Florida Loves Non-Compete Agreements

Florida’s restrictive-covenant statute, Section 542.335, is one of the most employer-friendly in the country. A recent case from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, Transunion Risk and Alternative Data Solutions, Inc. v. Reilly, shows how this statute favors an employer trying to enforce a restrictive covenant against a former employee. A copy of the opinion can be downloaded below.

This opinion is short on facts, but the plaintiff sued the defendant for violating a non-compete agreement and sought a temporary injunction. At the injunction hearing, the trial court ruled in the defendant’s favor after the plaintiff finished its case in chief, before the defendant put on any evidence.

The appellate court reversed. First, it looked at the likelihood of irreparable injury, citing the statute’s presumption of irreparable injury that arises when the plaintiff shows a violation of an enforceable restrictive covenant. Here, the appellate court reversed because the defendant did not present evidence:

As the trial court’s ruling was issued before Reilly presented any evidence, Reilly could not have met his burden of presenting evidence overcoming the presumption.

This doesn’t sound right. A defendant should have the right to rebut this presumption simply by cross-examining the plaintiff’s witnesses. That’s what the trial court apparently thought happened here. But the presumption so strongly favors the plaintiff that this appellate court was unwilling to allow the defendant to rebut it without putting on affirmative evidence.

The trial court also concluded that the plaintiff had an adequate remedy at law. But the appellate court reversed this finding, noting that even when a plaintiff has suffered actual money damages,

the continued breach of a non-compete agreement threatens a former employer’s goodwill and relationships with its customers, and nothing short of an injunction would prevent this loss.

This finding essentially eliminates the adequate-remedy-at-law prong of the injunction analysis in restrictive-covenant cases.

Finally, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s finding that the plaintiff had not demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. On this point, the appellate court relied on the trial court’s “implied finding” that the defendant violated a restrictive covenant. So once a court finds that the defendant breached, the plaintiff has automatically shown a substantial likelihood of success.

This case shows how Florida’s restrictive-covenant statute provides employers with the upper hand in litigation. As a result, these agreements are a very effective tool for protecting proprietary information and trade secrets. All Florida companies should consult with an attorney to determine whether to implement these types of agreements.

Transunion Risk and Alternative Data Solutions, Inc. v. Reilly

“Just Doin Blow and Erasing Evidence”

As the Defend Trade Secrets Act—which would create a federal cause of action for trade-secrets theft—makes its way through Congress, critics have focused on the proposed statute’s ex parte seizure provision. In a nutshell, the statute would allow for the entry of ex parte orders to seize specifically identified repositories of evidence that are at risk of destruction.

I’ve responded to these criticisms multiple times before (see here, here, and here). The statutory protections (e.g., the party subject to the order is entitled to a hearing within 7 days) combined with federal judges’ reluctance to issue ex parte orders are, in my view, sufficient to prevent abuse.

Meanwhile, the threat of evidence destruction is real. A recent case shows how far defendants can go to allegedly destroy evidence of trade-secrets theft.

As described in Law360, a radio-controlled-vehicle company sued several former employees for violating restrictive covenants and misappropriating trade secrets, among other claims. The plaintiff filed a motion seeking sanctions against the defendants for destroying evidence.

According to the plaintiff, the defendants destroyed “scores of emails, texts, and documents that described their scheme to start at least one rival toy car and boat business.”

One of the defendants—who sounds like a real winner—apparently sent a text message talking about how he expected to get served with the complaint, saying “That’s what I’m trying to deal with now so I can’t go out, just doin blow and erasing evidence.”

In misappropriation cases, the evidence is almost always in electronic form. And it’s way too easy for defendants to destroy this evidence. While a plaintiff could seek sanctions (as the plaintiff here is seeking against the guy “doin blow”), a plaintiff would almost always rather have the actual smoking gun proving misappropriation.

The ex parte seizure provision is a powerful tool that may allow companies to preserve critical evidence.

