A debate is growing within the trade secret community about the scope of information that should be protected–specifically, confidential information that does not rise to the level of a trade secret. This debate is largely between employers and their counsel who want to have every available tool to protect all of their information, and those who believe existing trade secret law provides adequate protection and therefore, information that doesn’t meet that standard isn’t worthy of protection (hence, the derogatory moniker “mere confidential information”). On October 12, 2023, in Hanneman Family Funeral Home & Crematorium v. Orians, the Ohio Supreme Court addressed this issue as well as another noteworthy issue–whether customer information shared with the government can qualify as a trade secret. But as a concurring opinion by Justice Patrick Fischer persuasively argues, the Supreme Court passed up on an opportunity to squarely decide the issue of whether “mere confidential information” should be preempted (and therefore not protectable), a ruling that would be in line with the majority of other states holding the UTSA prohibits claims seeking protection for information that doesn’t rise to the level of a trade secret. Continue Reading Ohio’s Supreme Court Ducks the Question of Whether “Mere Confidential Information” Is Protectable
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.
“It’s all in your head but I own it anyway.” It’s a tough argument to make, let alone swallow, and, fortunately, it has been recently rejected by two federal courts in cases that follow an increasingly common fact pattern: an employee abides by their restrictive covenant but goes on to compete against their former employer after the covenant expires. Fearing the competition, the employer pursues a trade secrets claim, arguing that the employee will inevitably disclose its trade secrets or that the employee has memorized and is therefore misappropriating the trade secrets. Or it involves a similarly-attenuated fact pattern: the employer has no restrictive covenant at all and there is no evidence of tangible misappropriation (i.e., no evidence of thumbdrives or downloading, no Dropbox or GoogleDoc dumps, nor emailed documents to personal email accounts), but it relies on a trade secret claim that an employee must still be using those trade secrets because they are successfully competing.
The two decisions, CAE Integrated, Inc. v. Moov Technologies, Inc., issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and First Interstate BancSystem, Inc. v. Hubert, issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, both reach the same conclusion: an employer has a very high burden to overcome when making a trade secret claim on these facts in the absence of compelling evidence of misappropriation. As I explain below, taken together, these are significant decisions that demonstrate that employers should think carefully before pursuing employees on claims that the former employees were or would be relying on their memories to improperly use trade secrets rooted in customer identity or customer preferences.
Continue Reading Working through the Thicket of Memory, Misappropriation and the Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine: Two Recent Cases Demonstrate Judicial Skepticism
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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