Non-Compete Enforceability

On Tuesday, January 30, 2024, I will be giving a one-hour Webinar/CLE for the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA) entitled “Trade Secret and Restrictive Covenant Law Year in Review.”

As readers of this blog know, the number of trade secret and restrictive cases continues to grow each year. As a result, trade secret disputes and

On January 1, 2024, California officially began exporting its ban on noncompetes, nonsolicits, broad confidentiality agreements, and likely no-recruits to the rest of the country.

As Russell Beck has written, in September and October, California passed two laws that together will: (1) expand the scope of California’s ban on employee noncompetes and other restrictive covenants

Another busy month, lots of developments in high-profile trade secrets cases, the latest on the FTC’s proposed noncompete ban, and trade secret identification continues to bedevil the federal bench:

Noteworthy Defend Trade Secret Act and other federal decisions, articles and posts:

  • The mammoth jury verdict against Goodyear Tire & Rubber has been set aside. Readers will recall that punitive damages accounted for $62.1 million of the $65 million award, which I predicted would result in a remittitur reducing them under Ohio law. However, U.S. District Court Judge Sara Lioi of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio went a step further and set aside the entire jury verdict, reasoning that CODA Development had not sufficiently identified its trade secrets or that the information did not qualify as a trade secret. (Her opinion can be found at CODA Dev. v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.) Frankly, this was a stunning ruling, as Judge Lioi could have directed out these claims at trial and avoided the verdicts altogether, or she could have granted Goodyear’s motion for summary judgment on the same grounds last year. In her ruling, Judge Lioi defended her decision to dismiss the claims now, noting that she had expressed concern about the claims at trial and reserved the right to dismiss them later. Unfortunately, Judge Lioi’s ruling may encourage defendants to repeatedly challenge identification at every stage of the litigation and trial.
  • Other federal courts are requiring the identification of trade secrets with greater particularity at different junctures of litigation, as they grapple with whether the information before them deserves protection. In Dental Services v. Miller, a Seattle federal court denied a request for temporary restraining order, finding that the plaintiff had failed to provide “sufficient detail to establish a trade secret.” And in United Source One, Inc. v. Frank, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied a motion for a default judgment because the plaintiff failed to sufficiently describe two of the four trade secrets at issue in that case.
  • Plaintiffs frequently insist that there should be a presumption of irreparable harm when they are seeking an injunction. Not surprisingly, both the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Second Circuit and the Fifth Circuit have recently rejected those requests. In JTH Tax, LLC d/b/a Liberty Tax Service v. Agnant, the Second Circuit rejected a franchisor’s argument that a stipulation of irreparable harm in its franchise agreement created that presumption; see Davis Gilbert’s Neal Klausner’s post on that ruling. And in Direct Biologics L.L.C. v. McQueen, the Fifth Circuit held that courts applying Texas law can decline to apply a presumption of irreparable injury when there is no independent proof of harm. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s rejection of that presumption, holding that not only did the employer fail to produce any evidence that the former employee disclosed or used its confidential information but that the evidence in fact showed the exact opposite (question: what good is a presumption if you have to also show proof?). For more on that opinion, see McDermott Will & Emery’s Alexander Piala’s post for Lexology and Eron Reid’s post for Seyfarth Shaw’s Trading Secrets Blog.
  • A mistrial was declared in another high-profile trade secret case pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California after the jury acknowledged it was deadlocked over the claims before it. In that case, Masimo Corp. is seeking $1.8 billion in damages against Apple, as well as co-ownership of 5 Apple pulse oximetry patents that Masimo said use its technology. The case has already generated a number of noteworthy opinions, including one addressing the issue of separating an employee’s general skill and knowledge from trade secret information.
  • Questions over ownership of key trade secrets can derail a request for an injunction, as a plaintiff is learning in a New Jersey federal court. In JRM Construction Management, Inc. v. Plescia, the defendant was able to sufficiently dispute whether the trade secrets in question–Excel templates used to estimate and prepare final budgets for client project bids–were created by another company in the late 1990s. The defendants also challenged the confidentiality of the information because it was shared with customers who didn’t sign NDAs. Given these disputes over the central issues in the lawsuit, District Court Judge Evelyn Padin held that an injunction was premature and that “robust discovery” was needed.
  • Late to discover that a former employee may have used your trade secrets in a patent application? Then you should check out Robins Kaplan’s Sharon Roberg-Perez’s article for IAM analyzing a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for Delaware. In Illumina Inc v Guardant Health, et al., the court found the former employer Illumina had presented sufficient evidence of fraudulent concealment to toll the statute of limitations. The court found that there was evidence that former employees had taken steps to conceal their activities with regard to their new company Guardant, including anonymously incorporating the company when they were still Illumina employees. Moreover, according to Sharon, Guardant had removed the names of one of Illumina’s former employees from the applications prior to their issuance as patents.
  • Delaying your request for a preliminary injunction for 6 months because of discovery disputes can undermine the urgency of your request and claim of irreparable injury, at least according the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. In Partners Insight, LLC v. Gill, Judge Sheri Polster Chappel found this delay, coupled with waiting for 5 months to file the lawsuit, doomed the plaintiff’s request for an injunction.
  • A challenge to an NDA on the grounds that it was facially overbroad was rejected as premature by Judge Pamela Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. In AB Pratt & Co. v. Bridgeport Group, LLC, Judge Barker rejected a motion to dismiss the NDA and other claims, reasoning that any analysis of the scope and breadth of the NDA would involve a factually-intensive inquiry inappropriate at the motion to dismiss stage.
  • Looking for a primer on DTSA caselaw in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit? Then check out Houston Harbaugh’s Henry Sneath’s post for JDSupra.

