Texas CourthouseA Texas Court of Appeals affirmed a summary judgment last month in favor of an ex-employee declaring that a noncompete clause in an asset purchase agreement and separate noncompete agreement did not bar him from competing with his former employer after he had resigned his position. The court’s opinion serves as a reminder that conditions subsequent in noncompete clauses must be drafted with special care in order to avoid the risk that former employees may ignore such clauses with impunity.

Jason Player, a former IT manager for East Texas Copy Systems, Inc. (“Copy Systems”) sold his business to Copy Systems and, in the process, signed an asset purchase agreement (“APA”), as well as a separate noncompete agreement (“NCA”), that contained clauses precluding him from competing with Copy Systems for a certain period of time. Both the APA and the NCA also included nearly identical provisions which provided that “[i]f . . . Player’s employment with [Copy Systems] is terminated prior to two years from the date of this Agreement [July 1, 2013] for any reason other than a for cause termination, this non-compete Agreement will no longer be binding.” Player resigned his position with Copy Systems effective June 30, 2015—one day shy of the two-year period—and immediately began engaging in IT-related business for a competitor. Copy Systems then sent a cease-and-desist letter to Player demanding that, pursuant to its interpretation of the noncompete clauses, he refrain from engaging in any activities that are competitive with Copy Systems.

Player then filed suit in Texas state court against Copy Systems, requesting a declaration that the NCA and noncompete clause in the APA no longer forbid him from competing with Copy Systems. Copy Systems, in turn, filed a counterclaim seeking (1) a declaration that the noncompete provisions at issue remained effective, and (2) damages for breach of contract. As the facts were undisputed, both parties filed motions for summary judgment. After a hearing, the trial court granted Player’s motion and denied Copy Systems’.

On appeal, Copy Systems challenged the trial court’s construction of the parties’ noncompete agreement as reflected in the NCA and APA. Both parties focused on the interpretation of “[i]f . . . Player’s employment with [Copy Systems] is terminated prior to two years from the date of this Agreement for any reason other than a for cause termination, this non-compete Agreement will no longer be binding.” Copy Systems argued that this clause should be interpreted so that the noncompete would remain effective post-termination in the event Player resigned.  This is, the noncompete would cease to apply only if the Player was fired without cause. Player, on the other hand, maintained that the clause was effective if either party terminated his employment, including if he resigned.

Siding with Player, the court of appeals construed this clause, like the trial court had before it, to be a condition subsequent clause, i.e., a clause where the fulfillment of a condition excuses performance of an otherwise binding agreement. The court reasoned that, adhering to the plain and ordinary meaning of the agreements’ terms, the clause at issue was effective if either party terminated Player’s employment, since that clause did not identify which party must terminate the employment relationship. According to the court of appeals, what triggers the condition subsequent clause is “the termination of Player’s employment, not which party initiates the termination.” Copy Systems’ argument to the contrary was, in effect, asking the court to rewrite the agreement to insert the following underlined language: “[i]f . . . Player’s employment with [Copy Systems] is terminated [by Copy Systems] prior to two years from the date of this Agreement for any reason other than a for cause termination, this non-compete Agreement will no longer be binding.” This the court refused to do. Because Player resigned on June 30, 2015, and nothing in the parties’ agreement indicated that the inclusion of this clause was intended to restrict the party initiating the triggering termination to only Copy Systems, the court held that Player was excused from the performance of any obligations prescribed by the APA and NCA.

The takeaway from this case appears to be that employers should be cautious when inserting conditions subsequent in noncompete agreements, especially if the language triggering the condition subsequent does not specify which party terminates the employment relationship. If employers intend for noncompetes to continue to bind an employee post-resignation, they must specifically include language in any condition subsequent clause that the termination was at the instance of the employer. If no such language is included, the courts may decline to reform imprecise agreements and redistribute the contractually allocated risks and benefits. Accordingly, employers may wish to protect themselves by ensuring that an employee’s voluntary resignation is not a triggering event, thereby guaranteeing that the noncompete does not become ineffective upon the employee’s resignation.

