded confidential information, standing alone, enough to trigger a lawsuit and possibly an injunction? A recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, AUA Private Equity Partners, LLC v. Soto, Case No. 1:17-cv-8035 (April 5, 2018), held downloading and refusing to return confidential information was enough to give rise to a claim under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) (for more on that case, see William Brian London’s post for Fisher & Phillips’ Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Blog). As for the other question — whether a court will be willing to enter an injunction based on downloading — the answer is less clear.
Here are the noteworthy trade secret and restrictive covenant posts from September and some of October:
- Massachusetts is once again contemplating multiple bills regarding non-competes as well as a possible adoption of what appears to be the DTSA advises Russell Beck in his Fair Competition Blog. Russell and his team also have summaries of legislative activity in Maryland, Maine, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and West Virginia, among others.
Here are the noteworthy trade secret, restrictive covenant and cybersecurity posts from the month of August (warning, there are a lot):
Defend Trade Secrets Act
- Munger Tolles’ Miriam Kim, Carolyn Hoecker Luedtke and Laura Smolowe have put together another fine summary of the trends they are tracking under the Defend Trade Secrets Act. There are several interesting findings in the summary. For example, state courts and state law remain the preferred forum and substantive law for trade secrets claimants, at least at this time. According to the summary, while 378 DTSA cases have been filed in federal and state courts, more than 515 complaints with trade secret claims have been filed with no DTSA claims in federal and state courts throughout the U.S. I have to admit that I was surprised by this finding, as I expected that litigants would be eager to secure a federal forum using the DTSA. I suspect that most of those state law cases involve restrictive covenants and that the plaintiffs are more comfortable with a local judge enforcing a non-compete or want to avoid entanglements arising from the DTSA’s limitations on injunctions. Or it might be that they simply want to go with the law they know best, which would be the more developed state trade secret law regime. In any event, a very interesting finding.
- One of the more recent (and unexpected) developments under the DTSA has been the number of motions to dismiss challenging DTSA claims. Olga May has a post for Fish & Richardson’s Litigation Blog detailing those decisions on those motions, which range from challenges to the specificity of the trade secrets pleaded to whether the complaint comports with the standards under Twombly and Iqbal.
- For an update on the modest number of ex parte seizure order filings under the DTSA, see Michael Renuad of Mintz Levn’s article in the National Law Journal.
A recent opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois has stirred up a hornets’ nest of commentary because it appears to recognize the viability of the inevitable disclosure doctrine under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA). Those familiar with the DTSA will recall that the inevitable disclosure doctrine was supposed to be prohibited under the DTSA because of California Senator Diane Feinstein’s concern that the doctrine might be enforced against California residents. Now, in what appears to be the first federal appellate court opinion construing the DTSA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit may have further muddied the waters about the inevitable disclosure doctrine in Fres-co Systems USA, Inc. v. Hawkins, Case No. 16-3591, ___ Fed. Appx. __ (3rd Cir. 2017), 2017 WL 2376568 (June 1, 2017) (a link to the opinion can found here). Continue Reading Fres-co Systems v. Hawkins: Did The Third Circuit Just Create More Confusion Around The DTSA’s Ban On The Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine?
One of the Defend Trade Secrets Act’s (DTSA) most noteworthy features is its provision forbidding injunctions that would prevent a former employee from entering into another employment agreement. As explained below, this provision,18 U.S.C. §1836(b)(3)(A)(i)(I), was included to preserve employee mobility and assuage concerns that covenants not to compete, as well as what is known as the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine, might be enforced by federal courts in states that have rejected their enforceability. Today’s post looks at the legislative history of that provision and how courts have interpreted it. Continue Reading The Defend Trade Secrets Act After One Year: Injunctions Affecting New Employment
Yesterday, Uber released a letter that it had sent to Anthony Levandowski notifying him of its intention to terminate him as an employee because of his failure to cooperate with an Order issued on May 11, 2017 by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup. While most of the media coverage of the case had previously focused on the portion of the Order effectively quarantining Levandowski from Uber’s development of its LiDAR technology, perhaps the most noteworthy portions of the Order proved to be Judge Alsup’s directives to Uber to get to the bottom of what Waymo trade secrets Levandowski might have shared with others at Uber. (A link to Judge Alsup’s Order can be found here). As I explain below, those two paragraphs of Judge Alsup’s Order inevitably set Uber against Levandowski and led to his termination.
