Is Your Client's Customer Information A Trade Secret? Maybe, If You Plead It Specifically Enough.

I have remarked before how hard the Business Court has been on Plaintiffs making trade secrets claims.   You can look here and here for example of these prior posts.  The Court has often dismissed trade secrets claims on a 12(b)(6) Motion because the trade secrets were not described with sufficient particularity.

This week, in Le Bleu Corp. v. B. Kelley Enterprises, Inc., 2014 NCBC 65, Judge Gale stopped short of granting a Motion to Dismiss a trade secrets claim, but nevertheless ordered the Plaintiffs to provide a more definite statement describing their alleged trade secrets in their customer information.

The parties in the case are engaged in the manufacture, sale, and distribution of bottled water in the Southeastern United States.  The trade secrets claimed were Plaintiffs' "customer lists, pricing information, transaction histories, key contacts, and customer leads."  First Amended Complaint ¶30. 

That would seem to be enough of a description of customer information to make out a trade secrets claim.  The NC Court of Appeals had held, just last year, that allegations of misappropriation of "pricing information, customer proposals, historical costs, and sales data" is a sufficient identification of alleged trade secrets. GE Betz, Inc. v. Conrad, __ N.C. App. __, 752 S.E.2d 634, 648-49 (2013). Also, the Business Court had held, in one of its early opinions, that customer information "including the identity, contacts and requirements" of customers can constitute a trade secret.  Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Head & Engquist Equip., LLC, 2002 NCBC 2 at *38, 41-42.

But notwithstanding that authority, Judge Gale was not satisfied that the Plaintiffs' description of their claimed trade secrets was sufficient to support their claim.  He ruled that:

whether 'pricing information, transaction histories, key contacts, and customer leads,' actually constitute trade secrets depends upon the contents of the materials at issue. A price list may constitute a trade secret where it contains pricing information, market forecasts, and feasibility studies, but may not if it consists of raw information without any methodology.

Op. ¶26.

He directed, with regard to the two lists which the Plaintiffs claimed were the trade secrets that had been misappropriated, that they  provide, within twenty days, a more definite statement "that specifically describes the contents of both lists and why the information is entitled to trade secret protection."  Order ¶33.

 

Trade Secrets Cases In The NC Business Court: You Show Me Yours Before I'll Show You Mine

There's a new roadblock for plaintiffs in the Business Court suing over trade secrets.  It was imposed last week by Judge Bledsoe in DSM Dyneema, LLC v. Thagard, 2014 NCBC 50, and it bars the plaintiff from proceeding with discovery until the trade secrets allegedly being misused by the defendant are identified with "sufficient particularity."

There is nothing new in requiring particularity in trade secrets claims.  The Business Court has frequently granted motions to dismiss trade secrets claims because the alleged trade secrets were not identified with sufficient particularity, but it had never refused to allow discovery on this basis, at least until the Dyneema decision.

Dyneema had sued its former employee, Thagard, and his new employers, three Honeywell companies, alleging misappropriation of its trade secrets for  the development of ballistic fibers for use in enhanced combat helmets ("ECH").

When the Honeywell Defendants were served with discovery, they objected and refused to produce responsive documents relating to their own methods of producing ECH (which they said were their own trade secrets) on the ground that the Plaintiff had not identified with sufficient particularity the trade secrets which it was saying had been misappropriated.

Judge Bledsoe examined a variety of federal court decisions on the point of when discovery is appropriate in a trade secrets case, and he found the "cases requiring pre-discovery disclosure of trade secrets persuasive."  ¶21.  The reasons supporting this bar to discovery until the plaintiff's trade secrets have been described in sufficient detail included:

  • prevent[ing] fishing expeditions into a competitor defendant's trade secret;
  • deny[ing] a plaintiff the opportunity to craft a trade secret claim to fit the evidence from the defendant;
  • prevent[ing] 'needless exposure of the defendant's trade secrets'; and
  • allow[ing] well-investigated claims to proceed while discouraging meritless trade secrets claims.

