There's A Difference Between "Confidential And Proprietary Information" And A Trade Secret

I can't remember the last time that the Business Court granted a motion opposing the designation of a case as a mandatory complex business case.  And since the Business Court Modernization Act went into effect in October 2014?  I don't think one has been granted.

But earlier this week, Judge Gale did exactly that, in an Order this week in Cornerstone Health Care, P.A. v. Moore, 2015 NCBC 62.  Plaintiff Cornerstone, a medical practice in Greensboro, sued two of its former doctor-employees who joined competitive practices.  It asserted that they were violating their non-competition and confidentiality agreements.  It made claims for breach of contract and for a declaratory judgment regarding deferred compensation which the doctors claimed was owed to them.

The Business Court has traditionally been a little prickly about accepting the designation of cases involving covenants not to compete.  In 2008, in Workplace Benefits, LLC v. Lifecare, Inc. (unpublished), Judge Tennille held that "every suit based upon a breach of a restrictive covenant . . . [will not] give rise to a mandatory business case based upon 'unfair competition.'"

Nevertheless, the Court had displayed a willingness to accept the designation of such cases if they included claims alleging the theft of trade secrets or actions designed to "unfairly damage another's business."  And the Court had also showed that it would go beyond the way in which the Plaintiff labelled its causes of action and delve into the facts alleged to determine whether there was a basis for the designation.  That largesse was demonstrated by a decision from then Chief Judge Jolly in New Breed, Inc. v. Golden, which I wrote about in 2012.

The Cornerstone Complaint which was the subject of this week's decision seemed to walk the right walk for an acceptable designation.  It asserted that the Defendant doctors would "inevitably disclose Cornerstone's confidential and proprietary information."  Order ¶10(e).  "Confidential and proprietary" information must be a trade secret, right?

No, apparently not, and those allegations were not enough to warrant the designation as a mandatory case for the Business Court.  Now Chief Judge Gale observed that

This Court has historically handled cases designated as complex business disputes which involved employment agreements including restrictive covenants.  In general, it has only done so where the allegations include a claim that the employee. . . misappropriated trade secrets in addition to violating the contract or restrictive covenant.

[t]he Court has not historically been assigned cases based on the assertion of more generalized allegations of the employer's loss of confidential or proprietary information.  Certainly evidence of that nature may be involved in any case concerning an alleged violation of a restrictive covenant contained within an employment contract because such evidence is necessary to support the employer's need for the restrictive covenant.  But that evidence was not the basis on which cases were assigned as mandatory complex business disputes.

Order ¶¶14&15.  The Judge directed that the case should not proceed in the Business Court but on the "regular docket of the Superior Court of Guilford County."  Order ¶20(e).

So it seems there must be some difference between a "trade secret" and "confidential and proprietary information".  Yes, but Judge Gale unfortunately did not expand on the difference. 

There is actually quite a bit written on the subject of confidential information as compared to trade secrets.  The views range from the position of a Massachusetts federal court that "trade secrets and confidential information are essentially identical concepts." Take it Away, Inc. v. Home Depot, Inc., 2009 WL 458552, at *8 (D. Mass. Feb. 6, 2009), to the Business Court's apparent position that they are different.

 You know from past blog posts here that the Business Court is particularly tough on the way trade secrets claims must be pleaded.  The Cornerstone ruling continues in that vein.  Saying that a trade secret is "confidential and proprietary" is not, standing alone, enough to get you into the Court as a mandatory complex case under G.S. §7A-45.4(a)(8).  You need to say more.

 

Something That You Might Not Have Known About Injunctions

I had always thought that you need to post a bond in order to obtain an injunction, both in federal and state court.  It turns out that I was wrong.

The federal rule seems to require a bond.  It says:

(c) Security. The court may issue a preliminary injunction or a temporary restraining order only if the movant gives security in an amount that the court considers proper to pay the costs and damages sustained by any party found to have been wrongfully enjoined or restrained. The United States, its officers, and its agencies are not required to give security.

FRCP 65(c).