The DOJ Announced Another Trade-Secrets Prosecution. What Does That Mean For Your Company?

There has been a lot of news coverage of the DOJ’s charges against Chinese professors for trade-secrets theft and violations of the Economic Espionage Act. Stories like this have become more common, as the DOJ has increased its focus on prosecuting trade-secrets theft. Often, these cases involve defendants with connections to foreign governments, and China in particular. As these cases have become more prevalent, the federal government has dedicated more resources to combating them.

Unfortunately, this will have little effect on most companies that fall victim to trade-secrets theft. The DOJ appears to have little interest in prosecuting run-of-the-mill trade-secrets theft, even though there may have been violations of a federal statute like the Economic Espionage Act. The DOJ simply does not have the resources to deal with the huge number of these cases. Thus, the vast majority of trade-secret misappropriation cases will be handled through civil lawsuits.

So what should you do if you believe your company has been the victim of trade-secrets theft? The answer is simple: you need to consult with an attorney specializing in this area of the law as soon as possible. Time is of the essence, and even a delay of a day or two could cause serious problems. Your attorney can advise you of your options. If your case is a good candidate for federal prosecution, your attorney should let you know. More likely, your options will involve civil remedies. Either way, you will need to make important decisions very quickly.

When It Comes to Trade Secrets, Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Trade-secret misappropriation cases often involve bad actors who deliberately steal trade secrets. But perhaps just as frequently, trade-secrets are misappropriated by people who simply don’t know better. Many don’t even understand what a trade secret is, let alone that there are laws or other obligations prohibiting inappropriate use or disclosure of trade secrets.

I’ve personally seen this happen over and over. An employee leaves one company to join another in the same industry. He takes many of the documents he created at his old job. These documents contain trade secrets. In his mind, they are his documents. He created them, after all! And at his new job, he uses those documents on behalf of his new employer.

Now both companies have a problem. The former employer’s trade secrets are in a competitor’s hands. And the new employer has unwittingly exposed itself to significant liability.

Both companies are to blame for their problems. The first company did not educate its employees about their responsibilities and legal obligations regarding trade secrets and proprietary information, both while working for the company and after they leave. The second company failed to make sure that the new employee did not bring his prior employer’s trade secrets with him.

There are three primary tools for preventing this situation: contracts, training, and exit/intake interviews. Employees with access to proprietary information should sign a non-disclosure agreement that requires them to keep the information confidential. The agreement should provide that all information belongs to the company even if created by the employee, and must be returned upon termination of employment. And the contract should acknowledge that the employee is not bringing any proprietary info or trade secrets from her prior job.

But employees too often don’t read contracts before signing them. That’s where training comes in. During the on-boarding process, and periodically thereafter, use training sessions to reiterate your trade-secret policy.

Finally, use exit interviews to again instruct the departing employee about his post-employment obligations. Consider having him sign an acknowledgement that he has returned all info and is aware of these obligations. When hiring a new employee, talk with them up front about what info they have from their prior employer. Be sure to consult with an attorney if that discussion raises concerns.

I really believe that many misappropriation cases can be avoided by simply making sure that employees understand these issues. Too often, they do not.

 

Professors Invent Threat of “Trade Secret Trolls”

I’ve written several times in the past about the proposed legislation to create a federal cause of action for trade-secrets misappropriation (see herehere, and here). I also wrote a response to a letter signed by a number of professors who opposed this legislation. Now, Professors David S. Levine and Sharon K. Sandeen have written a law review article titled “Here Come the Trade Secret Trolls.” This article misses the mark by a mile.

Here is the article’s core argument:

The [proposed federal] Acts are most likely to spawn a new intellectual property predator: the heretofore unknown “trade secret troll,” an alleged trade secret owning entity that uses broad trade secret law to exact rents via dubious threats of litigation directed at unsuspecting defendants.