Op. ¶18.

The Judge recognized that there are countervailing reasons to allow discovery to proceed, including "the inherent difficulty in certain situations of identifying what portions of trade secrets have been misappropriated prior to receipt of discovery from defendants."  Op. ¶19.

So, how "particular" does a trade secrets plaintiff need to be in identifying its trade secrets with "sufficient particularity"?  The answer is that there is no clear answer.  Judge Bledsoe set an outer boundary, saying that a plaintiff does not need to "define every minute detail of its trade secrets down to the finest detail."  Op. ¶23 (quoting Prolifiq Software Inc. v. Veeva Sys. Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77493, *5 (N.D. Cal., June 4, 2014),

Short of that standard, it is hard to say what would meet the Court's approval in the future.  What  Dyneema did offer fell short, notwithstanding a full single spaced page describing its claimed trade secrets.  Op. ¶8.  Court found this description, despite its length, to "simply identify features that are common to all ballistic materials or common to the development and manufacture of ballistic materials." Op. ¶22.

Judge Bledsoe held that Dyneema had to:

specifically describe “what particular combination of components renders each of its
designs novel or unique, how the components are combined, and how they operate
in unique combination”

before it could go forward with discovery of the Defendants’ trade secrets.  Op. ¶24 (quoting Switch Commc’ns Grp. v. Ballard, 2012 WL 2342929, at *4 (D. Nev. June 19, 2012).

So, if you are representing a trade secrets plaintiff in the Business Court, plan on disclosing more about your client's trade secrets than your client would prefer.  Not every "minute detail," but a lot of details.

 

 

Business Court Awards Nominal Damages After Noncompete Bench Trial

An award of damages for breach of a noncompete agreement, like any other damages award, requires evidentiary support.  In a judgment issued yesterday after a bench trial, the Business Court awarded the plaintiffs nominal damages absent such evidence.

In HILB Rogal & Hobbs Co. v. Sellars, the Court faced a common factual scenario:  a former vice president of the plaintiffs resigned and went to work for a direct competitor.  The businesses in question were insurance companies targeting building materials suppliers.  The plaintiff and defendant executed an employment agreement that contained standard restrictions on post-employment competition and on the use of confidential business information.

Two days after interviewing for the competitor's job, the defendant

copied the entire hard drive of his work computer, which contained, among other things, confidential and proprietary information about [plaintiffs'] Lumber Program accounts and business strategies, including account files and lists, policy expiration dates, policy terms, conditions and rates, internal and external pricing and profit margins, information relating to accounts’ risk characteristics, and carrier information.

He resigned two weeks later and went to work for the competitor, taking the confidential information with him.  (The Court ordered him to return the confidential information in 2008).

Plaintiffs asserted claims for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and unfair & deceptive trade practices, and defendant counterclaimed for breach of contract for unpaid salary.  Judge Diaz applied New York law to the claims.

During the lawsuit, the defendant took two Rule 30(b)(6) depositions of the plaintiffs concerning their claimed damages.  At those depositions, the witness, another vice president of plaintiffs, disclaimed lost profits, as did counsel for the plaintiffs.  The witness did not know of the origin or calculation of two summary exhibits that plaintiffs attempted to use at the bench trial -- those exhibits were prepared by other employees, none of whom testified at trial.  Judge Diaz noted at least eleven unexplained discrepancies between the two exhibits.  Moreover, the Rule 30(b)(6) witness "could not rule out the possibility that the damages exhibits contained amounts for lost revenues for business that Plaintiffs could not underwrite, irrespective of [defendant's] alleged breach of the Employment Agreement."

The damages witness suddenly became unavailable for trial due to the pre-trial but post-discovery termination of his employment -- he declined to appear voluntarily, and he was outside the Court's subpoena power.  The plaintiffs attempted to notice a de bene esse deposition less than one month before trial.  The Court quashed the notice of deposition based on a month-long delay between plaintiffs' awareness of the witness's unavailability and the issuance of the notice, as well as the fact that the Court already had continued the trial once to allow de bene esse depositions to occur.  Thus, plaintiffs had to rely upon his deposition testimony.