E. Texas Copy Sys., Inc. v. Player, 06-16-00035-CV, 2016 WL 6638865 (Tex. App.—Texarkana Nov. 10, 2016, no. pet. h.).

webinarWe are pleased to announce the webinar “Proving-Up Trade Secret Misappropriation: Best Practices and Tales from the Trenches” is now available as a webinar recording.

In Seyfarth’s final installment in the 2016 Trade Secrets Webinar Series, James McNairy and Justin Beyer, joined by computer forensics expert Jim Vaughn of iDiscovery Solutions, focused on best practices for assembling the evidence most often needed to prosecute a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets

As a conclusion to this well-received webinar, we compiled a summary of three takeaways that were discussed during the webinar:

  1. The first step in prosecuting trade secret misappropriation starts with identifying your trade secret information, maintaining its confidentiality, and putting in place safeguards such as robust confidentiality agreements, computer use and access policies, and exit interviews that are tailored to flag any exfiltration of data by high risk employees or business partners with whom your company is parting ways. Diligence on the front end will better alert your organization of potential data theft and enable it to secure the data, should it be misappropriated.
  2. As part of your investigation of potential trade secret misappropriation, remember to conduct a complete audit of devices and sources of data storage and transmission to ensure nothing is overlooked. While doing so, it is critical to maintain the forensic integrity of the devices and data to allow the best chance of admitting the information into evidence in any litigation.
  3. Efficiently organizing the right team to prosecute trade secret theft is critical. The “team” most often includes human resources professionals (to authenticate key agreements, policies, dates of employment etc.), a senior manager or executive (who can validate the existence of the trade secret, its value, the measures taken to maintain secrecy etc.), senior managers who worked with the suspected misappropriators (who can attest to access, use, and possession of the at issue information), in-house IT professionals (who can lay the foundation for devices, data, and access rights of the suspected misappropriators), and an independent computer forensics expert (who can objectively present the facts concerning data accessed, by whom, through what means, and explain any technical nuance to “connect the technical dots” of the bad actor(s) conduct).

shutterstock_532304278This past Spring, we reported on the recently enacted Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”), which provides a new federal civil cause of action to trade secret owners seeking to pursue claims of trade secret misappropriation.  Last week, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts addressed the whistleblower immunity provision of the DTSA, which protects anyone who discloses a trade secret in confidence to a government official or an attorney “solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law.”  In denying an employee’s motion to dismiss his employer’s DTSA claim, the district court held that a defendant must present evidence to justify the immunity.  The case is Unum Group v. Loftus, No. 16-cv-40154-TSH (D. Mass. December 6, 2016). Continue Reading Federal Court Rejects Defend Trade Secrets Act Whistleblower Immunity Defense on a Motion to Dismiss and Orders Employee to Return Stolen Trade Secrets

shutterstock_519689296Seyfarth Shaw is pleased to announce the launch of Carpe Datum Law, a one-stop resource for legal professionals seeking to stay abreast of fast-paced developments in eDiscovery and information governance, including data privacy, data security, and records and information management. Seyfarth’s eDiscovery and Information Governance (eDIG) practice group created Carpe Datum Law to serve as a timely and unique resource for executives and corporate in-house counsel to obtain reports on developments, trends and game-changing decisions in these data-driven areas of the law.

Click here to access the new Carpe Datum Law blogsite.

The Carpe Datum Law blog takes a comprehensive view of the legal and practical aspects of corporate data challenges, reflecting the broad strength across the spectrum of data law by Seyfarth’s veteran 14-lawyer eDIG practice group, which has served clients since 2004. Regular readers will benefit from its comprehensive perspective and guidance on how the law is adapting to the interrelated challenges of keeping corporate data secure and in compliance with data privacy laws, adapting to new best practices in information governance, and maintaining defensible data preservation, collection and review when eDiscovery is required.