The use of the term “troll” is meant to evoke patent trolls, who have been the subject of much scorn. But the so-called “trade secret troll” is far different than a patent troll. The latter actually own patent rights, which they wield to seek licensing fees. The article’s mythical trade-secret troll is simply someone willing to bring a frivolous lawsuit to extort an undeserved settlement. I suspect the authors chose this term to piggyback on the negative attention heaped on patent trolls, thereby arming the legislation’s opponents with a pejorative term that may scare legislators or their constituents.

Putting titles aside, the article can’t reconcile its core argument with the fact that, as the authors acknowledge, “trade secrecy has been generally free of similar trolling behavior.” In other words, there is no epidemic of frivolous trade-secret lawsuits under the current state-law framework. (Certainly, there are weak misappropriation cases, just like with any cause of action. But I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that such cases are disproportionately filed.)

The authors try to make the point that the proposed federal acts would transform trade-secrets law such that threatening and filing frivolous lawsuits would become commonplace. Yet the article does not really explain why this is so. It gets closest when discussing the proposed ex parte seizure provisions. But as I mentioned in my response to the professors’ letter, this risk is highly overblown. Convincing a federal judge to enter ex parte relief is no simple matter. And the defendant will have the right to challenge any seizure order very soon after its entry. Federal judges will not be amused if they have been manipulated into entering unnecessary ex parte orders.

The article fears that “trolls” will be able to threaten an ex parte seizure, which will be sufficient to scare a defendant into paying up before the suit is filed. Yet any innocent defendant will know that the likelihood of such an order being entered is slim. Further, simply sending the letter would undermine an attempt to get an ex parte seizure order. If the plaintiff was able to send a demand letter, thereby putting the defendant on notice of the possible claim, then a judge would be highly skeptical of a claimed need for an ex parte order.

The article also argues that unsettled interpretative questions relating to the acts will fuel frivolous lawsuits. But the article forgets that creating a federal cause of action will quickly lead to a much more robust body of published caselaw interpreting the statute. While there are very few published trial-court-level decisions in state courts, U.S. district court orders are widely available.

Frankly, state courts are much more susceptible to frivolous trade-secrets suits than federal courts. Take Florida, for example. Here, state court judges have to deal with remarkably bloated dockets. In fact, I’ve had multiple cases where it took months to get an emergency injunction hearing. State-court judges generally don’t have law clerks. And in Florida, judges often rotate between civil, criminal, family, and dependency divisions. This latter point is critical: judges often don’t spend enough time in the civil division to develop a familiarity with trade-secrets law. All of these issues lead to uncertainty, which would seemingly aid the unscrupulous litigant looking to extort a settlement. Yet, as the authors themselves acknowledge, we simply have not seen this so-called trolling.

There’s no question that frivolous lawsuits would be filed under the proposed federal legislation, just as like every other cause of action. But there is absolutely no credible reason to believe that such suits can’t be remedied with the typical mechanisms deigned to ferret out meritless claims, like Rule 11 motions.

As I’ve argued in the past, the proposed legislation has tangible benefits that aid trade-secrets owners in protecting their critical proprietary information. The arguments lobbed up in opposition—including the manufactured risk of “trolling”—don’t hold up to careful scrutiny.

Guest Post: Proving Damages in Trade-Secrets Cases

By Solomon Genet

Proving damages can be difficult in a wide range of cases, often especially so in a trade-secrets case. In a recent Federal appellate decision, the 5th Circuit (painfully for the plaintiffs) identified some of the risks involved. A link to the decision, In re Mandel, 2014 WL 3973479 (5th Cir. Aug. 15, 2014), is below.

Here, two individuals, an IP lawyer and a database expert, came together through a joint-venture entity to develop what they conceived to be a new type of search-engine. This JV hired personnel, retained a development team, and searched for investors.  The relationship then went sour, with misrepresentations made, one partner forming a competing company without disclosing it to the other partner, and that new company raising investor funds.  Suits, counter-suits, and a bankruptcy petition followed.