Although the plaintiffs proved that the defendant breached his fiduciary duty and breached the employment agreement by copying the contents of his hard drive before resigning, the Court held that there was insufficient evidence of damages.  Under New York law, breach of fiduciary duty damages "are limited to profits lost from the actual diversion of customers," a damages theory that the plaintiffs waived. The Court awarded $1 in damages for the breach of contract claim.

Although the plaintiffs attempted to rely on a liquidated damages formula in the employment agreement, the Court similarly held that they had not provided sufficient evidence of the components of that formula.  Specifically, the Court rejected the argument that the summary exhibits were admissible business records under Rule 803(6) because the Rule 30(b)(6) witness did not lay any foundation for admissibility or for the reliability of the figures contained in the exhibits.  The Court awarded $1 in damages for the breach of contract claim.

The Court rejected the unfair and deceptive trade practices claim, holding that North Carolina's Chapter 75 was inapplicable under the "most significant relationship test" and that, even if it applied, the lack of actual damages was fatal to a UDTP claim.  Likewise, the Court found no basis to award punitive damages or attorneys' fees.

As for the counterclaim, the employee asserted that he was entitled to over $94,000 in unpaid salary.  The plaintiffs responded that an interim $50,000 payment constituted an accord and satisfaction.  The Court rejected plaintiffs' defense on the grounds that they failed to prove that the $50,000 was intended to settle all compensation claims or that the defendant was informed of that intention before he accepted the check.  Instead, the Court offset the $50,000 payment from the employee's salary claim and awarded him the balance.

Although the claims on both sides arose under New York law, there is no apparent reason why the result would be different under North Carolina law.  In either event, enforcement of a noncompete provision can prove to be an expensive proposition (here, two and a half years of litigation), particularly where the former employee has counterclaims.

Full Order and Judgment

[UPDATE:  In an Order dated July 6, 2010, Judge Diaz denied the company's motion to reconsider the ruling on the employee's counterclaim].

Napco, Inc. v. PBM Graphics, Inc., November 19, 2009 (Diaz)(unpublished)

The Court denied a Motion for Preliminary Injunction under the North Carolina Trade Secrets Protection Act.

Plaintiff had failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits, for a number of reasons. First, the manufacturing process which Plaintiff claimed was a trade secret was not meeting the requirements of the third party buyer involved, which caused the Defendant to develop its own process. Second, there was evidence that some of the technology was widely known and used in the industry. Finally, Plaintiff had never insisted on a confidentiality agreement to protect the claimed trade secret information and had in fact shared some of the information with the Defendant. The Defendant's signature on logs stating that it might be exposed to trade secret information was insufficient.

The Plaintiff had furthermore failed to show irreparable harm, given that its claim was that the Defendant had misappropriated the process in order to sell to their common customer. The Court held that "it should be relatively simple for Plaintiff to calculate its damages, which will be measured either by Plaintiff’s lost profits or the extent of Defendant’s unjust enrichment resulting from the alleged violation of the NCTSPA."

Full Opinion

Brief in Support of Motion for Preliminary Injunction

Brief in Opposition to Motion for Preliminary Injunction

Business Court Grants Summary Judgment In Trade Secrets Case

The Business Court granted summary judgment on Plaintiff's trade secrets claim yesterday in Edgewater Services, Inc. v. Epic Logistics, Inc., 2009 NCBC 20 (N.C. Super. Ct. August 11, 2009). It also dismissed Plaintiff's claim for punitive damages.

Plaintiff Edgewater and Defendant Epic are third party logistics companies, arranging for transportation of freight for their customers. Epic handled less than truckload (LTL) shipping. Edgewater's specialty was truckload (TL) freight.

