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.
 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Continue Reading An Interesting Trade Secrets Case From The Business Court

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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].

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