The state rule is even stronger on the apparent need for security.  it says:

(c) Security. - No restraining order or preliminary injunction shall issue except upon the giving of security by the applicant, in such sum as the judge deems proper, for the payment of such costs and damages as may be incurred or suffered by any party who is found to have been wrongfully enjoined or restrained. No such security shall be required of the State of North Carolina or of any county or municipality thereof, or any officer or agency thereof acting in an official capacity, but damages may be awarded against such party in accord with this rule. In suits between spouses relating to support, alimony, custody of children, separation, divorce from bed and board, and absolute divorce no such security shall be required of the plaintiff spouse as a condition precedent to the issuing of a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction enjoining the defendant spouse from interfering with, threatening, or in any way molesting the plaintiff spouse during pendency of the suit, until further order of the court, but damages may be awarded against such party in accord with this rule.

NCRCP 65(c).

Given the seeming clarity of those Rules, I was surprised to learn, from Judge Bledsoe's opinion earlier this month in Bolier & Co., LLC v. Decca Furniture (USA), Inc., 2015 NCBC 52 that a federal judge or a state judge is free to issue an injunction without any requirement for a bond.

The Bolier case had been designated to the Business Court in 2012.  It was then removed to federal court, where Judge Vorhees (of the W.D.N.C.) entered a preliminary injunction without any requirement for a bond against the Plaintiff.  The case was remanded back to the Business Court in September 2014.

The Plaintiff argued to the Business Court that the federal injunction should be dissolved because it did not require a bond.  Judge Bledsoe rejected that argument, holding:

[t]he law is clear that a federal district court has broad discretion to set a bond amount as the court sees fit and may waive a security requirement altogether as Judge Vorhees did here.  Pashby v. Delia, 709 F.3d 307, 332 (4th Cir. 2013)(citation omitted); see also Aoude v. Mobil Oil Corp., 862 F.2d 890, 896 (1st Cir. 1988)("posting of a bond is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to the validity of a preliminary injunction"); Clarkson Co, v. Shaheen, 544 F.2d 624, 632 (2nd Cir. 1976)("[B]ecause, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 65, the amount of any bond to be given upon the issuance of a preliminary injunction rests within the sound discretion of the trial court, the district court may dispense with the filing of a bond." (citations omitted).

Op. ¶39.  Moreover, the Court said that North Carolina law is to the same effect.  The NC Court of Appeals has held that:

'[t]he trial court has power not only to set the amount of security but to dispense with any security requirement whatsoever where the restraint will do the [party] no material damage, and where the applicant for equitable relief has considerable assets and is able to respond in damages if [the party] does suffer damages by reason of a wrongful injunction.

Op. ¶39 (quoting Stevens v. Henry, 121 N.C. App. 150, 154, 464 S.E.2d 704, 707 (1995)(alterations and quotations omitted)(quoting Keith v. Day, 60 N.C. App. 559, 562, 299 S.E.2d 296, 298(1983)).

The NC COA, in an acknowledgement of the Rule's apparently mandatory language, said in a 1983 decision that it  " is more subtle than one would expect from words so apparently unambiguous."  It went on, in Keith v. Day, to hold that the "... as the court deems proper" language of the rule means that there are some instances when it is proper for no security to be required of a party seeking injunctive relief." 60 N.C. App. at 562, 299 S.E.2d at 299.

I wouldn't read Judge Bledsoe's Opinion to say that the party obtaining an injunction in the Business Court is unlikely to have to post a bond.  A bond of at least some amount is going to be appropriate in most cases.

 

Business Court: High To Low Posting of ATM Debit Card Transactions Properly Disclosed By Bank

The meaning of the word "item" was the definitive factor in the Business Court's decision last week in Gay v. People's Bank, 2015 NCBC 59.

The case was an attempted class action involving claims against the Bank for allegedly improperly imposing overdraft fees on checking accounts.  The overdraft fees arose due to the Bank's "high to low posting" of ATM charges.

The Bank did not deduct debit card charges from their accounts in the chronological order in which they were incurred, but instead re-ordered them from the largest debit charge to the smallest. This practice, according to the Plaintiff, had the effect of more quickly reducing the funds in his account and thereby "running up" the overdraft charges collected by the Bank.  He sought to represent a class of the Bank's customers who had incurred overdraft charges.

