Attorneys for Sylvester Stallone and another named cross-defendant recently filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court challenging a significant published California Court of Appeal decision (Brescia v. Angelin, 172 Cal.App.4th 133 (March 17, 2009)) regarding the sufficiency of a trade secret identification statement.

In 2007, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge entered judgment in favor of Stallone and another cross-defendant on a claim for trade secret misappropriation in a cross-complaint brought against him and others by a manufacturer of high protein, low carbohydrate pudding. 

In March 2009, a Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District, Division Four reversed the judgment on the grounds, among other things, that cross-complainant’s trade secret identification statement was sufficient. 

The parties have briefed Stallone’s petition for review, with Stallone’s reply filed with the California Supreme Court on May 22, 2009. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the petition.

According to the Court of Appeal decision, the cross-complainant alleges that Stallone participated with other cross-defendants in misappropriating cross-complainant’s trade secrets, which are described in the cross-complaint as: “a formula, manufacturing process, marketing plan, funding plan and a distribution and sales plan for a high protein, low carbohydrate pudding with an extended shelf life and a stable and appealing consistency and most important, when mass produced, an appetizing flavor.” See id. at 139-140. 

According to the decision, Stallone was the chairman of the board for a company (also a cross-defendant) that allegedly conspired to steal cross-complainant’s ideas for the alleged high protein, low carbohydrate pudding that was allegedly unlike any other pudding on the market. See id. at 139. The company and another allegedly began producing and selling a pudding based on cross-complainant’s formula and business plan. See id. at 139.

At the trial court level, judgment was entered in Stallone’s and another cross-defendant’s favor on the trade secret misappropriation claim, after the court sustained their demurrer to cross-complainant’s third amended cross-complaint, based on the alleged inadequacy of the manufacturer’s trade secret designation statement.

The trial court reasoned that the trade secret designation was defective, because it made “no attempt . . . to identify why certain aspects or all of the aspects of the manufacturing process are anything other than matters generally known to persons skilled in the field,” and “no attempt . . . to indicate why the peculiar product formulation here that is stated with precision is a trade secret, as opposed to the typical ingredients involved in formulating other low-calorie, low-fat puddings.” See id. at 142. 

The trial court commented that cross-complainant’s submission was silent on the question whether the alleged trade secrets were known to skilled persons in the field: “So by its silence it’s doomed to failure, because there’s no attempt even to commence to describe why this formula is unique and not known to others. [] It just is a formula. Likewise, it is a cooking or manufacturing process of many steps. Some of which apparently, according to matters of which I believe I can take judicial notice are actually fairly familiar when you are trying to make a comparable product.” See id.

A California statute requires that trade secrets be identified with particularity before commencing discovery relating to the trade secret in suits alleging the misappropriation of trade secrets under California’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

Specifically, Code of Civil Procedure § 2019.210 provides:

In any action alleging the misappropriation of a trade secret under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (Title 5 (commencing with Section 3426) of Part 1 of Division 4 of the Civil Code), before commencing discovery relating to the trade secret, the party alleging the misappropriation shall identify the trade secret with reasonable particularity subject to any orders that may be appropriate underSection 3426.5 of the Civil Code.

Cross-complainant appealed the trial court’s decision. On appeal, the Court of Appeal found that section 2019.210 does not require in every case that a trade secret claimant explain how the alleged trade secret differs from the general knowledge of skilled persons in the field to which the secret relates. The Court found that such an explanation is required only when, given the nature of the alleged secret or the technological field in which it arises, the details provided by the claimant to identify the secret are themselves inadequate to permit the defendant to learn the boundaries of the secret and investigate defenses or to permit the court to understand the designation and fashion discovery. The Court found that the trade secret designation is to be liberally construed, and reasonable doubts regarding its adequacy are to be resolved in favor of allowing discovery to go forward.

Specifically, the Court held that cross-complainant’s trade secret designation met the reasonable particularity standard of section 2019.210. According to the designation statement, two alleged trade secrets were identified: the pudding formula and the manufacturing process. The statement “particularly described” the details of the pudding formula as of the last quarter of 2003, listing the 15 specific ingredients by common name and the percentage of the total pudding. The statement also listed the same 15 ingredients by their supplier and brand name and particularly described each step in the mixing, testing, and code marking of the pudding. 

The Court concluded that cross-complainant’s statement was adequate because: 1) the statement permitted cross-defendants to investigate possible defenses; 2) there was no deficiency in the trade secret designation that would hamper its ability to protect the parties’ proprietary information or to determine the scope of relevant discovery; and 3) there was no showing that the trial court was unable to understand the nature of the alleged secrets and fashion discovery. 

The Court concluded that the nature of the identification required in any particular case need only be reasonable under the circumstances. The Court further stated the 2019.210 requirement cannot be divorced from the statutory goals which it is intended to serve and “[t]he identification is to be liberally construed, and reasonable doubts concerning its sufficiency are to be resolved in favor of allowing discovery to commence.”

The Court of Appeal decision received some media coverage after its publication. 

The issues presented to the California Supreme Court on the petition for review are:

1)      “Does Code of Civil Procedure section 2019.210 . . . permit plaintiffs to designate purported trade secrets by simply listing all of their product manufacturing specifications, without distinguishing them from matters known in the trade, thereby forcing defendants to guess as to what aspect(s) the plaintiffs will argue at trial constitutes the actual trade secret?

2)      Does this new, diminished designation standard, which conflicts with the designation standard utilized for over a decade (which required plaintiffs to distinguish their purported secret from matters known in the trade) undermine the legislative intent behind Section 2019.210 and Business and Professions Code section 16600 . . .?.

3)      Does this new designation standard create de facto non-compete covenants (unlimited as to time or geography), restraining the mobility of technical employees , and allowing employers to circumvent Edwards v. Arthur Andersen (2008) 44 Cal.4th 937, 946 . . .?

4)      When plaintiffs designate patented information as their trade secret, and cannot distinguish their purported secret from these patents, may trial courts take judicial notice of the designation and patents, and grant demurrer? Or, must trade secret defendants always face costly litigation, no matter how incurably insufficient the information designated as trade secret?”

Pending the California Supreme Court’s decision on the petition review, the Court of Appeal’s decision serves as a significant decision providing additional clarification concerning the disclosure requirements of Section 2019.210.  We will provide an update once the Supreme Court issues a ruling on the petition for review.