Carpe Datum Law is a must-read for anyone expected to stay ahead of the curve on how best to manage the growing risks in these areas, in particular:

  • C-Level Executives whose portfolios of responsibility include managing risks with respect to their corporate data
  • In-House Counsel responsible for eDiscovery, data and cybersecurity, data privacy compliance and/or the enterprise’s information governance
  • eDiscovery, IT, IT Security and Privacy Managers who work closely on these issues with their organization’s executives and legal teams
  • Consultants, Academics and Thought Leaders who must stay up-to-speed on legal developments in order to serve their organizational clients

Whether steering policy or implementing it, Carpe Datum Law provides well-informed news and analysis that will keep you and your team up-to-speed. From judicial decisions implementing the new eDiscovery amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to guidance on compliance with the upcoming European Union General Data Protection Regulation, Carpe Datum Law provides the news and seasoned analysis you would expect from Seyfarth’s eDIG group.

Carpe Datum Law can be accessed at www.carpedatumlaw.com.

shutterstock_413782369There were significant developments and a near miss in trade secret and restrictive covenant law both federally and in Massachusetts in 2016, including the passage of the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act and the failure again of the Massachusetts legislature to pass noncompete reform legislation.  In addition, the Obama White House issued a “Call to Action” with respect to noncompete agreements in its waning days.  Understanding the impact of these changes, and what to expect in 2017, will help your company safeguard its most valuable assets and maintain its advantage over competitors.

On Wednesday, December 14th at 8:00 a.m. Eastern, the Boston office is hosting a Breakfast Briefing entitled “Change is in the Air: 2016 Developments in Trade Secret and Restrictive Covenant Law in Massachusetts and Beyond, and What to Expect in 2017.” Attorneys Katherine Perrelli, Erik Weibust, and Dallin Wilson will discuss recent developments in restrictive covenant and trade secrets law, and what to expect in 2017.

The program will focus on practical responses to the following issues and questions:

  • What you need to know about the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016
  • What to expect with respect to noncompete reform in Massachusetts in 2017
  • What does the White House’s Call to Action mean for Massachusetts businesses, and will it stick with the new Administration?
  • Important decisions of 2016 in Massachusetts and beyond

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There is no cost to attend but registration is required and seating is limited. Members of the general counsel’s office, HR professionals, corporate executives, risk managers, and directors are invited to attend. The breakfast briefing will take place from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Eastern at Seyfarth’s Boston office: Two Seaport Lane, Suite 300, Boston, MA 02210.

webinarOn Tuesday, December 13, at 12:00 p.m. Central, Seyfarth attorneys, James McNairy and Justin Beyer, joined by computer forensics expert Jim Vaughn of iDiscovery Solutions, will present the final installment of the 2016 Trade Secrets Webinar Series. This program will provide attendees with best practices for assembling the evidence most often needed to prosecute a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets.

Topics covered will include:

  • Preventative measures to alert companies of potential trade secret theft
  • Once theft is suspected, steps for identifying and preserving evidence
  • Considerations for deciding on forum and state vs. federal court
  • Injunctive relief: what to seek and how to be effective
  • Early discovery: foundation for preliminary injunction and fleshing out case theme

Please join us for this informative webinar.

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shutterstock_526574593On October 27, 2016, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s order denying an application for temporary injunction seeking to enjoin Thomas Musgrave, the former president of Henry F. Coffeen III Management, Inc., d/b/a Coffeen Management Company (“CMC”), from competing with and soliciting its business. By doing so, the court emphasized the importance of carefully drafting noncompete and nonsolicitation provisions in employment agreements to ensure that an employee’s post-termination activities remain subject to the restrictive covenants.