Continue Reading Why Uber’s Firing of Anthony Levandowski Became Inevitable
There have been two significant developments in the Waymo lawsuit against Uber, which is unquestionably the highest profile trade secrets case of the year. In the first ruling, U.S. District Court William Alsup referred the record of the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office for investigation of possible theft of trade secrets. In the second, Judge Alsup released a copy of his opinion yesterday explaining the injunction that he entered against Uber last week. Significantly, Judge Alsup declined Waymo’s primary request to shut down Uber’s driverless car business.
Instead, he ordered that Uber continue to quarantine former Waymo engineer Anthony Levandowski from its development of Uber’s Lidar technology, the technology that was the subject of the trade secrets he was alleged to have stolen. Judge Alsup declined to shutdown of Uber’s driverless program because Waymo could not establish that Uber had used the trade secrets that Levandowski allegedly took with him.
Referring the record for a pending civil case to the local federal prosecutor is highly unusual (in fact, I can’t remember it being done) and appears to be directed at Levandowski and his other former Waymo colleagues who joined him at Uber. However, the injunction looks like a victory for Uber, at least at this early stage in the proceeding. Continue Reading Waymo v. Uber: What Judge Alsup’s Injunction and Criminal Referral Mean for Uber
When moving to enforce a non-compete, the last thing a litigator wants to do is to stumble out of the gates and struggle over a profound legal issue that could delay consideration of that normally urgent request. A new and little-talked-about section of the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), however, has the potential to trip up employers seeking to enforce non-competes if they are not prepared to address this new entanglement.
There has been a significant amount of commentary about the DTSA and its new amendments since President Obama signed the DTSA into law on May 11, 2016. The “whistle-blower” immunity and ex parte seizure order, for example, have generated the most discussion to this point. However, the section of the DTSA that may have the greatest future impact on litigation under the DTSA is 18 U.S.C. §1839(3)(A)(i)(1)(I), which prohibits injunctions that “prevent a person from entering into an employment relationship.”
That new provision, which I will refer to as the “No-Ban-on-Employment” provision, was intended to curb, if not eliminate, the use of the inevitable disclosure doctrine under the DTSA. However, it may have a significant unintended consequence–namely, it may complicate employers’ efforts to enforce non-competes through temporary restraining orders (TRO), the key legal mechanism for non-compete disputes. For the reasons below, employers may want to reconsider invoking the DTSA when they want to enforce their non-competes because of the potential complications of this section’s language and instead opt to file them in state court, at least in the short-term. As the DTSA is likely to overtake the Uniform Trade Secret Act (UTSA) as the dominant statutory regime for trade secret law, this DTSA provision may well set another blow in motion to the viability of the non-compete as an effective tool to protect trade secrets.
Continue Reading Does the Defend Trade Secrets Act Contain a Potential Roadblock for Non-Competes? Why the DTSA’s Limitations on the Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine May Complicate Enforcing Non-Competes
I wanted to continue my wrap up of some of the other high points from the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) Trade Secrets Summit on Tuesday but there was so much fine content that I could not do it justice in a single post. Consequently, I will follow up with a final post on the Summit as well as high points from the cybersecurity and trade secret presentations from the AIPLA Annual Meeting last week. Here are some additional highlights:
In the litigation and procedure session, Russell Beck of Beck Reed Riden, Kenneth Vanko of Clingen Callow and Anthony Sammi of Skadden Arps covered the important issues to consider when bringing a TRO or injunction in a trade secrets case.
Decline of the Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine? Russell noted the realities of the increasingly high standard for injunctions in state and federal courts. He also started an interesting conversation within the panel about the inevitable disclosure doctrine (a doctrine that holds that even the most conscientious employee may not be able to avoid using a former employer’s trade secrets if he/she joins a competitor). Russell noted that the recent case in Washington involving Amazon.com and Google — which rejected the inevitable disclosure doctrine — is consistent with what he is seeing by courts. In short, if the employee is clean when he/she leaves, it is simply very difficult to restrain him or her from working for a competitor in the absence of a non-compete.
