Defending A Former Employee On a Non-Compete Or For Misappropriation Of Trade Secrets? Read This.

Do you really have to rush to Court to obtain an injunction for a misappropriation of trade secrets?  Maybe not.  But for an injunction enforcing a non-compete agreement, maybe yes.  The Plaintiff in American Air Filter Co. v. Price, 2017 NCBC 9 didn't get its non-compete enforced (partly due to its delay in filing suit), but that same delay didn't prevent it from getting an injunction to block its former employee from disclosing its trade secrets to his new employer.

Employers Who Wait Too Long To Seek An Injunction To Enforce A Non-Compete Run A Risk

First, as to non-compete agreements, it's best to move quickly if you want to enjoin a former employee from violating her covenant not to compete.  The Plaintiff in American Air Filter Co. v. Price waited nearly four months to seek a preliminary injunction.  Judge McGuire said its lack of urgency refuted its claim of the irreparable harm essential to the entry of an injunction.

He said that:

It is . . . significant that Plaintiff learned Price was employed with [a competitor] in late August, 2016, but did not file this action until November, 2016, did not seek a TRO to enforce the non-competition covenant, and did not move for a preliminary injunction until December 9, 2016. Plaintiff’s lack of urgency in seeking injunctive relief counsels against the idea that it is likely to suffer irreparable harm.

Op. ¶29 (emphasis added). 

The same delay didn't affect Plaintiff's proof of irreparable harm as to the threatened disclosure of its trade secrets.  Judge McGuire said that:   

The acquisition and potential disclosure or use of the information in Plaintiff’s confidential databases, which contain extensive data collected by Plaintiff from its customers and proprietary costing formulas, would cause irreparable harm to the Plaintiff.
      Op. 51.

Defending A Former Employee Accused Of Misappropriating Trade Secrets

The more interesting points of American Air Filter concern what is necessary to make out the requisites for a trade secrets injunction, and how a former employee can defend against one.

First, Judge McGuire held that it is not necessary to show that misappropriation of a trade secret  has actually occurred in order to obtain an injunction under the TSPA.  Op. 40.  There's nothing groundbreaking here.  The COA held in  Horner Int’l Co. v. McKoy, 232 N.C. App. 559, 569-70, 754 S.E.2d 852, 859-60 (2014), that a "threat of misappropriation was sufficient to warrant an injunction under the TPSA.  And the language of the statute itself does not require actual misappropriation for an injunction.  It says that "actual or threatened misappropriation of a trade secret may be preliminarily enjoined."  N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-154(a).

Rebutting The Trade Secret Plaintiff's Burden Of Proof

There is a difficult issue regarding the burden of proof in making out a trade secrets case.  You might think that would be an easy matter.  After all, North Carolina's version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act contains a provision titled "burden of proof." That provision is not present in the Uniform Act.  It says that:

Misappropriation of a trade secret is prima facie established by the introduction of substantial evidence that the person against whom relief is sought both:

(1)        Knows or should have known of the trade secret; and

(2)        Has had a specific opportunity to acquire it for disclosure or use or has acquired, disclosed, or used it without the express or implied consent or authority of the owner. 

This prima facie evidence is rebutted by the introduction of substantial evidence that the person against whom relief is sought acquired the information comprising the trade secret by independent development, reverse engineering, or it was obtained from another person with a right to disclose the trade secret. This section shall not be construed to deprive the person against whom relief is sought of any other defenses provided under the law. 

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-155.

All of the bases for rebuttal of the prima facie case in North Carolina's statute assume that the Defendant has acquired the trade secrets.  What about a Defendant who had access to the trade secrets but defends on the basis that she never acquired or used trade secrets at all? Are there any other ways to rebut the prima facie case than those specified in the statute?

Judge McGuire framed the problem this way:

If these grounds were exclusive, an absurd result would follow: Every employee in North Carolina who had access to her employer's trade secrets but did not acquire them would have to go to trial to fend off the employer's claim of misappropriation.

Op. 42 (quoting RLM Communications, Inc. v. Tuschen, 831 F.3d 190, 200-01 (4th Cir. 2016).

The author of the RLM decision from the Fourth Circuit relied upon by Judge McGuire, navigating in territory without precedent for a guide, said that "[w]e do not think the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which has not had occasion to consider the meaning of the statute, would adopt such an interpretation." 