CMC is an insurance agency that sells insurance products to car dealerships. Musgrave began working for CMC in 2011 as an independent contractor and, as its president, was responsible for managing CMC’s day-to-day operations. Musgrave signed a “Non-Compete Agreement” barring him from competing with CMC or soliciting its customers for a specified term. In August 2015, Musgrave began travelling to New Mexico to visit Tate Branch Automotive (“TBA”), a CMC client that owns several car dealerships. A short time later, Musgrave started assisting TBA with acquiring car dealerships. In December 2015, Musgrave resigned from CMC, but he continued to advise TBA on the acquisition of car dealerships. Continue Reading Texas Court of Appeals Finds Noncompete Agreement Inapplicable to Former President’s Post-Termination Activities Due to the Inexact Language of the Noncompete Period

shutterstock_306198368Apparently there may be some life left yet in the Massachusetts Legislature’s attempt to pass non-compete reform this year.  As we previously reported, the House and the Senate were unable to bridge their differences and agree on a compromise bill before the formal session wrapped up on July 31.

According to the Boston Business Journal, however, “House and Senate leaders involved in the negotiations that came up just short at the close of formal sessions in July have continued talking, with a White House summit on non-competes serving as a spark plug to rekindle some hope that a compromise could still be brokered.”  Among other differences, the Senate bill would have limited non-compete agreements to three months, whereas the House version had a one year limit.  Both versions also provided for garden leave clauses, wherein an employee is paid during the restricted period, but the House set the compensation during the garden leave at 50% and the Senate recommended 100%.  The major disagreement, however, was over language that would have allowed both the employer and the employee to substitute garden leave pay for a different, mutually agreed upon, arrangement negotiated at the commencement of employment.  Even if a compromise deal is reached by the House and the Senate before the end of the year, it may be difficult to get passed in the full Legislature, as a single lawmaker can defeat any bill during an informal session by simply objecting to it.

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts High Technology Counsel have both said that they are in favor of something more akin to the House bill.

We will continue to monitor these developments and report back with any updates.  It may be that 2016 is the finally year for non-compete reform in Massachusetts after all . . . But we have said that before.

shutterstock_370595594We are pleased to announce the webinar “Trade Secret Audits: You Can’t Protect What You Don’t Know You Have” is now available as a webinar recording.

In Seyfarth’s ninth installment in the 2016 Trade Secrets Webinar Series, attorneys Robert Milligan, Eric Barton, and Scott Atkinson focused on trade secret audits. It is not uncommon for companies to find themselves in situations where important assets are overlooked or taken for granted. Yet, those same assets can be lost or compromised in a moment through what is often benign neglect. Experience has shown that companies gain tremendous value by taking a proactive, systematic approach to assessing and protecting their trade secret portfolios through a trade secret audit.

As a conclusion to this well-received webinar, we compiled a summary of three takeaways that were discussed during the webinar:

  • As part of any trade secret audit, confidentiality agreements should be updated to include the new immunity language required by the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) to preserve the company’s right to exemplary damages and attorney’s fees under the DTSA.
  • A trade secret audit, and the resulting protection plan, should have three primary goals:

(1)  Ensure that a company’s trade secrets are adequately identified and protected from disclosure;

(2)  Ensure that a company has taken adequate steps to protect itself in litigation if a trade secret is misappropriated; and

(3)  Limit the risk of exposure to other companies’ claims of trade secret misappropriation.

  • As part of a trade secret audit, onboarding and off-boarding procedures are evaluated to ensure that the intellectual property rights of third parties and the company are respected.

WebinarDo you and your firm have adequate cybersecurity to prevent yourself (and your confidential client data) from getting hacked?

On Wednesday, December 7, at 11:00 a.m. Pacific, Richard Lutkus, a partner in Seyfarth Shaw’s eDiscovery and Information Governance Practice; and Joseph Martinez, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Forensics, eDiscovery & Information Security at Innovative Discovery, will present “A Big Target: Cybersecurity for Attorneys and Law Firms.”

This webinar will cover any considerations that attorneys should take into account when in possession of any client data from an information security perspective. Coverage will include both technical considerations, best practices and policies, as well as practical advice to steer clear of ethical violations.

This program will specifically address the following topics:

  • Information storage, retention, and remediation
  • Device management
  • Phishing and social engineering
  • Security considerations
  • Cloud storage and ethical considerations

Please join us for this informative webinar.

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