Later, the bankruptcy court presided over a trial as to whether the chapter 11 debtor (before filing for bankruptcy) misappropriated trade secrets under Texas law.  While finding that the debtor-defendant was liable, the court rejected each of the plaintiffs’ damages theories (they proposed a number of them).  But then, the bankruptcy court awarded damages—$1 Million to one plaintiff and $400k to another—“without explaining the damages theory on which it relied or identifying the evidence that supported these awards.”

Although the Fifth Circuit stated that in trade-secret misappropriation cases: (1) damages need not be proved with great specificity; (2) a flexible damages approach is appropriate; (3) uncertainty as to damages does not preclude recovery; and (4) only an approximation is needed, as long as there is a just and reasonable inference in support; it held that since the trial / bankruptcy court neither identified the theory of damages nor explained the evidentiary support for the amounts awarded, even this relaxed standard was not satisfied. The Fifth Circuit remanded back to the bankruptcy court to clarify the damages issue.

Accordingly, as a practice pointer, a plaintiff harmed by trade-secret misappropriation should ensure that the court identifies how it arrived to the amount of damage suffered, and not just identify the amount of monetary damage.

Note: this decision applied Texas common law, which has since been superseded by Texas’ adoption of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

Solomon Genet is a partner at Meland Russin & Budwick, P.A. in Miami, FL. He specializes in complex commercial litigation, business insolvency, and financial-fraud-related matters in the State and Federal courts.

In re: Mandel

AZ Supreme Court: Trade Secrets Act Does Not Preempt Claims for Misappropriation of Confidential Info

I’ve previously written about the Uniform Trade Secrets Act’s (UTSA) preemption provision, which preempts tort and other claims providing civil remedies for trade-secret misappropriation. Yesterday, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the Arizona Trade Secrets Act (ATSA), which is based on the UTSA, does not preempt common-law claims for misappropriation of information that is not a trade secret.

In this case, the former president of a public relations firm was sued by that firm when she left to start a competing PR firm. The plaintiff PR firm brought a claim for unfair competition, which was based on the use of confidential information the defendant learned while working for the plaintiff. The trial court dismissed the claim, finding that the ATSA preempts claims arising from the misuse of confidential information, even where the information does not rise to the level of a trade secret.

The Arizona Supreme Court disagreed, relying primarily on the plain language of the ATSA. The court did acknowledge the fact that other states have held that these types of claims are preempted. In states where misappropriation claims based on non-trade-secret confidential information are viable, it is often advisable to bring both a trade-secrets misappropriation claim and an alternative (or independent) claim for misappropriation or conversion of confidential information.

This case contains one other point of note. The defendant argued that allowing claims for misappropriation of confidential information would result in an “absurd” result. She noted that a plaintiff could obtain more in punitive damages on the misappropriation claim than it could on an ATSA claim, which allows for exemplary damages of twice actual damages where the misappropriation is willful and malicious.

In response, the court offered very helpful language to a plaintiff seeking to prove exemplary damages under the ATSA:

That AUTSA authorizes a trial court, rather than a jury, to award exemplary damages of no more than twice the amount of actual damages . . . is not necessarily anomalous. In cases of willful and malicious misappropriation, punitive damages might be easier to obtain under AUTSA than under our common law, which requires clear and convincing evidence of a defendant’s “evil mind” for a punitive damages.

Since many misappropriation of trade secrets are based on willful conduct, this case may be worth citing when seeking exemplary damages.

 

Will the “Internet of Things” Be A Nightmare for Trade Secrets?

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from posting over the past couple of weeks, during which I had a bench trial on a trade-secrets injunction. Since that case is still pending, I’m not going to write about it just yet.

Today, let’s look at the so-called “internet of things” — the increasing number of household, business, and other objects that are now internet enabled. I love being able to access things like my home alarm and thermostat remotely via my iPhone. And there’s no question that the “internet of things” will be growing exponentially in the near future. But does this present a threat to trade secrets and proprietary information?