Continue Reading Monthly Wrap Up (May 12, 2023): Noteworthy Trade Secret and Restrictive Covenant Decisions, Posts and Articles

Delaware, where more than half of U.S. public companies are incorporated, has done much to drive the development of corporate governance.  As a result, “Delaware’s courts have led the way, which is not surprising given the crucial role the state’s judiciary plays under what Chief Justice Leo Strine has described as the ‘Delaware Model’ of corporation law.” Look no further than the Delaware Court of Chancery’s own website which says it is “widely recognized as the nation’s preeminent forum for the determination of disputes involving the internal affairs of the thousands upon thousands of Delaware corporations and other business entities through which a vast amount of the world’s commercial affairs is conducted.” Consequently, rulings by the Delaware Chancery Court are highly influential and may impact the reasoning of other state and federal courts. Three recent noncompete decisions by the Chancery Court potentially signal a significant shift against noncompetes involving sophisticated commercial parties.Continue Reading Are Three Decisions a Trend? The Delaware Chancery Court’s Turn Against Noncompetes

Here are the noteworthy cases, articles and posts from last month, along with several DTSA cases from January that didn’t make it into last month’s update:

Notable Defend Trade Secrets Act and Federal Trade Secret Developments, Opinions and Posts:

  • For those interested in shaping an important trade secrets resource for the federal bench, Berkeley Professor Peter Menell is looking for comments to the Trade Secret Case Management Judicial Guide (TSJCMG), which is intended as a “go-to” resource for judges in these cases. In a post for Patently-O, Peter describes how the TSCMJG came into existence. He also discusses the unique qualities of trade secret cases that prompted the TSCMJG, including (1) the challenges of trade secret identification; (2) the highly emotional nature of trade secret cases, and (3) the interplay between criminal and civil proceedings in these cases. A number of trade secret luminaries (Vicki Cundiff, Jim Pooley, Peter Toren, Elizabeth Rowe, Rebecca Wexler and Professor Menell) have already contributed to its drafting, and for those interested in providing comments, please reach out to Peter at pmenell@law.berkeley.edu (please note he is working on a tight timeline).
  • Disputes over inventorship are not confined to patent cases and often arise in trade secrets cases too. However, that question does not guarantee federal subject matter jurisdiction, as the defendants learned in a decision remanding an ownership dispute removed to federal court back to state court. In Calvary Indus., Inc. v. Winters, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Judge Timothy Black rejected arguments that a state court declaratory relief action over the ownership of several disputed patent applications involved federal patent or trade secret claims and ruled that it belonged in state court. In particular, Judge Black found that declaratory relief for a correction of ownership under 35 U.S.C. § 256 was premature because no patents had yet issued.
  • Can a pleading citing “information and belief” for its allegations of misappropriation survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)? If the information is solely within the possession of the defendant and the inference is otherwise plausible, the answer is “yes,” according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In Ahern Rentals, Inc. v. EquipmentShare.com, Inc., the Eighth Circuit joined six other federal circuits that found this form of pleading to be sufficient. For more on the decision, check out Scott Lauck’s post on the case for Missouri Lawyers Media.
