On November 13, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, affirmed the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas’s denial of prevailing party attorneys’ fees in a matter of first impression under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”). In short, the Fifth Circuit held that a dismissal without prejudice of a DTSA case does not support an award of prevailing party attorney’s fees. Continue Reading The Limits of “Taking the Lead Early”: A Dismissal Without Prejudice Will Not Support Defend Trade Secrets Act Attorney’s Fees
The Texas Court of Appeals, Third District, issued an opinion in Tejas Vending, LP, et al. v. Tejas Promotions, LLC further delineating the applicability of Texas’s anti-SLAPP statute, the Texas Citizens Participation Act (“TCPA”). The Court emphasized that the TCPA was applicable to a conspiracy to misappropriate trade secrets claim, but found that it did not apply to requests for declaratory relief. This holding serves as a reminder that anti-SLAPP statutes can be a powerful shield in misappropriation of trade secret cases, particularly when such cases involve claims for an alleged conspiracy. Continue Reading The Texas Court of Appeals for the Third District Holds that the Texas Anti-SLAPP Statute Applies to a Conspiracy to Misappropriate Trade Secrets Claim
Earlier this month, the Texarkana Court of Appeals took the extraordinary measure of affirming an award of plaintiff attorney’s fees against a defendant for willful and malicious misappropriation of trade secrets in an amount that was ultimately more than 50 times higher than the plaintiff’s actual awarded damages.
Samuel D. Orbison worked for an oil and gas company, Ma-Tex Rope Company, Inc., for five years and signed an employment agreement containing a non-competition agreement, a non-disclosure agreement, and a non-solicitation agreement. During his tenure with Ma-Tex, Orbison became the coordinator of Ma-Tex’s recertification department until he resigned and began working for its competitor, American Pipe Inspections, Inc. (API), in the same position he had filled with Ma-Tex. When Ma-Tex learned that Orbison had begun soliciting recertification work from Ma-Tex’s customers, it sued Orbison and API for, among other claims, breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets. Continue Reading In Trade Secret Misappropriation Case, Texas Court of Appeals Affirms Attorney’s Fees Award Approaching $220,000 where Actual Damages Were $4,000
Late last week, the Texas Supreme Court denied a petition for mandamus in which the petitioner sought an order compelling a plaintiff to identify the specific trade secrets it contends were misappropriated, bucking what petitioner claimed is a “growing consensus” among the states.
In August 2015, B.J. Reynolds resigned from Sanchez Oil & Gas Corp. and began working as the vice president of operations for Terra Energy Partners LLC. In early March 2016, Terra hired two other Sanchez employees, Wes Hobbs and Mark Mewshaw. Later that month, Sanchez brought suit against Terra for misappropriation of trade secrets, alleging that after leaving the company, Hobbs and Mewshaw stole various electronic data involving processes to drill oil wells and to secure cost savings from vendors.
During the course of discovery, Sanchez produced approximately 170,000 pages of documents that allegedly contained the misappropriated trade secrets. According to Terra’s petition for writ of mandamus, however, Sanchez never specifically identified what trade secrets it accused Terra of stealing. As a result, Terra filed a motion to compel Sanchez to describe the “steps or elements of any trade secret processes that it claims were misappropriated,” arguing that Sanchez’s “data dump” ran afoul of its disclosure obligations under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Terra also argued that it would cost its expert witnesses more than $1 million in fees to review the nearly 200,000 pages of documents Sanchez produced, and even that would not identify the specific trade secrets Sanchez claims had been misappropriated.
The trial court denied Terra’s motion to compel, and Terra filed a petition for writ of mandamus with the First Court of Appeals in Houston. Although the appellate court stayed the lower court’s proceedings, it also ultimately rejected Terra’s request.
In its petition for writ of mandamus filed with the Texas Supreme Court, Terra argued that there is a “growing consensus” among the 46 states which have adopted laws similar to the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act that a plaintiff must disclose the allegedly misappropriated trade secrets “with reasonable particularity at an early stage in the litigation.” Terra therefore urged the Texas Supreme Court to follow suit.