The Increasing Importance of Trade Secret Identification. Kenneth Vanko outlined the trend of recent cases requiring plaintiffs to identify their trade secrets early in a case. This was a key theme at the Summit and at the AIPLA Annual Meeting as it seemed each speaker observed greater emphasis from courts requiring plaintiffs to identify their trade secrets at key junctures. Ken emphasized the importance of specificity and doing your best to focus on pursuing the best trade secrets at issue throughout the proceeding. Ken noted that other jurisdictions are following the lead of California, Delaware and Minnesota in requiring some degree of disclosure early in a proceeding. For those asserting trade secrets that involve some compilation of publicly known information, Ken noted that courts have imposed a higher burden on those types of trade secrets — requiring plaintiffs not only to identify those trade secrets but to explain how those compilations qualify as a trade secret.
The Importance of Selecting Your Best Witness Early. Tony Sammi’s presentation focused on the special challenges of trade secrets in highly technical cases. Tony emphasized the importance of identifying the witness who could best explain the technology and trade secrets to a judge or jury. Tony noted that the most knowledgeable witnesses in his cases are generally not the managers but instead the coders themselves.
Negative Use. The panel emphasized the importance of “negative use” in trade secrets cases — the concept that a defendant doesn’t have to necessarily use or incorporate a trade secret into its product to receive a benefit from that trade secret. They agreed that this concept can be a tricky one and often does not get the attention it deserves despite the fact that a defendant can benefit from avoiding the blind alleys and goose chases of the development process by finding out what hasn’t worked.
In the afternoon, the Summit focused on the criminal trade secrets front. Gabriel Ramsey of Orrick, Eduardo Roy, and Michael Weil of Orrick provided plenty of war stories in their panel discussion about their experiences in advising clients who bring, or are on the receiving end of, a criminal trade secrets prosecution.
Know Your Federal District. The panel agreed that knowing the dynamics of your local federal prosecutors and investigators’ office was key to securing a criminal referral. They noted that you will likely have to package your trade secret claim to the duty agent for the FBI or other contact. The panel observed that these agents and officials are no different from those in the private sector and they are most interested in cases that will bring attention and favorable press to them and their offices. Also, the panel emphasized that you may find that your best contact is not necessarily a prosecutor but a secret service agent or FBI agent. Every district is different and relationships matter.
Factors that may make a trade secret case more sexy for a criminal referral include the potential for a powerful press release, high dollar numbers, travel opportunities for the officer, the existence of a foreign national in the alleged theft, or the potential for a civil case that might bring big fines. The panel acknowledged that only the most egregious cases between domestic competitors will get a prosecutor or agent’s attention. They noted that there is frequently a bias against trade secrets cases because of the existence of a civil remedy.
The panel also emphasized the importance of the absence of skeletons in the client’s closet and that the client should be clean. Otherwise, the client might find itself in a situation where the prosecutor turns the tables and prosecutes the client, as these cases frequently involve former employee who can be expected to throw dirt right back at their prior employer (accusing them of securities violations, whistleblower, etc.).
Miscellaneous Points. The panel agreed that in concurrent civil and criminal investigations, that while the government can’t use a civil case as a stalking horse for its criminal case and for discovery, there is nothing wrong with a civil defendant bringing evidence to prosecutors. The risk of course is that whatever is given to the prosecutor will have to be shared with the defendants’ legal team. Another interesting issue that the panel raised involved the company’s obligations to a former employee charged with stealing from that company – namely, is there insurance coverage? As readers of this blog know, this question is now front and center in Sergey Aleynikov’s long-running dispute with Goldman Sachs and is the subject of a pending declaratory relief action in New Jersey. The panel could offer no clear answers on this question but advised that companies need to be aware of their potential coverage.
One point of discussion was how best to defuse criminal proceeding when representing the company. Eduardo noted that it may be in the company’s interest to clean house and fire everybody that was involved to mitigate the company’s damages and exposure. The panel emphasized the importance of having a full legal team given the range of important legal issues – i.e., counsel skilled in internal investigations, labor and employment counsel for possible terminations.
Again, I will wrap up next with a discussion of the final session of the Summit that covered prosecuting trade secret claims before the International Trade Commission as well as the trade secrets and cybersecurity presentations at the AIPLA’s Annual Meeting.
Reports of the Trade Secret Litigator’s death have been greatly exaggerated and in fact, I was spotted on Tuesday at the American Intellectual Property Law Association’s Trade Secrets Summit in Washington, D.C. For those unable to attend, I thought a quick wrap up of the high points of the day’s excellent content would be helpful.