The Bank's position was that its high to low ordering was plainly disclosed in its account agreements.  That seemed pretty clear.  One document said:

Payment Order of Items - The law permits us to pay items (such as checks or drafts) drawn on your account in any order.  To assist you in handling your account with us, we are providing you with the following information regarding how we process the items that you write.  When processing items drawn on your account, our policy is to pay them according to the dollar amount.  We pay the largest items first.  The order in which items are paid is important if there is not enough money in your account to pay all of the items that are presented.  Our payment policy will cause your largest, and perhaps more important, items to be paid first . . . , but may increase the overdraft or NSF fees you have to pay if funds are not available to pay all of your items.

Op. ¶23 (quoting the Bank's Terms and Conditions).

The specificity of that language makes one wonder how the Plaintiff class ever got past a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.  But it did exactly that, in an unpublished Order from former Business Court Judge Murphy in April 2014.

What preclusive effect did that Order have on Judge Bledsoe's ruling?  None.  But hold it, if it does not have that effect, doesn't that mean that one Superior Court Judge can overrule another?  And we all know that is not allowed.  Judge Bledsoe wrote:

North Carolina law is clear . . . that 'denial of a previous motion for judgment on the pleadings made under [Rule 12(c)] does not preclude the trial court from granting a subsequent motion for summary judgment.'

Op. ¶20 (quoting Rhue v. Pace, 165 N.C. App. 423, 426, 598 S.E.2d 662, 664-65 (2004)).

Plaintiff tried to stir up ambiguity on whether the disclosure regarding the ordering of "items" included debit card transactions, given its specific reference to checks and draft and its lack of mention of debits.. But Judge Bledsoe said that "[t]he law is clear . . . that the Court will  not read an ambiguity into a contract where none exists."  Op. ¶26.  Moreover, it is settled that "parties can differ as to the interpretation of language without its being ambiguous."  Op. Par. 26 (quoting Walton v. City of Raleigh, 342 N.C. 879, 881-82, 467 S.E.2d 410, 412 (1996).

He concluded that the phrase "such as checks or drafts" following the word "items" was "an unambiguous phrase of inclusion and not an exhaustive list of the specific 'items' embraced by the Bank's policy."  Op. ¶27.  He actually went even further, ruling that the term "'item,' as used here, plainly contemplates any debit to an account -- whether by check, draft, ACH payment, wire, online, mobile device, voice response, debit transaction or other withdrawal."  Op. ¶28.  That construction of the word, he said, was consistent with the "plain, ordinary and popular use of the word 'item.'" as used in Webster's Dictionary  Op. ¶28.

If you are worried about how your own bank handles overdraft fees for the use of your ATM card, you don't have to be.  Or, if you are thinking you'd like to sue banks over overdraft charges, it's probably too late.  The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency put Regulation E in place in 2010.  Regulation E governs how banks must deal with overdraft charges from ATM cards.

Brooks Pierce represented Defendant People's Bank in this case, through Reid Phillips and Daniel Smith.

NC Business Court Says That Bank Didn't Owe A Fiduciary Duty To Its Customer, But Recognizes New Cause Of Action: Breach Of A Duty To Negotiate In Good Faith

Were you thinking that the Business Court might, one day, find that a bank owed a fiduciary duty to its customer?  That seemed like it might happen eventually, as the NC Supreme Court seemed to hold out that possibility last year, in Dallaire v. Bank of America, N.A., 367 N.C. 363, 368 (2014), in which it said that:

it is possible, at least theoretically, for a particular bank-customer transaction to give rise to a fiduciary relationship under the proper circumstances.

But on Monday of this week, in RREF BB Acquisitions, LLC v. MAS Properties, LLC, 2015 NCBC 58, Judge McGuire stuck to the long-standing case law in North Carolina that a lender does not owe any fiduciary duties to its customer.  At the same time, however, he also recognized a new cause of action which might have ramifications for claims against any type of entity (not just a lender) which decides to break off negotiations with an opposing party.

