Most employee restrictive covenant disputes arise as a result of an employer’s concern about the potential loss of customer relationships and customer goodwill. These disputes generally involve sales representatives or high level business executives that have relationships with key customers; these disputes also frequently involve defenses that the employees had pre-existing business relationships with the customers that should fall outside the non-compete or non-solicitation agreement at issue. These disputes can be very fact-driven and the subject of very different recollections. For these reasons, non-solicitation cases can be especially messy. Unfortunately, a recent case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Hall v. Edgewood Partners Insurance Center, Inc., Case No. 18-3481/3482, highlights a doctrine — that an employee has rights to clients he/she acquired on his/her own time and dime — that may make these cases more complicated, expensive and problematic. Continue Reading Whose Customer Is It Anyway? The Sixth Circuit Further Clouds New York’s Already Murky Law on Non-Solicitation Agreements
As you will see, I have changed the format of my monthly wrap up post in two ways. First, I am going to start including links to noteworthy decisions that I come across or are forwarded to me. Unfortunately, since neither I nor other bloggers writing in this space can cover everything, this will be a useful feature for those practicing in this area. Second, I am going to provide more commentary on some posts and cases, in the hope of creating further dialogue on many trade secret and non-compete issues. Given the hot button nature of some of these issues, I am going to share my thoughts, for whatever they are worth. Now, on to posts and links from the last month:
- Last week, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy and Ron Wyden announced their intention to introduce the Workers Mobility Act (WMA) that would abolish non-competes throughout the United States. As many of you will recall, Senator Murphy previously introduced a similar bill, the Mobility and Opportunity for Vulnerability Employees Act (MOVE) but that bill stalled on the Senate floor. Russell Beck has a post with a link to the House and Senate bills, along with his well-reasoned concerns about the breadth and scope of the bills.
- A blog post about legislation over non-competes wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t some mention of some activity in Massachusetts. Key features of the latest bill under serious consideration would limit non-competes to 12 months (unless the employee stole trade secrets or breached his fiduciary duty) and finally adopt the UTSA. For more details, see Russell Beck’s post in his Fair Competition Blog.
- Idaho (repealing its recent changes in 2016) and Utah (restricting their use against broadcasters) have recently amended their statutes addressing restrictive covenants. See Russell Beck again.
- Colorado has modified its law affecting physician non-competes, carving out protections for physicians treating patients with rare genetic disorders to eliminate any interruption of care for those patients. Peter Greene summarizes the changes in Epstein Becker’s Trade Secrets & Employee Mobility Blog.
Employers who want to hire from a competitor frequently have to contend with the potential fallout from the new employee’s non-compete. Any misstep in that hiring process can easily lead to costly and time-consuming litigation. If an employer wants to go forward with that hire but try to minimize its risk of litigation, one popular approach is to implement affirmative steps safeguarding the prior employer’s trade secrets and avoiding solicitation of the former employer’s customers (see my previous posts on how that strategy has been used successfully by Hewlett Packard and Google in other cases). However, there is another more unconventional approach: paying an employee to sit out the duration of her non-compete (what is known as a “garden leave”) and indemnifying that employee from a future lawsuit so long as she abides by her non-compete. This approach was successfully implemented in a recent dispute in the highly competitive and apparently lucrative e-discovery market. The case, Document Technologies, Inc. v. LDiscovery, LLC, 17-2659-cv (2nd Circuit April 24, 2018), offers a nice case study on the use of indemnity provisions to defuse allegations of breach and provides a roadmap for employers who may have the pocket book to support this approach.
Continue Reading A Well-Drafted Indemnity And Garden Leave Thwart A Non-Compete In New York
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 decision by U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois addresses a very timely and novel question: can a website provider enforce the equivalent of a covenant not compete through an online clickwrap agreement? In TopstepTrader, LLC v. OneUp Trader, LLC, Case No. 17 C 4412 (N.D. Illinois June 28, 2017), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois rejected one website provider’s effort to do just that, reasoning that the provider was attempting to use its website’s terms and conditions to improperly restrict competition under Illinois non-compete law. The opinion, which can be found here, may prove to be a significant one as courts wrestle with the enforceability of online terms of condition that may limit competition or the use of information publicly available through those websites. (A shout out to Evan Brown’s Internet Cases for first reporting on this case). Continue Reading Can A Website Provider Use A “Clickwrap” Agreement to Enforce A Non-Compete?
Here are the noteworthy trade secret, restrictive covenant and cybersecurity posts from the past month or so:
The Defend Trade Secrets Act
- The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has found that certain deer registry information qualified as a combination trade secret under the DTSA and Oklahoma’s version of the UTSA, as explained by Michael Weil and Tierra Piens for Orrick’s Trade Secrets Watch blog.
- The issue of whether the DTSA applies to misappropriation that may have taken place prior to the DTSA’s enactment has been one of the more frequent areas of litigation under the DTSA. Jonathan Shapiro of Epstein Becker has a summary on these cases for Law360.