  • The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently rejected a motion by Amazon to dismiss a complaint accusing Amazon of improperly reverse engineering the artificial intelligence (AI) trade secrets of a vendor. In GateGuard, Inc. v. Amazon.com Inc., No. 21-cv-9321, 2023 WL 2051739 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 16, 2023), the vendor GateGuard alleged that Amazon was misappropriating GateGuard’s “proprietary security technology that acts as an ‘AI Doorman’ for multifamily residential properties, allowing authorized users to unlock entrances remotely and to monitor activity.” Judge John Koeltl’s sixty-three page opinion focused on, among other things, Gateguard’s terms of service agreement which specifically forbid reverse engineering. For more on the case, check out McGuire Wood’s Trade Secrets Tidbits post by Sarah Holub, Meghaan Madriz, Yasser Madriz and Miles Indest.
  • Staying on the topic of Rule 12(b)(6) motions, during the course of my review of these cases each month, I am seeing a trend by federal courts denying these motions on the trade secret claims but sometimes dismissing other tort claims. This trend is supported by the decisions above, as well as other decisions this past month by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Aristotle Int’l, Inc. v. Acuant, Inc. (a case involving data scraping), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Hardwire, LLC v. Freyssinet Int’l Et Cie, et al. (dismissing Sherman Act claims), and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in Sunjoy Indus. Group, Ltd., v. Permasteel, Inc. (dismissing trade dress claims).
  • Looking for ideas for your motion in limine to exclude improper evidence at your next trade secret trial? Then look no further than HP Tuners, LLC v. Cannata, where the U.S. District Court of Nevada ruled on a host of different requests to exclude evidence, including requests under Daubert and other expert challenges, Rule 408 settlement discussions and evidence of the parties’ respective wealth.
  • Never underestimate the power of an accelerated development timetable to create an inference of misappropriation when seeking an injunction. In Palltronics, Inc. v. Paliot Solutions, Inc., Judge Page Hood of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan was persuaded by the fact that the former employees’ brand-new company “managed to accomplish in one year, what it took Lightning [the former employer] over five years and $25 million in research and development to achieve” and she ruled “[i]t can be inferred that such dramatic progress was possible because Defendant relied on Lightning’s former employees’ knowledge of the trade secrets, processes and other information they gained from working at Lightning to set up its business.”

Continue Reading Monthly Wrap Up (March 12, 2023): Noteworthy Trade Secret and Restrictive Covenant Cases, Developments and Posts

The FTC’s proposed ban on noncompete agreements (and other “de facto” noncompetes such as overly broad nondisclosure agreements) relies in large part on the research done by University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business Professor Evan Starr — one of the leading scholars in the field.

Join Ben, Russell and

As many of you know from my post last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just proposed a ban on noncompetes with virtually no exceptions. And, the FTC has also placed nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in its crosshairs.