The two companies had an oral agreement for Epic to refer TL shipments to Edgewater, and for Edgewater to refer LTL shipments to Epic. In 2004, an Edgewater employee named Osgood decided to leave Edgewater and join Epic, and Epic then began to move into the TL side of the business.

Edgewater sued, contending that Epic had misappropriated its trade secrets, which it said consisted of information regarding the carriers it used, the rates charged for TL and LTL shipments, and its customer files. Edgewater's president later conceded at her deposition that only the rate information could be considered a trade secret.

Judge Jolly granted summary judgment to Epic on the trade secrets claim, ruling that:

The rate information was not a trade secret, because rates changed as variables like the cost of fuel and insurance changed.

The rate information didn't constitute trade secrets because there was no evidence that Edgewater expended any significant amount of effort or money in developing the information outside of its cost of doing business.

Edgewater didn't take reasonable steps to maintain the secrecy of the information: its customers and carriers weren't required to keep the information confidential; and the information on rates was kept in an unlocked file room accessible to anyone.

On the punitive damages claim, G.S. §1D-15(a) required Plaintiff to show malice and willful or wanton conduct. Its evidence consisted only of its president's "feeling" that the Defendants "were greedy and trying to get something that they didn't have to pay for." Judge Jolly ruled this was insufficient to meet the statutory requirement that evidence supporting punitive damages be "clear and convincing."

There were two earlier rulings in this case: a May 2007 ruling involved the discoverability of  psychiatric records, and an October 2007 ruling involved the enforceability of a covenant not to compete.

Taking The Fifth Results In Adverse Inference And Entry Of Preliminary Injunction In Trade Secrets Case

The Defendant's exercise of his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination was the basis for the North Carolina Business Court's entry of a Preliminary Injunction on October 29th in Amacell LLC v. Bostic.

Plaintiff asserted that its former employee, a senior research scientist, had misappropriated trade secrets and violated a confidentiality agreement.  The Defendant didn't deny the misconduct alleged, but instead invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Judge Tennille drew an adverse inference as a result of the Defendant's refusal to testify and entered the Preliminary Injunction, holding:

In a civil case, adverse inferences may be drawn against a party who asserts the Fifth Amendment and remains silent.  Baxter v. Palmigiano, 425 U.S. 308, 318 (1976) (“the Fifth Amendment does not forbid adverse inferences against parties to civil actions when they refuse to testify in response to probative evidence offered against them”); see Arminius Schleifmittel GMBH v. Design Indus., Inc., 2007 WL 534573 (M.D.N.C. Feb. 15, 2007) (granting injunction against defendant who asserted Fifth Amendment privilege because by asserting the privilege he rendered plaintiff’s factual presentation unrebutted). Because Bostic has not rebutted Plaintiff’s evidence, Plaintiff has established a likelihood of success on the merits of its claims for misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of his confidentiality agreement.

Order at 3.

The Business Court also dealt with the Fifth Amendment in the context of civil litigation in its opinion in Sports Quest, Inc. v. Dale Earnhardt, Inc., 2004 NCBC 3 (N.C. Super. Ct. Feb. 12, 2004), where the Court held that a plaintiff who refused to testify about certain matters could not testify about them at trial, and that it would give an adverse inference instruction.

 

Gateway Management Services, Ltd. v. Advanced Lubrication Technology, Inc., June 19, 2008 (Tennille)(unpublished)

There was no tortious interference contract claim against a defendant who sold product to plaintiff's competitor.  This was a legitimate exercise of the defendant's rights.

There was no claim for negligence, or negligent misrepresentation, against the defendant because the plaintiff's claims were for breach of warranty and covered by the UCC, and also because of the economic loss rule.  Judge Tennille held:

This is a breach of warranty case. The complaint alleges any statements were made in the course of the contractual representation. It fails to establish any independent duty running from ALT to Gateway. To substitute negligent misrepresentation for breach of warranty under the circumstances of this case would eviscerate the pertinent sections of the UCC. Both the negligent misrepresentation claim and the negligence claim in Count VI are barred by the economic loss rule. Both are based upon a breach of contract or warranty and the recovery is limited to the contract or warranty claim. Our Court of Appeals has held that: “a tort action does not lie against a party to a contract who simply fails to properly perform the terms of the contract.” Spillman v. Am. Homes of Mocksville, Inc., 108 N.C. App. 63, 65, 422 S.E.2d 740, 741 (1992).