The Plaintiff RREF had purchased from BB&T two loans totaling $5.275 million which BB&T had made to the Defendants back in 2005.  It had purchased the loans from BB&T while they were in default, and shortly after BB&T stopped negotiating a forbearance agreement with the Defendants.

No Fiduciary Duty

The Defendants' lead argument against RREF's lawsuit to collect on the loans was that BB&T had violated a fiduciary duty it owed to them.  They said that BB&T had breached its duty by failing to disclose its attempts to sell their loans while it was in the midst of negotiating a forbearance agreement with them.

The Defendants claimed that if they had known that BB&T was selling their loans, they would have tried to buy them themselves or had a third party buy the loans on their behalf.

The basis argued by the Defendants for BB&T's alleged fiduciary duty was that they had a thirty year relationship with a local office, and that they had worked closely with the Bank in developing various residential communities and in selling homes in those communities.  Op. ¶41.  BB&T responded that it owed no fiduciary duties to the Defendants and that it was simply pursuing the options available to it as the holder of loans that were in default.

As Judge McGuire noted, "[t]here is no reported North Carolina appellate case in which a fiduciary relationship has been found in a borrower-lender transaction."  Op. ¶38.  Given that one of the hallmarks of a fiduciary relationship is "a duty of the fiduciary to act in the best interests of the other party," Judge McGuire held that "it would seem nearly antithetical to require a commercial lender to put a borrower's interest ahead of its own in a business transaction."  Op. ¶41.

Another reason the Court refused to find a fiduciary relationship lay in the restructuring negotiations themselves.  Both the Defendants and the Bank were at this point represented by attorneys and were "negotiating to protect their respective best interests."  (Op. ¶43).  If there ever had been a fiduciary relationship between them, "such relationship ceased once BB&T declared Defendants in default of the Loans and the positions of the parties became adverse."  Op. ¶43.

The New Cause Of Action: Breach Of A Duty To Negotiate In Good Faith

Although it did grant summary judgment on the fiduciary duty claim, the Court nevertheless allowed the Defendants to go forward on a new claim hitherto not formally recognized in North Carolina: breach of a duty to negotiate in good faith.

 

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When A Motion To Strike Can Be Proper

After a defendant succeeded on a Motion for a More Definite Statement, a plaintiff added more detail to the claims that had been dismissed.  The defendant responded to the beefed up allegations with a Motion to Strike.

Is that a proper use of a Motion to Strike?  Yes, said Judge McGuire last week in an Order in Progress Point One-B Condominium Association, Inc. v. Progress Point One Property Owners Association, Inc., 2015 NCBC 54, given the nature of the previous dismissal.

You may be surprised at that conclusion, given that a Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) "is generally viewed as the proper means to challenge the sufficiency of a plaintiff's pleading, not a motion to strike."  Order ¶14.  Motions to strike, under Rule 12(f), are reserved for challenging "any redundant, irrelevant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter."

The unusual circumstance of this case was that Judge McGuire had dismissed a number of the repleaded claims in a previous decision granting a Motion for a More Definite Statement (2015 NCBC 20).  But he had not said that the dismissal was "with prejudice."  That lack of reference to the quality of the dismissal didn't make a difference, because Rule 41(b) says that "all dismissals, including those under Rule 12(b)(6) operate as an adjudication upon the merits unless the trial court specifies that the dismissal is without prejudice."  Order ¶9 (quoting Johnson v. Bellinger, 86 N.C. App. 1, 8 (1987).

A Motion to Strike is appropriate "where a party attempts to re-allege claims that have been previously dismissed by the court."  Order ¶9.

So if you are dealing with an adversary who refuses to concede that some of its claims were dismissed and insists on going forward with them, a Motion to Strike is completely warranted.

Business Court Refuses To Unwind Mediated Settlement Agreement

The Defendants in last week's decision in DeCristoforo v. Givens, 2015 NCBC 53 were hellbent on getting out from under a settlement they had agreed to at mediation.  They offered a host of challenges to the validity of their agreement, but Judge Gale rejected all of their arguments.

