By Carolyn Sieve and summer associate Rina Wang
A California federal court has added to the body of decisional law on preemption under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 3426, et seq. (“CUTSA”). In Aversan v. Jones, No. 2:09-cv-00132-MCE-KJM, 2009 WL 1810010 (E.D. Cal. June 24, 2009), the Court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for interference with contractual relations, interference with prospective economic advantage, breach of duty of loyalty, and unfair competition, finding that plaintiff had sufficiently pled facts supporting these claims without relying on the same nucleus of facts as its CUTSA misappropriation of trade secrets claim.
Civil Code section 3426.7 provides that CUTSA “does not affect (1) contractual remedies, whether or not based upon misappropriation of a trade secret, (2) other civil remedies that are not based upon misappropriation of a trade secret, or (3) criminal remedies, whether or not based upon misappropriation of a trade secret.” (Emphasis added.) This provision has been interpreted to mean that CUTSA preempts common law claims that are based on the same nucleus of facts as the CUTSA claim. Thus, preemption is not triggered where the facts in an independent claim are similar to, but distinct from, those underlying the misappropriation claim.
Defendants Jones and Mellse were employees of plaintiff Aversan, which recruits and trains engineers to perform services for Aversan’s customers and clients of its customers. They later quit to work for one of Aversan’s clients, Ambire, which had retained Aversan to provide engineers to one of Ambire’s clients, CalPERS. Defendants had been assigned by Aversan to work on the CalPERS project. While assigned to CalPERS, defendants wrote custom software programs using Aversan’s proprietary software script.
Aversan’s complaint alleged that defendants violated CUTSA by using Aversan’s proprietary and confidential information to continue performing work for Ambire and CalPERS. Defendants also allegedly used Aversan’s confidential information to solicit employees, contractors and recruits. In addition, Aversan sought damages for Jones’ alleged interference with a residential lease agreement, and defendants’ supposed interference with Aversan’s customer relationships.
Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for interference with contractual relations, interference with prospective economic advantage, breach of duty of loyalty, and unfair competition. The district court denied the motion, holding that the facts supporting these tort claims were sufficiently independent of the CUTSA claim. Under these causes of action, Aversan claimed that defendants prevented Aversan from participating in and profiting from its agreements with Ambire by working directly for Ambire and that defendants allegedly interfered by usurping Aversan’s position with CalPERS. Aversan also claimed that Jones encouraged and convinced an apartment lessor to terminate its lease with Aversan. Aversan had already paid for that month’s rent as an employee benefit to Jones and re-let the same apartment unit to Jones directly. These claims survived dismissal because they did not rely on the same nucleus of facts as Aversan’s CUTSA claim and they sufficiently stated an independent claim for relief.
Aversan thus provides some guidance as to what allegations will overcome dismissal of tort claims in a case alleging CUTSA violations. If a party in a trade secrets case is faced with a possible preemption argument, it is worth comparing this decision with the recent California Court of Appeal decision in K.C. Multimedia, Inc. v. Bank of America Technology & Operations, Inc., 171 Cal.App.4th 939 (2009).