A trade secrets claim, which asserted that defendant had improperly given plaintiff's customer list to a competitor of plaintiff, survived the Motion to Dismiss. The Court held that "[c]ustomer lists may or may not be trade secrets depending on the circumstances and the use made of them," and held that discovery on this claim would be necessary.

Full Opinion

Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss

Brief in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

Reply Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss

A Claim For Misappropriation Of Trade Secrets Must Be Plead With "Sufficient Particularity"

The Court of Appeals affirmed yesterday a 12(b)(6) dismissal of a claim under the North Carolina Trade Secrets Protection Act, in Washburn v. Yadkin Valley Bank and Trust Co. 

In Washburn, the Defendant had made a counterclaim charging that the Plaintiffs, former employees, had misappropriated its trade secrets.  The trade secrets the Defendant referenced in its Complaint were its "business methods; clients, their specific requirements and needs; and other confidential information."

The Court held that the Defendant was under an obligation to identify the trade secrets involved with "sufficient particularity to enable [the opposing party] to delineate that which he is accused of misappropriating and a court to determine whether misappropriation has or is threatened to occur." 

The Court characterized Defendant's allegations as "broad and vague," and "general and conclusory."  It affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the claims.

The case was summarized on the North Carolina Appellate Blog.  That's an excellent resource which reports promptly on civil decisions by the North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Battleground Veterinary Hospital, P.C. v. McGeough, 2007 NCBC 33 (N.C. Super. Ct. Oct. 19, 2007)(Diaz)

Defendant, a veterinarian, had signed a covenant not to compete with his former employer. He was, at the time, the sole shareholder, sole officer, and sole director of his employer, although the management of the company was controlled by an affiliated entity (VetCor). Defendant left the business and sold its stock, but before doing so he formally cancelled his own non-compete and that of his wife, another veterinarian.

His former employer sued for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, unfair and deceptive practices, and violation of the North Carolina Trade Secrets Protection Act. The Court granted summary judgment on the breach of contract claim as to the former employer. It held that "a sole shareholder of a corporation is generally free to dispose of corporate assets as he sees fit, except where such actions harm or defraud the corporation's creditors, or otherwise violate public policy." Vetcor, however, was entitled to proceed on its breach of contract claim, because the contract had been intended for its benefit.

The Court held that summary judgment was inappropriate on the argument that the covenants were unenforceable becasue they had been signed after the commencement of employment. The date on the contracts was contemporaneous with the start of employment of defendant and his wife, and the Court held that the dates in the contract were prima facie evidence of the date of execution. The Court said that it would consider parol evidence on the actual date that the contracts were signed.

The Court also found that the covenants were ambiguous about whether they applied in the event of a resignation, as opposed to a termination, and that this was an issue for trial.

The Court granted summary judgment on the fiduciary duty claims. Defendant had no fiduciary duty to Vetcor, which was merely a creditor of a corporation that was not in a winding up mode, and he had not breached any duty to his former employer because he was the sole shareholder at the time of his alleged misconduct in setting up a competing business. The Court held that "to hold that [defendant] breached a fiduciary duty would mean only that he breached a duty to himself. Because this conclusion is a non sequitur, the Court declines to adopt it."

On the trade secrets claim, the Court ruled that customer lists are not protected if they contain information that is easily accessible or which can be retrieved by reviewing public information, and that plaintiff had no claim.

The Court let stand the unfair and deceptive practices claim, finding questions of fact on whether defendant was entitled to invoke the learned profession exemption from the statute.