If your reaction, like mine, was what expertise could a federal Fourth Circuit Judge have to offer regarding how the NC Supreme Court might interpret North Carolina state trade secrets law, we are wrong.  The author of the RLM decision was Judge Albert Diaz.  If you don't remember Judge Diaz, he was a former (the second) Judge on the NC Business Court. He was nominated by President Obama in 2009 to serve on the Fourth Circuit and confirmed not long after his nomination.

So what is the standard applied to a former employee who admits that he had access to trade secrets, but defends on the basis that he did not acquire them?  Judge McGuire, relying on the RLM decision, said that:

Evidence that a former employee had access to, and therefore an 'opportunity to acquire,' an employer’s trade secrets, without more, is not sufficient to establish a prima facie case of misappropriation.  Rather, the employer must establish either that the former employee accessed its trade secrets without authorization or provide other sufficient evidence of misappropriation to raise an inference of actual acquisition or use of its trade secrets. 
Op. 45 (emphasis added).

Adopting that somewhat more difficult standard didn't help the Defendant before Judge McGuire.  He was working for a direct competitor of the Plaintiff in pretty much the same job he had held with the Plaintiff.  The Defendant had continued to access the Plaintiff's computer systems after being offered a job by the corporate Defendant.  Also, when the individual Defendant resigned from the Plaintiff, he didn't inform his employer that he was going to work for a competitor.  And he continued to access Plaintiff's trade secret information after he resigned.
 
Judge McGuire found that these facts established a likelihood of success on the merits, and granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the individual Defendant from disclosing the Plaintiff's trade secrets.
 

 

It Can Be A Tough Road For Trade Secrets Plaintiffs In The NC Business Court

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that litigating a trade secrets case in the Business Court can be tough.  Last year, the Court barred a plaintiff from engaging in any discovery at all until it identified its allegedly misappropriated trade secrets with sufficient particularity.  And the Court has frequently dismissed trade secrets claims altogether because they weren't pled with the necessary degree of particularity.

Judge Bledsoe made it even tougher for trade secrets plaintiffs earlier this month, in SciGrip, Inc. v. Osae, 2015 NCBC 86.  SciGrip develops and produces "acrylic-based structural adhesives that are used in the marine and other industries to bond fiberglass and other material together."  Op. ¶2.

SciGrip sued its former employee, Osae, for allegedly disclosing its trade secrets to his new employer, Engineered Bonding Solutions, LLC ("EBS"), a direct competitor of SciGrip.  Osae obtained a 25% membership interest in the EBS LLC as a part of his employment. 

SciGrip sought to obtain information regarding EBS' manufacturing processes from Osae.  Osae had that information, which he said involved EBS' trade secrets, on his computer.  Osae said that the computer was owned by EBS and that he couldn't be forced to disclose EBS' trade secret information.

You are probably thinking that since Osae had possession of the documents (on the computer he was using), that he has the "possession, custody, or control" of the material which was the subject of the discovery requests and that he should be forced to provide it.  Those are the "magic words" of Rule 34 of the NC Rules of Civil Procedure, after all.

Plaintiff Couldn't Force Production Of A Non-Party's Trade Secret Information From Its Employee

But Judge Bledsoe said that this discovery request "present[ed] a highly unique scenario.," and held that:

[h]ere, Plaintiffs seek to discover trade secret and proprietary information of their direct competitor solely through one of its employees.  Typically, when a company alleges trade secret violations by an employee who has departed and begun employment with a competitor, the competitor is either joined as a party in the lawsuit or, if the competitor is a non-party, the company seeks discovery of the competitor's documents from the competitor itself through a third-party subpoena under Rule 45.

Op. ¶17.  The Judge observed that "obtaining trade secret information from a non-party competitor is preferable under Rule 45 because Rule 45 affords greater protections to non-parties.  Op. ¶19.  It is certainly true that Rule 45 provides some protection to a person responding to a subpoena.  Among other things, the Court can compensate the person unduly burdened by the subpoena for lost earnings and for reasonable attorney's fees.  Rule 45(c)(1).

The ultimate holding of the Court was that:

the Court declines to compel production of trade secret and proprietary information of a non-party competitor where the plaintiff seeks such information through an employee's possession of a company laptop and the non-party competitor has refused to submit to North Carolina jurisdiction.

Op. ¶20.

