Federal Court Denies Expedited Discovery In Defend Trade Secret Act Case

Trade-secret-misappropriation cases can move fast. Often, the plaintiff files a motion for temporary restraining order alongside its complaint. Sometimes, the plaintiff has enough evidence already to justify a TRO. Other times, the plaintiff needs to take discovery before the TRO hearing.

But the typical discovery deadlines in the rules of civil procedure are not well suited for these TRO proceedings. Thus, plaintiffs regularly seek expedited discovery. In my experience, the parties are often able to agree to an expedited discovery schedule, since defendants usually want to take discovery as well. But when the parties cannot agree, the court needs to get involved. A recent case out of the Middle District of Florida shows the importance of narrowly tailoring expedited discovery requests, particularly when asking a judge to permit this type of discovery.

In Digital Assurance Certification, LLC v. Pendolino, the plaintiff works with municipal bond issuers to comply with various SEC regulations. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant, a former employee, left to work for a competitor. And in his final week of work, according to the plaintiff, the defendant used a USB drive to access every document on the plaintiff’s shared drive. Thus, the plaintiff brought claims for violations of the Defend Trade Secret Act and the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act, among others, and filed a motion for a TRO.

In advance of the TRO hearing, the plaintiff filed a motion for expedited discovery. The court denied the motion. A copy of the order can be downloaded below.

The court first set forth the standard for determining whether the plaintiff had demonstrated good cause for expedited discovery:

Factors the Court considers in deciding whether a party has shown good cause include: (1) whether a motion for preliminary injunction is pending; (2) the breadth of the requested discovery; (3) the reason(s) for requesting expedited discovery; (4) the burden on the opponent to comply with the request for discovery; and (5) how far in advance of the typical discovery process the request is made.

Here, the court focused on the second factor, the breadth of the plaintiff’s requests. The court took issue with the scope of the plaintiff’s requests, noting that “while these matters may be relevant to the issues raised in DAC’s complaint, they go far beyond what is needed for the hearing on the motion for a temporary restraining order.”

Take away: When bringing a motion for a TRO, the plaintiff’s lawyers need to figure out quickly whether the parties will be able to agree to an expedited discovery schedule. If not, the plaintiff needs to draft discovery requests that are laser focused on the issues relevant to the TRO hearing. In my experience, judges will allow this type of discovery, as long as the requests are reasonable. Conversely, judges will protect defendants from overbroad discovery.

Digital Assurance Certification, LLC v. Pendolino

Discovery: Keeping Trade Secrets Secret

All litigators need to be familiar with trade-secrets law, since discovery requests often seek  proprietary information. When this happens, you need to protect your clients’ trade secrets in the discovery process. Last week, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal addressed this issue in Bright House Networks, LLC v. Cassidy, 2014 WL 84237 (Fla. 2d DCA Jan. 10 2014) (opinion linked below). This case offers multiple takeaways for lawyers when your clients are faced with discovery requests calling for production of trade secrets.

In this case, the plaintiffs had a contract with their cable company that entitled them to perpetual free cable. After the defendant, Bright House Networks, purchased the cable company, it terminated the plaintiffs’  free services. The plaintiffs sued Bright House and won — a court ruled that they were entitled to lifetime free cable. In response, Bright House started issuing 1099s to the the plaintiffs for the free cable’s value. (Aside: cable companies are the worst.) The plaintiffs sued again, arguing that the 1099s violated the previous judgment, and that Bright House does not issue 1099s to other customers receiving free services.

In discovery, the plaintiffs sought information about all customers receiving free services. Bright House objected, arguing that this information was confidential and proprietary. The lower court overruled this objection, leading to this appeal.

The appellate court reversed, noting that

The Florida Evidence Code contains a privilege against the disclosure of trade secrets. . . . When a party objects to the disclosure of a trade secret, first a court must determine whether the requested information is, in fact, a trade secret. . . . Usually this determination requires the trial court to perform an in camera review of the information. . . . Second, if the trial court determines that the information is a trade secret, then the court must determine if the party requesting the information has shown a reasonable necessity for the information. . . . If the court orders disclosure, it must make findings to support its determination. . . . [T]he trial court may need to order safeguards to prevent the unnecessary dissemination of the information.

Here, the trial court never made an in camera review. The appellate court ordered the trial court to conduct this review and, if necessary, conduct a hearing to determine whether Bright House’s customer information is a trade secret.

There are several takeaways from this case. Carefully review all discovery requests to determine whether they call for the production of proprietary information. If so, timely object and be prepared to have the court review the material in camera.

If the court orders production, the company should avail itself of an immediate appeal if possible. In Florida, that is done through a petition for writ of certiorari, which allows interlocutory review of orders compelling discovery where compliance could cause irreparable harm.

Also, here Bright House conceded that it had offered free services to other customers but had not issued 1099s. In this opinion, the appellate court noted that “In determining necessity for the information, the trial court should consider the significance of Bright House’s stipulation.” Bright House knew what the information sought would show, and tried to prevent disclosure by conceding the point. This may prove successful. When faced with the possibility of producing trade secrets, you should balance the risk of disclosure with the effect a concession of the relevant point will have on the litigation.

Bright House Networks LLV v. Cassidy