Sanchez, in response, argued that mandamus relief should be denied because Terra was improperly seeking to delay the underlying trial and to impose additional, unwarranted discovery obligations on Sanchez.
The Texas Supreme Court denied Terra’s petition without explanation.
In re Terra Energy Partners LLC et al., case number 18-0120, in the Supreme Court of Texas.
On May 19, 2017, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law several amendments to the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“TUTSA”), located in Chapter 134A of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. The amendments go into effect on September 1, 2017. In doing so, Texas has aligned its statute more closely with federal law and codified recent judicial interpretations of the law.
Two events precipitated the amendments, one legislative, one judicial. In the first, Congress passed the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) in May 2016, which provides a federal cause of action for trade-secret misappropriation. In the second, the Texas Supreme Court announced in In re M-I L.L.C., 505 S.W.3d 569 (Tex. 2016) that a presumption exists that a party is authorized to participate and assist in the defense of a trade-secret misappropriation claim under TUTSA, which presumption cannot be surmounted unless the trial court considers a seven-factor balancing test. These events resulted in the following key changes to the TUTSA: Continue Reading Texas Legislature Clarifies and Expands the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act
The San Antonio Court of Appeals recently held that an applicant for a temporary injunction in a trade-secret-misappropriation case under the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act is not required to show the defendant is actually using trade-secret information. Instead, the applicant need only show that the defendant possesses trade secrets and is in a position to use them.
Age Industries, Ltd. (“AI”) is a manufacturer of packaging materials for whom Christopher Michael Hughes worked for nearly 20 years as a general manager. In late June 2016, Hughes resigned his employment with AI. Hughes never signed an agreement restricting him from competing with AI. Prior to resigning, Hughes had discussed creating a business to compete with AI. In early June, Diamondback Corrugated Container, LLC (“Diamondback”) was created and, shortly after his resignation, Hughes was hired to be its operations manager.
Two months later, AI sued Hughes and Diamondback for, inter alia, misappropriation of trade secrets under the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act, and obtained a temporary restraining order. Following the hearing on AI’s application for a temporary injunction, the trial court granted a temporary injunction against Hughes that (1) required Hughes to account for all documents in his possession belonging to AI, and (2) enjoined Hughes from disclosing AI’s proprietary or trade-secret information, including AI’s sales journals, customer lists, or pricing information.
Hughes appealed the trial court’s temporary injunction against him, contending, among other things, that AI failed to produce sufficient evidence of a probable, imminent, and irreparable injury, because AI only established a fear of possible misappropriation of trade secrets. The court of appeals noted that “the very purpose of an injunction is to prevent disclosure of trade secrets pending trial, [so AI] is not required to show [Hughes] is actually using the information.” Relying on authority from the Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth Courts of Appeals, the San Antonio Court of Appeals required AI to instead show only that Hughes possesses the trade secrets and is in a position to use them.
Drawing all legitimate inference in favor of the trial court’s order granting the temporary injunction, the court of appeals concluded that AI made the proper showing under this standard. AI presented evidence during the temporary-injunction hearing that shortly before he resigned, Hughes downloaded a large quantity of data from his AI computer onto a USB storage device. Additionally, AI offered evidence that certain financial information Hughes maintained while working for AI could not be located after his resignation, and that Hughes had some of AI’s confidential information on his home computer. Moreover, at the temporary-injunction hearing, Hughes could not testify that emails he sent to a co-worker at Diamondback did not contain AI’s proprietary information.
This evidence—combined with the fact that Hughes left AI to become the operations manager of a company that was formed to compete with AI—established that Hughes was in a position to use AI’s trade secrets to gain an unfair market advantage. Therefore, the appellate court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that AI established a probable, imminent, irreparable injury.
This case demonstrates that it is not necessary to present evidence of trade-secret use; mere possession and an opportunity to use is sufficient at the temporary injunction stage.