Full Opinion

Mechanical Systems & Services, Inc. v. Carolina Air Solutions, L.L.C., 2003 NCBC 9 (N.C. Super. Ct. Dec. 3, 2003)(Tennille)

Plaintiff sought to enforce the stock repurchase provisions of a shareholders agreement with two former employees, the defendants. The Court found, however, that the price to be paid ($5 for stock with a book value of more than $36,000), and the circumstances under which the defendants had signed the agreement, rendered the transaction unconscionable. The Court further found, however, that there was no mandatory buyback obligation of the plaintiff.

The Court granted summary judgment on plaintiff's claims that the defendants had violated fiduciary duties through their post-termination activities. As low level employees, defendants had no fiduciary duties as a result of their employment.

Nor had defendants violated any trade secret obligations by bidding on a contract where bidding was open to the public.

Full Opinion

Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Head & Enquist Equipment, L.L.C., 2003 NCBC 4 (N.C. Super. Ct. May 2, 2003)(Tennille)

The Court found that the actions of the defendants in pirating away employees and accounts of the plaintiff exceeded the bounds of fair and ethical competition and therefore constitute unfair and deceptive practices.

The Court referred to defendants' conduct as "surreptitious and intentional," and undertaken while the employees solicited were still employed by the plaintiff. This activity had enabled the plaintiff to build competitive operations in a matter of days, through its "orchestrated, en masse, secret recruitment."

On the trade secret claim, the Court found that the plaintiffs' "compilation of information, including its special pricing information, customer information (identity, contacts and requirements of its rental customers), personnel and salary information, organizational structure, financial projections and forecasts, utilization rates, fleet mix by market, capital and branch budget information, and cost information, when taken together constitutes trade secrets."

The Court also found sufficient evidence to make out a claim for conspiracy.

The Court rejected defendants' claim that the claims were barred by laches. It also rejected defendants' counterclaim that the lawsuit was a sham and brought to hurt its business. The Court found that the lawsuit had been brought with a realistic expectation of success and that it was immunized under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine.

Finally, the Court drew an adverse inference from the failure of some of the defendants to testify.

Full Opinion

Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Head & Enquist Equipment, L.L.C., 2002 NCBC 4 (N.C. Super. Ct. July 10, 2002)(Tennille)

This is a significant Business Court opinion on unfair competition. The defendants were a competitor of the plaintiff, and former employees of the plaintiff who had left to join the defendant. The first issue addressed by the Court was whether the former employees owed a fiduciary duty to their former employer. The Court found there was a question of fact whether the former employees who had served in management positions had the ability to dominate and influence their former employer, so it denied summary judgment on the issue whether those employees had fiduciary duties. Summary judgment was granted, however, as to some of the employees who the Court found had only basic management responsibilities. Authority over day to day operations, even with substantial discretion over such operations, is insufficient to make out a fiduciary duty.

On the merits of the claims, the Court noted that merely planning to work for another company or planning to start a new company is not unlawful behavior. The proper focus, the Court held, is upon the actions taken by the former employees in furtherance of a plan to compete. The Court granted summary judgment as to the employees who it had found might have had a fiduciary duty, as the only evidence before the Court of their pre-departure activities was that they had met and discussed the possibility of competing.

The Court denied summary judgment on plaintiff's claim of tortious interference with prospective economic relations.

The claim for violation of the North Carolina Trade Secrets Protection Act also survived. The Court found that business plans, marketing strategies, and customer information could constitute confidential information protected under the Act. The substantial decrease in plaintiff's business, and the simultaneous increase in defendant's business, constituted circumstantial evidence that there had been a misappropriation.

A claim for unfair and deceptive practices also survived summary judgment, as did a claim for conspiracy. The Court denied summary judgment based on the defense of laches, finding that there had not been an unreasonable delay in bringing suit and that defendant was unable to show any prejudice as a result of the alleged delay.

Full Opinion

Reply Brief in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment

(All other briefs were filed under seal)