Seyfarth’s Robert Milligan, David Rikker of Raytheon, Mark Mermelstein of Orrick and Christian Scali of The Scali Firm started out the day addressing the dynamics of trade secret litigation, focusing on the key points in successfully managing the in-house/outside counsel relationship. The panel covered an awful lot of ground, but the high points included:
Cease and Desist Letters: The consensus seemed to be that they may be more trouble than they are worth. Each of the outside counsel panelists emphasized the importance of accuracy and timing, as there is always the risk that a client’s investigation may not be complete at the time of drafting the letter. However, the letters can achieve their initial desired effect as David Rikker says Raytheon takes them seriously.
Ex parte TROs: No surprise here, the panel agreed that they are rarely granted except for preservation orders where there are egregious facts giving rise to concerns over spoliation or destruction of evidence.
Special Dangers of Motions to Seal: Protective orders are no longer perfunctory and the panel reported that they are increasingly seeing defendants oppose motions to place trade secrets under seal as defendants use the protective order as an opportunity to lay out their objections to the bona fides of those trade secrets. Robert Milligan said they have almost become the equivalent of summary judgment disputes in California. Of course, the consequences of denial of a motion can be catastrophic so the panel emphasized the importance of making your record for an appeal to preserve your trade secrets.
Criminal Referral: Mark Mermelstein spoke about the advantages of initiating a criminal investigation as opposed to a civil claim. Those pros include the fact that the government can, among other things, use false identities to gather evidence from the potential defendant (civil lawyers are prohibited by the ethical rules from using those means), issue a 2703 order to secure the identities for an ISP address associated with misappropriation or cybertheft, and ultimately issue a search warrant if necessary. Mark also noted that the federal government also can rely on multi-lateral treaties to enlist the help of foreign law enforcement. Finally, Mark observed that a criminal proceeding can be the most effective way of collecting ill-gotten gains as the leverage of jail time may persuade potential defendants to repatriate those moneys.
Mark did identify several reasons why a company may not want to pursue a criminal option. The law of unintended consequences may reign, particularly as the client will ultimately lose control of any criminal investigation to the prosecutors or federal authorities. Fall out could also include damage to customer relationships, since some of those customers could be ensnared as witnesses or even targets. Finally, for publicly-held companies, depending on the scope of the breach and the resulting publicity, a public investigation and prosecution could affect share price or lead to shareholder litigation.
Best Practices for Keeping In-House Counsel Happy: David Rikker listed the following best practices for a healthy counsel relationship: clear and timely communication, helping in-house counsel get the business unit’s buy-in for any investigation or litigation, thorough early case assessment to help manage expectations, and, not surprisingly, no surprises! David emphasized the importance of an early case assessment that includes looking at the pros and cons of a prosecution or litigation. He acknowledged that in-house counsel appreciate that outside lawyers cannot anticipate every eventuality but a frank conversation of uncertainty is important, particularly for the business unit personnel.
On-Boarding: The issue of on-boarding is growing in importance as more companies are hiring people with restrictive covenants or trying to mitigate their risk from trade secret fall out. Robert put together a highly entertaining video of what companies should not do (that video, along with one addressing best practices for on-boarding is available on Youtube and I will provide a link in a future post). All of the outside lawyers emphasized the importance of getting the prospective employee’s written employment agreements as part of the hiring process. From the in-house perspective, David Rikker emphasized the need for a culture of ethics and responsibility — that a company has to make clear that it is not soliciting its competitors’ trade secrets when it hires new employees, and that after hiring, new employees need to understand that they have to keep those trade secrets out of the new employer’s environment.
Off-Boarding: As time was winding down, the panel did not have the opportunity to comprehensively address best practices in the departing employee context. David noted the need for clear rules on, among other things, thumb drive use, third party storage and use of DropBox. Above all, he emphasized the importance of a culture of responsibility.
I will follow up with another post summarizing the rest of the day’s discussions. The content and speakers were generally superb and a special shout out is warranted to Peter Torren of Weisbrod Matteis & Copley, Seth Hudson of Clements Bernard, Orrick’s Warrington Parker and Intel’s Janet Craycroft for their efforts in putting this together for the AIPLA’s Trade Secret Law Committee.