A recent blog post by Michael Jordon shows the risks. He exposed security weaknesses in internet-enabled printers by getting a Cannon Pixma wireless printer to run the classic video game “Doom.”

The post contains a lot of technical details. But most importantly, his exercise shows that internet-enabled printers lag far behind traditional network devices when it comes to security. This is critical: if someone can hack into your company’s printers, they could have access to all of the documents that were printed.

Jordon’s organization recommends avoiding the internet of things entirely:

Context recommends that you do not put your wireless printers on the Internet, or any other ‘Internet of Things’ device.  To defend against the CRSF [cross-site request forgery] attack, well don’t follow any dodgy links is the best advice I can come up with.  Context is not aware of anyone in the wild actively using this type of attack, but hopefully we can increase the security of these types of devices before the bad guys start to. Finally, make sure that you always apply the latest available firmware to your devices. This is often not an automatic process and may require checking on the manufacturer’s website for updates.

As time goes on, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid using the “internet of things” in a business context. When you do connect devices to the internet, assume that they have security vulnerabilities. Thus, before connecting the device to the internet, you need to work with your IT department/consultants to make sure that it has adequate security features.

 

Law Professors Oppose Federal Trade Secrets Acts, Ignore Their Benefits

I’ve written about the Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Trade Secrets Protection Act previously. I’ve expressed enthusiastic support for these laws, which have bipartisan and widespread corporate backing. Today, 31 law professors issued a letter opposing these proposed statutes. Their harsh critique ignores clear benefits and overstates the statutes’ risks.

These professors’ thesis is explained at the end of the letter: “[T]he Acts are dangerous because the many downsides explained above have no—not one—corresponding upside.”

This statement and attitude ruins the letter’s credibility. These statutes have real, concrete benefits. They provide for federal jurisdiction, allowing for federal magistrates—experts in e-discovery—to oversee the complicated e-discovery issues often attendant to trade-secrets-misappropriation cases. They would allow for a uniform national trade-secret-misappropriation standard, thereby providing companies with greater certainty regarding enforcement. And the provision creating the most controversy, the ex parte seizure provision, will reduce the real risk of deliberate evidence destruction.

If these professors are not able to acknowledge that these proposed statutes offer benefits to companies facing the threat of misappropriation, I find it hard to take their critique seriously. But let’s look at their five reasons to reject these statutes:

1. Effective and uniform state law already exists. True, most states have adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, with slight variations. But the state-by-state patchwork of statutory interpretation is not uniform. For example, different states apply different standards to determine whether a customer list is a trade secret. And state courts are often overburdened. I have personally experienced difficulty getting expedited hearing dates for emergency temporary injunction motions in state courts. Federal courts are better equipped to hear these types of motions expeditiously.

2. The Acts will damage trade secret law and jurisprudence by weakening uniformity while simultaneously creating parallel, redundant and/or damaging law. Despite this heading, the professors do not explain how applying a uniform federal standard will weaken uniformity. Instead, the professors argue that the Acts do not preempt state law, but only apply to trade secrets used in interstate or foreign commerce. Apparently, they believe that giving companies a choice between filing a misappropriation action in federal or state court is a bad thing. If companies want to litigate in state court, based on state law, these Acts permit them to do so. But these statutes would provide a second option. Given the tremendous corporate support for these statutes, companies themselves seem to want this new option.

The professors also criticize the interstate commerce provision, calling it “unclear and unsettled.” But like all statutes, this provision will become settled once tested in the courts. And the concept of interstate commerce is certainly not a new one, since federal courts routinely apply this standard to many federal statutes.

The professors also criticize the ex parte seizure provisions. Of all their critiques, this one has the most merit. I responded to this issue here. Keep in mind that evidence destruction is a real threat. I believe that it occurs routinely, particularly in misappropriation cases. In the end, I have faith that the federal judiciary will limit these orders to those cases where they are justified.