Why wasn't Osae's possession of the trade secret information enough to force him to produce it?  Judge Bledsoe said the following:

[i]]n a workforce where employees have access to a multitude of company documents through any number of portable electronic devices, the traditional line between possession and access has been blurred.

Op. ¶18.

But don't forget that the party claiming to have trade secrets must make "efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy."  N.C. Gen. Stat. sec. 66-152(3)(b).  So don't advise your clients that they can maintain trade secret protection if they make thumb drives or laptops containing their trade secrets indiscriminately available to their workforce.

Plaintiff's Arguments That It Could Compel Production Of The Trade Secret Information Due To Osae's Status As An Agent And As An LLC Member Also Failed

Plaintiff made what seemed like a very good argument that Osae was the agent of EBS and that he therefore had the authority to turn over EBS' trade secret information.  Judge Bledsoe disagreed, saying that "this Court has found no authority compelling an agent to turn over his principal's confidential trade secret information."  Op. ¶23.

And what about Osae's membership interest in EBS?  Wasn't that status sufficient to give him the authority to produce EBS' information?  Judge Bledsoe said no, citing again the lack of authority empowering him to do so:

Plaintiffs have not pointed to any North Carolina or persuasive authority finding that a person's status as an agent, employee, minority shareholder, or part owner of  a company equates to 'possession, custody, or control' of the company's confidential or proprietary documents for purposes of discovery.

Op. ¶27.

SciGrip had not made EBS a co-defendant with Osae because EBS disputed that it was subject to jurisdiction in North Carolina.  SciGrip has gone ahead and sued EBS in EBS' home state of Florida, however, and has already served EBS with a subpoena there.

In the event that "all reasonable efforts to obtain the documents from EBS fail[]," the Court said that SciGrip could renew its motion.

How Concerned Should You Be About This Decision?

I don't read this decision to impede discovery from employees of a plaintiff's competitor.  It is literally limited to trade secret material on a laptop owned by an out-of-state entity which is not subject to jurisdiction in North Carolina.  I don't think that you will face that situation very often.

 

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.

 

Two Claims You May Not Want To Make In North Carolina

I said yesterday that there was too much in DSM Dyneema, LLC v. Thagard, 2015 NCBC 47 for just one post, so here are the rest of the key points from the case.  They involve two claims you might not want to bother to make in North Carolina -- the first one suing a former employee for violation of fiduciary duty -- and the second a claim resting on the "inevitable disclosure doctrine."

Uncertainty About The Availability Of The Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine

Beware of relying on the "inevitable disclosure doctrine."  Judge Bledsoe points out that the doctrine "has not yet been firmly adopted by the North Carolina courts."  Op. ¶20 & n.4.  I think of the inevitable disclosure argument as an end run for a client which didn't get a non-compete agreement from a departing employee but wished that it had. 

The NC Court of Appeals, although it has yet to accept the doctrine, has described it as applying:

when an employee who knows trade secrets of his employer leaves that employer for a competitor and, because of the similarity of the employee's work for the two companies, it is "inevitable" that he will use or disclose trade secrets of the first employer. See K. Roberson, South Carolina's Inevitable Adoption of the Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine: Balancing Protection of Trade Secrets with Freedom of Employment, 52 S.C.L. Rev. 895 (2001).

Op. ¶20 & n.4 (quoting Analog Devices, Inc. v. Michalski, 157 N.C. App. 462, 470, 579 S.E.2d 449, 454 (N.C. Ct. App. 2003).

Judge Bledsoe was able to avoid deciding whether the doctrine applies in NC, even though the Defendants argued on their Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings that the Plaintiff had pled little more than that its former employee had left its employment and would inevitably disclose its trade secrets to his new employer, a competitor.

The Judge found that there was more than just the "inevitability" of disclosure since the Defendants after hiring away Thagard (Plaintiff's former chief scientist and "technical leader"), were suddenly able to pass a ballistics test for combat helmets used by the Department of Defense.  Before that hiring, the Defendants and all of the Plaintiff's other competitors, had failed that test.  Plaintiff had the only process in its industry which yielded an acceptable helmet.  There were also allegations in the Complaint that Thagard had downloaded trade secret information from his company computer before leaving the Plaintiff, and that he had disclosed that information to the Honeywell Defendants.

So, before making a claim based solely on the inevitable disclosure doctrine, take into account that North Caroline may not recognize the doctrine.