No one knows this area better than Russell, and I mean no one, so please join 

December was unusually busy and 2023 started with a bang courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposed rule banning noncompetes.  Here are the noteworthy cases and posts from last month, with several notable posts regarding the FTC’s big announcement on Thursday, for good measure:

Noteworthy Defend Trade Secrets Act Cases, Federal Trade Secrets Opinions and Related Commentary:

  • Courts continue to scrutinize claims of irreparable injury in trade secret cases, and no court runs a tighter ship than the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  In Tomgal LLC v. Castano, District Court Judge John Koeltl of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied an injunction request, reasoning that irreparable injury did not exist because any injury arising from the misappropriated trade secrets could be easily calculated.  Judge Koeltl found “every unit of inventory that [defendant] Fashion Code sells to a Robin Ruth distributor is a sale that Robin Ruth did not make,” i.e., profits from the sale of the products containing the misappropriated trade secrets could be easily monetized. Judge Koeltl also rapped the plaintiff’s knuckles on laches grounds, finding that a 7-month delay was substantial and unreasonable.
  • If you don’t identify your trade secrets with particularity, you are not going to get an injunction.  That is the simple message that many federal courts are sending to trade secret owners, and a recent decision by District Court Judge Nugent of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio is the latest. To date, most of the discussion regarding trade secret identification has been at the discovery stage but now courts are reinforcing that message by denying early requests for an injunction. In Collar Jobs, LLC v. Slocum, Judge Nugent denied the request for an injunction against a former joint venture partner, expressing concern that “it is not entirely clear what Collar Jobs’ ‘trade secret’ is.”   He also questioned the novelty of the alleged “platform” trade secret before him, which appeared to be a combination trade secret of customer and prospect data.
  • So Judge Nugent’s opinion begs the following question: should the DTSA be amended to include a requirement that trade secret identification is provided early in a case?  In an article for Law360, Willenken LLP’s Amelia Sargent details recent rulings by the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Seventh Circuit and Ninth Circuit recognizing the need for identification and advocates for that amendment.  It’s a good read and Amelia’s points are reasonable and sound.
  • A recent decision out of Massachusetts cuts against the trend of decisions broadly interpreting the extraterritorial reach of the DTSA.  In Sysco Machinery Corp. v. Cymtek Solutions, Inc., District Court Judge Leo Sorokin of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts ruled the sale of products in the U.S. that were made using the alleged trade secrets, without more, did not qualify as “an act in furtherance” of misappropriation under the DTSA.  According to Judge Sorokin, the defendant Cymtek used the misappropriated trade secrets improperly to make competing machines in Taiwan, but all of that conduct occurred in Taiwan or outside the United States; as a result, on this record, he found that there was neither “misappropriation” in the United States nor an “act in furtherance of the offense . . . committed in the United States” as required under §1837(2) of the DTSA.  Contrast this ruling to the decisions described in my September 2021 post.  Tough to reconcile in my judgment.

Continue Reading Monthly Wrap Up (January 9, 2023): Noteworthy Trade Secret and Restrictive Covenant Posts, Cases and Developments

Earlier today, the Federal Trade Commission announced it has issued a proposed rule banning noncompetes. This development should come as no surprise since President Biden issued an executive order in July 2021 authorizing the FTC and other agencies to investigate the unfair use of noncompetes and other restrictive covenants and curtail their use. I expect that most of the commentary will focus on noncompetes and the ability of the FTC to effectively legislate over a body of law reserved for the states for over a hundred years. However, what should be of particular concern to the trade secret community is that the proposed FTC rule also potentially targets nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) that are “written so broadly” as to amount to “de facto noncompetes.” In other words, employers in California, Oklahoma and North Dakota–states that forbid noncompetes–may find that their employee NDAs could qualify as de facto noncompetes under the FTC’s new rule. As explained below, this post briefly describes how we got here, what the proposed rule addresses, and suggests some actions employers can take to protect themselves in the meantime.Continue Reading It’s Official: The Federal Trade Commission Seeks to Ban Noncompetes and Overly “Broad” NDAs

And away we go:

Noteworthy Defend Trade Secrets Act Cases, Federal Trade Secrets Opinions and Related Commentary:

  • If an employer presents specific evidence that former employees emailed, printed out or took copies of customer lists, is that sufficient evidence to establish that those former employees misappropriated those trade secrets for purposes of defeating summary judgment?  In Busey Bank v. Michael G. Turnery, et al., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Judge Sara Ellis concluded that it was not enough since “mere possession of trade secrets does not suffice to plausibly allege disclosure or use of those trade secrets, even when considered in conjunction with solicitations of former clients.”  A link to the opinion can be found here, and Law360′s article on the case can be found here.  The opinion is interesting to me in two respects:  (1) it is consistent with an emerging trend requiring direct, rather than circumstantial, proof of misappropriation (see my earlier post on the Wisk Aero v. Archer Aviation case and on other federal cases finding that mere downloading isn’t enough for an injunction); and (2) reading between the lines, it seemed like Judge Ellis saw this case as an employee “raiding case” masquerading as a trade secrets case.
  • Although most trade secret disputes arise in the employer/employee relationship, a recent opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit serves as a reminder that the contours of trade secret law are often shaped by disputes in the public records context.  In a post for Crowell’s Government Contracts Legal Forum, John McCarthy, Anuj Vohra and Daniel Wolff describe the decision that better defined what degree of competitive harm needs to be presented to support a trade secret invocation under the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act.
  • Discovery disputes are common in trade secret litigation because of the nature of information at issue (i.e., highly sensitive trade secrets) and the potential intrusiveness of some of the types of discovery (imaging and forensic analysis of personal devices).  However, a defendant’s continued resistance and non-compliance with discovery requests and court orders led to the rarest of sanctions–a default on the merits.  In RedWolf Energy Trading, LLC v. BIA Capital Management, LLC, et al., the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts imposed this sanction against the individual defendant and his company.  Erik Weibust details the court’s 72-page decision for Epstein Becker’s Trade Secrets & Employee Mobility Blog.  Erik’s post highlights the fact that the defendant tried to save costs on a discovery vendor (blaming him for its failure) and is now on the hook for more than $10 million in damages.
  • And the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts is not the only court that has issued terminating sanctions against a party for failing to abide by discovery obligations and court orders.  For a comprehensive list of spoliation cases involving requests for severe sanctions, check out Arent Fox’s Linda Jackson, Matthew Prewitt, Taniel Anderson, Nadia Patel and Pascal Naples’ article for The National Law Journal describing multiple cases over the past 3 years in which courts have imposed severe sanctions on recalcitrant parties.
  • Speaking of discovery disputes, there is an interesting decision coming out of the Wisk Aero v. Archer Aviation case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (for more on that case and its well-reasoned decision denying a preliminary injunction, see my post from last year).  U.S. District Court Judge Orrick affirmed the ruling of Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu that permitted the individual defendants accused of trade secret theft in that case to review the trade secrets at issue; frankly, given the need for a defendant to evaluate the trade secret claims against it, it never fails to amaze me that employers and trade secret owners resist these types of disclosures.  However, the most interesting feature of the Magistrate’s order is that each defendant was only allowed to view the trade secret for 15 minutes.  Jim Pooley briefly touches on this dispute in a post he wrote for The IP Watchdog as he describes the many situations where courts have to balance competing policies and interests in trade secret litigation.
  • Steve Brachman has a post for the IP Watchdog on the viability of an argument that the DTSA’s policy supporting federal protection for trade secrets trumps a forum selection clause directing litigation to Denmark.  In Amyndas Pharmaceuticals, S.A. v. New Zealand Pharma AS, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected that and other arguments and shipped the case out to a Danish court.  The First Circuit made short work of the argument that the terms “defendants’ venue” meant anything other than the corporate headquarters of that defendant, reasoning any other interpretation would render the phrase meaningless.  Dennis Crouch also has a post on the decision for the Patently-O blog.

Continue Reading Monthly Wrap Up (October 5, 2022): Noteworthy Trade Secret and Restrictive Covenant Cases, Developments and Posts