The Parties And The Mediated Settlement

Plaintiff Vivian DeCristoforo was a member of Lindy's Homemade, LLC  and was its former president and CEO.  She and her husband, also an officer of the LLC, sued the LLC, individually and derivatively.  They made claims for a breach of their employment agreements, Wage and Hour violations, tortious interference with their contracts, and violations of fiduciary duty by the individual defendants (who were officers and directors of the LLC).

The parties engaged in mediation in September 2014.  The Plaintiffs said that all parties had settled the case then, although the Defendants challenged that.  The enforceability of the settlement was the issue before the Business Court.

The settlement was reflected by the Mediation Report form cover sheet signed by all of the parties attending the mediation, and two of the attorneys, stating "that a full and final agreement of all issues was reached."  The terms of the settlement were described on an attached "Exhibit A."  Some of the attending parties put their initials on Exhibit A, but one of the individual defendants (Kaye) left the mediation before Exhibit A was finalized and he did not put his initials on it.

That One Of The Defendants Had Left The Mediation Before The Settlement Was Finalized Was Not A Barrier To Its Enforcement

His departure did not affect the enforceability of this settlement.  Judge Gale said:

[t}he Court is not persuaded by Defendants' contention that the settlement can be avoided because Kaye left the mediation before initialing the final Exhibit A.  Kaye left, knowing that the reduction or the terms to paper on Exhibit A was in progress.  His counsel was still present.  There is no indication that he instructed that his signature, reflecting a 'full and final agreement of all issues,' must be withheld until he further assented to Exhibit A.  Under these circumstances, Kaye and Lindy's should be bound to the settlement.

Op. ¶48.

We have all had our clients leave a mediation before all the final details of a settlement have been hammered out.  Planes to catch, traffic to avoid.  Maybe sheer boredom.  Still, it is probably not a good idea to have them leave before all t's and i's have been crossed and dotted.

The Individuals' Signatures -- Which Had No Mention Of Their Authority To Bind The Entities -- Were Sufficient To Bind The LLC And Its Corporate Member

The next question that Judge Gale grappled with was whether the settlement agreement had all of the signatures necessary to bind the parties.  The LLC and its corporate member (Pittco) argued that the signatures of the attendees at the mediation were not sufficient to bind them.  The individuals signing the Mediation Report form did not distinguish whether they were signing in their personal capacities or as representatives of the LLC or its corporate member.

That is contrary to the "nearly universal practice" when transactional documents are involved, which is that "the corporate officer signs twice, once as an officer and again as an individual."  Op. ¶50 (quoting Keels v. Turner, 45 N.C. App. 213, 218, 262 S.E.2d 845, 847 (1980).

Is that the "universal practice" in mediations?  Judge Gale said it was not, writing that:

[o]ften, the time pressures of preparing documents at the end of a long and contentious mediation session require drafting a binding document that does not allow for the same formalities as a transaction completed after multiple document exchanges.  That does not mean, however, that a settlement that the attendees represent to be a full and final resolution of all issues should be easily avoided because of the form of signatures.

Op. ¶50.

So, the Judge concluded that the signatures of the individuals, bearing no reference to their corporate authority, bound both the individual and the corporations they were representing at the mediation. Op. ¶50.

The entities which were Defendants in the DeCristoforo case (the LLC and its corporate member) were hard pressed to argue that the individuals did not have the necessary authority to bind them at the mediation.  Two of the individuals were the members of the LLC's "Special Matters Committee," which had been granted generally the "plenary power" to resolve DeCristoforo's claims and specifically to "execute. . . for and on behalf of [Lindy's] any and all notices, certificates, agreements . . . and other documents or instruments."  One of the Special Matters Committee members also sat on the LLC's Board of Directors, and was Pittco's designee to the LLC Board.

The Lack Of An Agreed Upon Release Did Not Invalidate The Settlement

The Defendants' efforts to evade their settlement did not end here.  They said that the agreement became unenforceable when they were unable to agree on the terms of release following the mediation.  Exhibit A said that there would be "a further statement of. . . complete mutual release." 