3. The Acts are imbalanced and could be used for anti-competitive purposes. The professors next argue that the Acts do not explicitly limit the length of injunctive relief. But the proper length of an injunction can vary widely based on the circumstances of a case. The judge hearing the supporting evidence is in a much better position than Congress to determine its length.

The professors are also concerned that parties will misuse the ex parte seizure provisions for anticompetitive purposes. This ignores the fact that (1) the moving party will have to convince a federal judge that the ex parte seizure order is necessary, and (2) the defendant will have the opportunity to challenge the order very soon after its entry. Again, I believe that the benefits of this provision outweigh its risks, given the built-in protections.

4. The Acts increase the risk of accidental disclosure of trade secrets.  Here, the professors argue that because of possible jurisdictional challenges based on the interstate commerce provision, plaintiffs will face motions to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction that will “require the plaintiff to identify and disclose its trade secrets early in the litigation.” It’s hard to reconcile the professors’ concern for anticompetitive uses of the Act (number 3 above) with their concern that plaintiffs will have to identify the trade secrets at issue. Regardless, in reality, defendants already seek more detailed information about the trade secrets at issue at the case’s outset as a matter of routine, either through a motion to dismiss/for more definite statement, or through discovery requests. This new statute will have a marginal effect, if any at all, on the timing for identifying the trade secrets at issue.

5. The Acts have potential ancillary negative impacts on access to information, collaboration among businesses and mobility of labor. The letter discusses how companies are able to label information as a trade secret to prevent public and regulatory access to important information. (Again, this is inconsistent with point 4, where the professors wanted to enable companies to delay disclosure of the trade secrets at issue.) But the professors don’t explain how the Acts would increase this practice, other than to mention the ex parte seizure provision. Yet any company (and its attorneys) that obtains an ex parte seizure order in bad faith will have to face the ire of a federal judge who they manipulated into entering the order. I think the risk is overblown.

Look, neither of the Acts are perfect. But the threat of misappropriation is real. Companies need stronger weapons in their arsenal to protect their proprietary information. These Acts accomplish that, with limited real—as opposed to academic—downside.

 

Congressmen Explain Why You Need to Be Proactive About Trade-Secret Theft

In today’s partisan political climate, it’s rare to see an issue that unites members of both parties. But trade-secrets theft has become such a significant threat to our economy that there is now a bipartisan effort to pass federal trade-secret legislation.

Last week, Congressmen Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Howard Coble (R-NC), John Conyers Jr. (D-MI), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and George Holding (R-NC), all members of the House Judiciary Committee, published an article explaining why they introduced the “Trade Secrets Protection Act of 2014.”

The Congressmen’s article does a great job detailing the threat that companies face.

They start off with a sobering statistic: “The devastating reality is that theft of trade secrets costs the American economy billions of dollars per year.” They cite to a 2013 study by the Executive Office of the President that found that “the pace of economic espionage and trade secret theft against U.S. corporations is accelerating.” That study gave examples of large-scale trade-secret theft, including stolen trade secrets from Dupont and Goldman Sachs valued at $400 million and $500 million, respectively.

They close by making the point that the current scheme, under which each state has its own trade-secret-misappropriation laws, is inadequate to confront the threat:

The current patchwork is simply not enough to combat organized trade secret theft. All other forms of intellectual property – patents, copyrights, and trademarks – are afforded a civil cause of action in federal law. It is time we confer trade secrets with a similar level of protection to substantially mitigate the billions of dollars lost annually through theft of our intellectual property.

Hopefully, either this or the similar Defend Trade Secrets Act (discussed here and here) will pass. But regardless, companies must be proactive about protecting their trade secrets. State and federal laws creating causes of action for trade-secret theft are great, but litigation is never ideal. You should consult with an attorney with expertise in this area to make sure you are taking all reasonable steps to protect your proprietary information. Doing so will help you avoid the need for expensive and time-consuming litigation.

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