Fiduciary Duty

This second DSM Dyneema decision also contains a completely unsurprising ruling that Defendant Thagard did not owe a fiduciary duty to his former employer.

The NC Supreme Court pretty much ruled that an employee has no fiduciary duty to its employer almost fifteen years ago, in Dalton v. Camp, 353 N.C. 647, 652, 548 S.E.2d 704, 708 (2001).

Judge Bledsoe rejected the Plaintiff's argument that Thagard owed it a fiduciary duty because "he held a position of trust and confidence  at DSM as Application Manager -- Life Protection in which he. . . was the lead scientist and technical leader for DSM's helmet and body armor development and new grade development."  Op. ¶28.

It is hard to conceive of  situation where any employee -- other than one who is an officer or a director of her employer -- would owe a fiduciary duty to her employer.

 

An Interesting Trade Secrets Case From The Business Court

If you were unsure whether customer information held by your client -- like customer contact information, sales reports, prices and terms books, sales memos, sales training manuals, commission reports, and vendor information -- can be considered a "trade secret", the Business Court's opinion this week in Southern Fastening Systems, Inc. v. Grabber Construction Products, Inc., 2015 NC 40 should resolve your uncertainty.

The Parties And The Claimed Trade Secrets

Defendant Farrell had been a sales representative for the Plaintiff Southern.  He left Southern to work for Defendant Grabber, a competitor in the business of selling construction supplies.

Farrell had not signed a non-competition agreement, but he had signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement during his employment with Southern.  The NDA said that Farrell would "not directly or indirectly disclose or use for any reason whatsoever any Confidential Information obtained by" him due to his employment.  Op. 6.

"Confidential Information" was defined under the NDA to include:

customer lists containing customer names and addresses; customer sales records and reports containing product preferences and usual prices charged; price lists containing product sales prices and their cost; sales invoices, packing lists, routing books, customer files, personnel files, computer records, financial records and marketing plans containing tactics and strategies.

Op. 7.  The NDA contained an acknowledgment that Southern's "Confidential Information constitutes Trade Secrets."  Op. 8.

Southern filed suit against Grabber and Farrell alleging a substantial loss of business after Farrell began working for Grabber.  The Defendants moved to dismiss, asserting that Southern had not adequately identified the alleged trade secrets, that the information in question was "readily available . . . from customers and potential customers," and that Southern had not identified any steps that it took to keep its claimed trade secrets a secret.  Op. 22.

Judge Bledsoe disagreed.  On the point of whether the trade secrets were adequately identified, he cited six court decisions, four from the North Carolina Court of Appeals, recognizing that this type of description of customer information is sufficient to plead a trade secret.  Op. 23.  He also cited and called "persuasive" an unpublished decision from Judge McGuire of the Business Court finding a similar description by the same Plaintiff to be adequate.  (I missed that case -- Southern Fastening Systems, Inc. v. Duo-Fast Carolina, Inc. (February 9, 2015) -- and I really try hard not to miss much of interest in the Business Court.  Sorry about that.)

The Court rejected the other defenses given the Plaintiff's allegations in its Complaint that its trade secrets involved "non-public information" that it did not disseminate to its employees unless they first executed an NDA.

The Validity Of The NDA

This decision represents the first time I can remember seeing a Defendant argue that the validity of an NDA should be determined based upon the standard applied to a covenant not to compete.  The Defendant argued that the practical effect of the NDA was to keep Farrell from working for the Plaintiff's competitor so it therefore needed to be supported by consideration and be reasonable as to time and to territory.

Judge Bledsoe ruled that the NDA only restricted Farrell from disclosing Southern's Confidential Information and required him to return that information upon the termination of his employment.  He said that the NDA "permits Farrell to work for any person or entity provided he does not disclose [the Plaintiff's] Confidential Information."  Op. 33.  The NDA was therefore not a restrictive covenant subject to the requirements of G.S. §75-4.

Even after deciding that this NDA did not need to be evaluated under covenant not to compete principles,  the Court went on to consider the issues of consideration and time and territory.

On the point of consideration the Court did not need to resolve the question whether continued employment by Farrell was sufficient consideration for the NDA since Farrell had been provided with Confidential Information in exchange for signing the NDA.