Given the increasing number and quality of fine posts about trade secret, non-compete and cybersecurity issues, I am resurrecting my regular updates post (although it will be monthly rather than weekly). Without further adieu, here are the noteworthy posts of the past month:
Defend Trade Secrets Act:
- With the recent passage of the 1-year anniversary of the DTSA, there have been a number of interesting posts that have detailed compilations about the cases filed with DTSA claims over the past year. Professor David Opderbeck of Seton Hall has an interesting guest post for Patently O and Fish & Richardson’s Claire Collins, Jeffrey Schneidman and Carol Simons have some noteworthy statistics in their Litigation Blog as well.
- Finnegan’s John Williamson, Paula Miller and Jon Self have a guest post nicely summarizing the extra-territorial reach of the DTSA and other statutes for the IP Watchdog.
- Robert Milligan and Josh Salinas offer their take on likely developments for the DTSA in its second year in Seyfarth’s Trading Secrets Blog.
- Maxwell Goss has a post that suggests that reports of the death of the inevitable disclosure doctrine under the DTSA may be greatly exaggerated in his Law and the Creative Economy Blog.
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
Legislative efforts to ban non-competes in Massachusetts and Minnesota have garnered lots of media attention over the past year or so, and now, a Michigan legislator has introduced a bill seeking a similar ban for Michigan’s companies and residents. Michigan House Bill 4198, introduced just over two weeks ago by State Representative Peter Lucido (R – Washington Township) seeks to ban non-competes in all employment situations. (A shout-out to Bernie Fuhs of Buzel & Long for announcing the bill’s introduction.)
House Bill 4198 limits restrictive covenants to agreements for the sale of a business (the bill also outlines conditions for the enforceability of those covenants), and to make clear those are the only restrictive covenants that will survive, the bill expressly states that, “any term in an agreement an employer obtains from an employee, contract laborer, or other individual that prohibits or limits the individual from engaging in employment is void.”
The ban proposed by Representative Lucido’s bill is very broad; too broad, in my view. By carving out the existing Michigan statute providing for the enforceability of non-competes that protect a reasonable business interest (Section 4a of MCL 445.774a), and replacing it with the new language above, the new bill would also effectively ban narrowly-tailored non-solicitation clauses, and potentially even confidentiality agreements. Under the new bill, an employee could legitimately take the position that in abiding by a confidentiality agreement, he or she is limited from engaging in employment with a competitor and have the agreement declared void, freeing the employee from any restriction on using, disclosing or sharing a former employer’s trade secrets. Consequently, if enacted, the bill could be extraordinarily disruptive to efforts by employers to protect trade secrets in Michigan, in addition to banning outright all restrictive covenants in the employment context.
According to Butzel & Long, the bill has been referred to the Michigan House’s Commerce and Trade Committee. Representative Lucido apparently has indicated that he is interested in moving the bill through committee as soon as possible.
While I certainly think reform for some categories of non-competes is in order (a discussion for another day), banning all restrictive covenants is akin to burning down the house to make toast. By making the bill so broad, Representative Lucido is throwing down the gauntlet to Michigan’s business community. In fact, bills seeking non-compete bans introduced in other states have failed due to similar overreaches because they better enabled the business community to generate grass roots opposition, due to their breadth.
The Trade Secret Litigator will monitor the bill’s progress closely and keep you posted.
As employers continue to sort out the legal implications of social media in the context of restrictive covenants, a Massachusetts court has recently held that the mere posting of a former employee’s new position on a LinkedIn profile does not qualify as a solicitation under her agreement with her former employer. The former employer, KNF&T Staffing Resources, had complained that the change in her profile resulted in a solicitation that was sent to her more than 500 contacts, including customers. (A hat tip to Sheri Qualters who has a fine summary of the case for The National Law Journal).
In KNF&T Inc. v. Muller, KNF&T filed an action in Suffolk Superior Court against its former vice president Charlotte Muller and her new employer, claiming Muller violated her one-year non-compete agreement in various ways. On October 24, 2013, Associate Justice Thomas P. Billings denied KNF&T’s bid for a preliminary injunction, finding that she was not directly competing with her former employer in her new position and that evidence of any violation was “between weak and non-existent.”
As for KNF&T’s claim regarding the LinkedIn profile, Justice Billings found that Muller’s update about her new job was full of generic terms like “Staffing Services” and “Recruiting.” “So long as Muller has not and does not, prior to April 12, 2014, solicit or accept business in the Fields of Placement for herself or others (including her new employer), she will not have violated the covenant not to compete,” Billings wrote. (A PDF of the opinion can be found below).
The Takeaway: First, Justice Billings’ holding is consistent with other recent social media rulings that require some overt act that is directed or targeted to particular customers. A mere update in a profile that reflects a change in employment, with generic terms describing that employment, that is sent to all contacts in LinkedIn (which would likely include former classmates, competitors as well as customers) is simply not enough.
On the other hand, targeted communications or emails to particular customers through LinkedIn could qualify as a solicitation. Whether a communication qualifies as a solicitation generally depends on the context and circumstances of the communication, as Ken Vanko’s excellent discussion of the recent opinion out of the U.S. Court of Appeals Court of Appeals, Corporate Technologies v. Hartnett, illustrates.
Second, the opinion reinforces the importance of employment agreements that address the ownership of social media and profiles or contacts that might be found in LinkedIn. If these are indeed important to an employer, they should be addressed in the employment agreement.