The Defendants added terms to the post-mediation release which called for the release of federal claims which were not a part of the Business Court lawsuit and also included terms requiring the Plaintiffs to return corporate documents in their possession, also not mentioned in the terms resulting from the mediated settlement.

Judge Gale found that the language of the Mediation Report was sufficient to release all of the pending claims in the lawsuit and that the voluntary dismissal with prejudice called for by Exhibit A would have the same effect as a release.  Op. ¶57.

 

 

 

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Two Cases: Mixed Success In Getting Fees Awarded In The NC Business Court

There's nothing better than winning a case or a motion in Court and to then follow that up with an award of attorneys' fees.  On that subject, two rulings in the Business Court last week addressed the award of attorneys' fees.  In one, the party requesting fees received them.  In the other, fees were not awarded.

Fees For An Inspection Request

If you are moving for the inspection of corporate records for a shareholder, don't forget that the statute provides for your clients to be paid their fees.  Section 55A-16-04 of the General Statutes provides that the Court "shall also order the corporation to pay the member's cost (including reasonable attorneys' fees) incurred to obtain the order unless the corporation proves that it refused inspection in good faith because it had a reasonable basis about the right of the member to inspect the records demanded."

The Plaintiffs in Allcorn v. Bradley Creek Boatominium, Inc. -- previously successful on a motion to obtain inspection of the Defendant's corporate records -- moved for an award of attorneys' fees.

In an unpublished Order last week, Judge McGuire agreed that the Defendant had lacked a reasonable basis to withhold the records, and he awarded the Plaintiffs $14, 620.16 for their fees, the full amount they requested.  The Defendant corporation claimed that it had a good faith basis for refusing to produce its records -- that it was concerned that the Plaintiffs would misrepresent the contents of the records -- but Judge McGuire did not find that concern to excuse its failure to produce the documents.

Fees For A Voluntarily Dismissed Trade Secrets Case

The outcome wasn't as positive for the Defendant moving for attorneys' fees in a trade secrets case, Velocity Solutions, Inc. v. BSG, LLC, 2015 NCBC 51. Section 66-145(d) allows for reasonable attorneys' fees to be awarded to the "prevailing party" in a trade secrets case "if a claim of misappropriation is made in bad faith or if willful and malicious misappropriation exists."

There have not been any previous decisions in the Velocity case to write about, because Velocity took a voluntary dismissal without prejudice of its case, which included claims for misappropriation of trade secrets, in December 2014.

Whoa.  Are you a prevailing party if the other side takes a voluntary dismissal?  Judge Gale specifically declined to answer that question, finding other reasons to deny the Motion.  Op. ¶44 & n.2.

But Judge Gale did wade into the question of what constitutes "bad faith" under the statute, which the statute does not define.  The courts of other states that have enacted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (on which the NC law is based), have looked for both "objective speciousness" and "subjective bad faith."  Op. ¶45.  Judge Gale, looking at appellate construction of the term "bad faith" under the unfair and deceptive trade practices statute concluded "there was no indication that our appellate courts would require a determination of subjective bad faith."  Op. ¶47.

The fee request boiled down to the issue of specificity, which is always an issue in pleading a trade secrets claim.  While the Court considered its recent opinions dealing with whether a pleading described the allegedly misappropriated trade secret with enough specificity to avoid a dismissal under Rule 12 (the second DSM Dyneema decision) or to allow discovery to move forward under Rule 26 (the first DSM Dyneema decision), it found that a "third standard" should be applied in considering whether fees are warranted:

whether the pleading was, when filed, devoid of factual or legal sufficiency or was brought or maintained in bad faith for an improper purpose.

Op. ¶51.

Judge Gale found that the Plaintiffs had "an adequate factual and legal basis to form a reasonable, good faith belief in the merits of their claim." and that this reasonable and good faith belief precluded the imposition of sanctions under G.S. §66-154(d).

That good faith belief was supported by Plaintiffs' affidavits attesting to twenty interviews before filing the Complaint, their review of publicly available information about the Defendant's product and other investigation.  Op. ¶24.

This probably won't be the last time that you hear about the Velocity case on this blog.  The Plaintiff has refiled its case, though its new Complaint makes no trade secrets claims.