Hughes v. Age Industries, Ltd., 04-16-00693-CV, 2017 WL 943423 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Mar. 8, 2017, no. pet. h.)
Continuing our annual tradition, we present the top developments/headlines for 2016 in trade secret, computer fraud, and non-compete law. Please join us for our first webinar of the New Year on February 2, 2017, at 12:00 p.m. Central, where we will discuss these new developments, their potential implications, and our predictions for 2017.
1. Defend Trade Secrets Act
One of the most significant developments of 2016 that will likely have a profound impact on trade secret cases in the coming years was the enactment of the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”). The DTSA creates a new federal cause of action for trade secret misappropriation, albeit it does not render state law causes of action irrelevant or unimportant. The DTSA was passed after several years and many failed attempts. The bill was passed with overwhelming bipartisan, bicameral support, as well as backing from the business community.
The DTSA now allows trade secret owners to sue in federal court for trade secret misappropriation, and seek remedies previously unavailable. Employers should be aware that the DTSA contains a whistleblower immunity provision, which protects individuals from criminal or civil liability for disclosing a trade secret if such disclosure is made in confidence to a government official or attorney, indirectly or directly. The provision applies to those reporting violations of law or who file lawsuits alleging employer retaliation for reporting a suspected violation of law, subject to certain specifications (i.e., trade secret information to be used in a retaliation case must be filed under seal). This is significant for employers because it places an affirmative duty on them to give employees notice of this provision in “any contract or agreement with an employee that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information.” Employers who do not comply with this requirement forfeit the ability to recoup exemplary damages or attorneys’ fees under the DTSA in an action against an employee to whom no notice was ever provided.
At least one federal district court has rejected an employee’s attempts to assert whistleblower immunity under the DTSA. In Unum Group v. Loftus, No. 4:16-CV-40154-TSH, 2016 WL 7115967 (D. Mass. Dec. 6, 2016), the federal district court for the district of Massachusetts denied a defendant employee’s motion to dismiss and held that a defendant must present evidence to justify the whistleblower immunity.
We anticipate cases asserting claims under the DTSA will be a hot trend and closely followed in 2017. For further information about the DTSA, please see our webinar “New Year, New Progress: 2016 Update on Defend Trade Secrets Act & EU Directive.”
2. EU Trade Secrets Directive
On May 27, 2016, the European Council unanimously approved its Trade Secrets Directive, which marks a sea-change in protection of trade secrets throughout the European Union (“EU”). Each of the EU’s 28 member states will have a period of 24 months to enact national laws that provide at least the minimum levels of protections afforded to trade secrets by the directive. Similar to the DTSA, the purpose of the EU’s Trade Secrets Directive was to provide greater consistency in trade secrets protection throughout the EU. For further information about the EU’s Trade Secrets Directive, please see our webinar “New Year, New Progress: 2016 Update on Defend Trade Secrets Act & EU Directive.”
3. Government Agencies Continue to Scrutinize the Scope of Non-Disclosure and Restrictive Covenant Agreements
Fresh off of signing the DTSA, the Obama White House released a report entitled “Non-Compete Reform: A Policymaker’s Guide to State Policies,” which relied heavily on Seyfarth Shaw’s “50 State Desktop Reference: What Employers Need to Know About Non-Compete and Trade Secrets Law” and contained information on state policies related to the enforcement of non-compete agreements. Additionally, the White House issued a “Call to Action” that encouraged state legislators to adopt policies to reduce the misuse of non-compete agreements and recommended certain reforms to state law books. The Non-Compete Reform report analyzed the various states that have enacted statutes governing the enforcement of non-compete agreements and the ways in which those statutes address aspects of non-compete enforceability, including durational limitations; occupation-specific exemptions; wage thresholds; “garden leave;” enforcement doctrines; and prior notice requirements.