The question whether the lack of limitation as to time and territory rendered the NDA invalid had already been resolved by the NC Court of Appeals in Chemimetals Processing v. McEneny, 124 N.C. App. 194, 476 S.E.2d 374 (1996).  There, the COA held that such an agreement can be valid "even when the agreement is unlimited as to time and area upon a showing that it protects a legitimate business interest" of the employer.  Id. at 197, 476 S.E.2d at 377.  Judge Bledsoe ruled that protecting customer relationships and goodwill was a legitimate business interest of the Plaintiff.

Claims For Tortious Interference And Conversion

The Grabber Construction decision is particularly interesting for its treatment of the claims against the Defendant Grabber for tortious interference with contract and conversion.

Tortious interference claims between competitors are unusual, because the North Carolina Supreme Court has held that "competition in business constitutes justifiable interference in another's business relations and is not actionable so long as it is carried on in furtherance of one's own interests and by means that are lawful."  People's Security Life Ins. Co. v. Hooks, 322 N.C. 216, 221, 367 S.E.2d 647, 650 (1988).

This tortious interference claim survived dismissal.  Judge Bledsoe held that:

[Plaintiff] alleges facts showing that [the corporate Defendant] has improperly acquired, disclosed and used [Plaintiff's] confidential and trade secret information 'to sell [the corporate Defendant's] products at prices below [Plaintiff's] prices in order to block [Plaintiff] from those customer accounts' and to cause [Plaintiff] financial damage.

Op. Par. 45.  Thus, the Plaintiff had "adequately alleged that [the corporate Defendant] acted for a 'wrong purpose' and thus without legal justification."  Op. Par. 45.

The survival of the conversion claim on the motion for summary judgment might seem odd since the harm to Plaintiff was the loss of its customers and the NC Court of Appeals has held that "intangible interests such as business opportunities and expectancy interests" are not subject to a conversion claim.  Norman v. Nash Johnson & Sons' Farms, Inc., 140 N.C. App. 390, 414, 537 S.E.2d 248, 264 (2000).

What made this case different was that the Complaint alleged that Farrell had taken seven boxes of documents containing Southern's customer information upon his departure, and had then destroyed them.  Farrell had also taken the names and contact information for Southern's customers and stored these on his cellphone and computer.  That was enough to make out a claim for conversion.

Do You Have To Be The Owner Of A Trade Secret To Sue For Misappropriation?

Can an exclusive licensee of a trade secret sue for its misappropriation?  Maybe, even though North Carolina's version of the Uniform Trade Secrets Protection Act reserves the right to sue to an "owner."  N.C. Gen. Stat. §66-153.

The Uniform Act, by contrast, allows a "complainant" to bring an action for misappropriation.  The Fourth Circuit, applying Maryland's version of the Uniform Act, has held that it is not necessary to be an "owner" to sue under that state's law.  DTM Research, LLC v. AT&T Corp., 245 F.3d 327, 332 (4th Cir. 2001).

Judge Gale addressed the question whether a licensee has standing to sue for misappropriation of its trade secret under the North Carolina Trade Secrets Protection Act just before the new year began, in SCR-Tech LLC v. Evonik Energy Services LLC, 2014 NCBC 71.  Well, he kinda sorta addressed the question, because he refused to reconsider an earlier ruling in the case and never really delved into the issue.

Judge Tennille had been presented with the exact same issue in the SCR-Tech case back in 2010.  (This case has the dubious distinction of being one of the longest running cases in the Business Court, having been filed in 2008).  He denied a motion for summary judgment in which the Defendants argued that Plaintiff lacked standing to pursue its trade secrets claim because it was not the owner of the trade secrets at issue.  That Motion was summarily denied without any discussion.

So, did  that 2010 ruling settle the issue of whether non-owners of trade secrets can sue for misappropriation?  In other words, was Judge Gale entitled to reconsider the issue?

Judge Gale refused to reconsider the issue, stating that he did not see any new argument that had not been raised before Judge Tennille, and that he was "mindful of the import of allowing or requiring one Business Court Judge to revisit the earlier order of another Business Court Judge without any material change in record, policy, or authorities."  Order ¶15.

I would not read this Order as opening the door to trade secrets lawsuits by licensees, given the lack of discussion of the issue by Judge Tennille, and Judge Gale's reluctance to tread on the prior ruling.

Can the Defendants appeal to the NC Supreme Court based upon the recent changes to the cases that may be appealed from the Business Court?  Perhaps.

Let me observe that there were a lot of Business Court decisions in the final month of 2014 which I did not write about.  I've been kind of distracted and will get back on top of things early this new year.