Trade Secret Identification

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

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

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.

Continue Reading Monthly Wrap Up (April 4, 2023): Noteworthy Trade Secret and Restrictive Covenant Cases, Posts and Developments

Since its enactment in 2016, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) has become the most important trade secrets statute in the world. Here’s the proof. DTSA filings have steadily increased, doubling from 2016’s 476 filings to 2020’s 1,008 filings. According to Lex Machina’s 2021 Trade Secret Litigation Report, 72.9% of all trade secret cases in 2020 and 72.5% in 2019 included a claim under the DTSA. And as other nations recognize the importance of trade secrets and develop their own trade secret laws (see the EU’s Trade Secret Directive and China’s recent amendments to its trade secret law), those nations will likely look to the DTSA for inspiration. When you throw in the increasing reliance on trade secret law and perceived erosion of patent protection, it’s hard to dispute the DTSA’s growing importance.

But the DTSA is far from perfect. Like the Uniform Trade Secrets Act on which it was based, the DTSA can be improved as trade secret law evolves. To that end, I would humbly propose the following two amendments to the DTSA: (1) a “safe harbor” provision for penitent defendants who have agreed to an injunction and are cooperating in a litigation; and (2) a trade secret identification requirement similar to the Model Local Rule suggested by the Sedona Conference’s Trade Secrets Working Group (described below).Continue Reading Two Ideas to Improve and Balance the Defend Trade Secrets Act: A Safe Harbor Rule and Early Trade Secret Identification

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

The issue of trade secret identification, on its face, seems like an elementary and uncontroversial one.  In concept, every trade secret plaintiff should be expected to identify the trade secrets in the lawsuit it brings.  After all, the plaintiff knows best what it considers to be a trade secret and what it doesn’t consider to be a trade secret, and the defendant shouldn’t be left to guess what those trade secrets might be.  For these and other reasons, California, a key bellwether state for trade secret law, has long required by statute that a party claiming trade secret misappropriation identify those trade secrets with specificity before being permitted to conduct discovery relating to its trade secret claim.  However, nothing tests the limits of common sense like the realities of litigation, and plaintiffs in California have complained that this procedure has been misused by defendants to frustrate or derail otherwise meritorious trade secret cases.  Perhaps for these reasons, courts outside California remain divided over the so-called California rule as several recent rulings have demonstrated.
Continue Reading Are Other States Following California’s Lead On Trade Secret Identification?