Here are last month’s noteworthy cases, article and posts, as well as a few other cases that I didn’t have room for in last month’s wrap up post:
Noteworthy Defend Trade Secret Act and Other Federal Cases, Posts and Articles:
- Can an employee be prohibited from communicating with his/her new employer’s lawyers? If there is a risk that they might share details of other trade secret disputes, they can, at least according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In Stryker Emp. Co., LLC v. Abbas, Case No. 22-1563 (6th Cir. Feb. 16, 2023) (Clay, Bush, JJ.; Sutton, C.J.), the Sixth Circuit affirmed an injunction enforcing, among other things, a provision limiting the employee, Abbas, from communicating with his employer’s (Alphatec) counsel. Stryker was involved in three other cases against Alphatec involving other former Stryker employees, and the Sixth Circuit found that Abbas “was privy to confidential information that if disclosed to Alphatec or Alphatec’s counsel, would detrimentally affect Stryker” in those other lawsuits. McDermott Will & Emery’s Tessa Kroll has a summary of the decision. I have to confess this decision seems extreme, given that a standard confidentiality order would achieve the narrow purpose sought–protection of confidential information involving a pending litigation–and the breadth of this ruling may unfairly impinge on the ability of counsel to engage in joint defense communications.
- The winner of this month’s Gladys Kravitz Award is EmergencyMD, LLC, an employer that couldn’t resist peering into the Gmail account of its former employee. That snooping led to a viable claim under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), ruled the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In Carson v. EmergencyMD, LLCC, et al. the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment dismissal of the former employee’s SCA claim, finding genuine issues of fact existed over whether the defendants’ accessing of the emails was unintentional and whether EmergencyMD’s policies authorized the defendants’ obtaining and disclosing their former employee’s emails.
- How much risk does a cannabis-loving employee truly pose to his employer’s trade secrets? Not very much, according to Judge Kenneth Bell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina in Microban Int’l Ltd. v. William Bartley Kennedy. The employee had been terminated for ingesting a marijuana gummy bear before an important meeting, and Judge Bell found the former employee’s “hollow threats” to share his employer’s confidential information uttered during severance negotiations were insufficient for an injunction.
- Illinois proudly claims the title of the Land of Lincoln. But it has another honor that it doesn’t boast about nearly as much. It is the birthplace of the infamous inevitable disclosure doctrine (see PepsiCo, Inc. v. Redmond), a doctrine much maligned by scholars and lawyers representing employees in trade secret cases. Fortunately, the doctrine may be close to expiring as a recent case, Petrochoice, LLC v. Amherdt, suggests. Judge Jorge Alonso of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois rejected the former employer’s inevitable disclosure argument, ruling that the information the former employer was attempting to limit (the employee Amherdt’s “level” of performance of his “sales skills”) “is precisely the sort of sales acumen that employees are permitted to take with them.”
- When can a new employer be vicariously liable for its newly-hired employee’s alleged trade secret misappropriation? In Alert Enterprises, Inc. v. Rana, Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed claims by a former employer to include a competitor, SoloInsight, who hired a former employee who had downloaded over 2,600 of Alert Enterprises’ files and deleted other information to cover up those and other transfers. SoloInsight represented that none of those files had been uploaded to its system, which the plaintiff had to acknowledge in its complaint. On this record, Judge Scott Corley found there were no plausible claims of use or disclosure by SoloInsight and that it could not be vicariously liable for conduct that occurred before it hired that employee.
- Many of the decisions ordering early trade secret identification fail to provide guidance on how a plaintiff should identify those trade secrets with particularity. The reason for this is obvious: the descriptions themselves include allegedly proprietary information and therefore the key portions of the court’s analysis are frequently under seal. This reality means there aren’t many decisions to assist trade secret owners on what qualifies as a defensible identification. However, in Carlyle Interconnect Tech. Inc. v. Foresight Finishing LLC, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona provides that rare roadmap. In that case, Judge Steven Logan oversaw a discovery dispute over the identification of the plaintiff’s plating process trade secrets, providing a fine explanation of the factual context at issue, and ultimately holding that the plaintiff must “identify the steps in the process and explain how those steps make their method or process unique.”
- Consistent with the trend that I noted last month, federal courts continue to deny motions to dismiss trade secret claims but remain willing to narrow cases by getting rid of other tort claims. Check out the latest case, PRO MINERAL, LLC v. Marietta, Dist., where the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas kept the trade secret and breach of contract claims but applied Texas’ preemption doctrine to dismiss claims for breach of fiduciary duty and civil conspiracy.
- It must be frustrating for trade secret owners seeking an injunction before courts bound by decisions issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Why you ask? The fact that they have to contend with the ill-conceived Faiveley Transport Malmo AB v. Wabtec Corporation, 559 F.3d 110 (2d Cir. 2009) decision. For those unfamiliar with that opinion, the Second Circuit inexplicably ruled that irreparable injury did not exist in situations where a competitor was simply using trade secrets; the Second Circuit reasoned that the risk of further disclosure was not present because the misappropriating defendant and trade secret owner were both aligned on the issue of disclosure, and neither would therefore benefit from further disclosure. Of course, this rationale runs counter to a central tenet of ownership–namely, the owner’s right to exclude a competitor from using its IP. In Amimon, Inc. v. Shenzen Hollyland Tech Co. Ltd., et al., Judge Edgardo Ramos relied on Faiveley‘s holding and denied Amimon’s request for a preliminary injunction, ruling that it could recover money damages for the alleged misappropriation which was confined to the use of the trade secrets by defendants. It should be noted that Amimon did itself no favors, as its irreparable injury arguments were based on damage to its reputation and the threat that defendants might further share the trade secrets, neither of which were supported by sufficient facts.