With those issues in mind, the Call to Action encourages state policymakers to pursue three “best-practice policy objectives”: (1) ban non-competes for categories of workers, including workers under a certain wage threshold; workers in occupations that promote public health and safety; workers who are unlikely to possess trade secrets; or workers who may suffer adverse impacts from non-competes, such as workers terminated without cause; (2) improve transparency and fairness of non-competes by, for example, disallowing non-competes unless they are proposed before a job offer or significant promotion has been accepted; providing consideration over and above continued employment; or encouraging employers to better inform workers about the law in their state and the existence of non-competes in contracts and how they work; and (3) incentivize employers to write enforceable contracts and encourage the elimination of unenforceable provisions by, for example, promotion of the use of the “red pencil doctrine,” which renders contracts with unenforceable provisions void in their entirety.
While some large employers have embraced the Call to Action, even reform-minded employers are likely to be wary of some of these proposals. Moreover, this initiative may die or be limited with the new Trump administration.
On October 20, 2016, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) jointly issued their “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals.” The Guidance explains how antitrust law applies to employee hiring and compensation practices. The agencies also issued a “quick reference card” that lists a number of “antitrust red flags for employment practices.” In a nutshell, agreements (whether formal or informal) among employers to limit or fix the compensation paid to employees or to refrain from soliciting or hiring each other’s employees are per se violations of the antitrust laws. Also, even if competitors don’t explicitly agree to limit or suppress compensation, the mere exchange of compensation information among employers may violate the antitrust laws if it has the effect of suppressing compensation.
In recent years, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has issued numerous decisions in which workplace rules were found to unlawfully restrict employees’ Section 7 rights. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied Quicken Loans, Inc.’s petition for review of an NLRB decision finding that confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions in the company’s Mortgage Banker Employment Agreement unreasonably burdened employees’ rights under Section 7 of the NLRA.
4. New State Legislation Regarding Restrictive Covenants
Oregon has limited the duration of employee non-competes to two years effective January 1, 2016. Utah has enacted the Post-Employment Restrictions Amendments, which limits restrictive covenants to a one-year time period from termination. Any restrictive covenant that is entered into on or after May 10, 2016, for more than one year will be void. Notably, Utah’s new law does not provide for a court to blue pencil an agreement (i.e., revise/modify to the extent it becomes enforceable), rather the agreement as a whole will be deemed void if it is determined to be unreasonable.
In what appears to have become an annual tradition, Massachusetts legislators have attempted to pass legislation regarding non-competes, to no avail. Two other states in New England, however, are able to claim accomplishments in that regard. Specifically, Connecticut and Rhode Island each enacted statutes last summer imposing significant restrictions on the use of non-compete provisions in any agreement that establishes employment or any other form of professional relationship with physicians. While Connecticut’s law limits only the duration and geographic scope of physician non-competes, Rhode Island completely banned such provisions in almost all agreements entered into with physicians.
5. Noteworthy Trade Secret, Computer Fraud, and Non-Compete Cases
In Golden Road Motor Inn, Inc. v. Islam, 132 Nev. Adv. Op. 49 (2016), the Supreme Court of Nevada refused to adopt the “blue pencil” doctrine when it ruled that an unreasonable provision in a non-compete agreement rendered the entire agreement unenforceable. Accordingly, this means that employers conducting business in Nevada should ensure that non-compete agreements with their employees are reasonably necessary to protect the employers’ interests. Specifically, the scope of activities prohibited, the time limits, and geographic limitations contained in the non-compete agreements should all be reasonable. If an agreement contains even one overbroad or unreasonable provision, the employer risks having the entire agreement invalidated and being left without any recourse against an employee who violates the agreement.
The Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed a $600,000 judgment, plus attorneys’ fees and costs, against an ex-employee who violated his non-compete when he assisted his son’s start-up company compete with the ex-employee’s former employer. See Pattridge v. Starks, No. 50,351-CA (Louisiana Court of Appeal, Feb. 24, 2016) (Endurall III).
A Massachusetts Superior Court judge struck down a skin care salon’s attempt to make its non-compete agreement seem prettier than it actually was. In denying the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the court stressed that employees’ conventional job knowledge and skills, without more, would not constitute a legitimate business interest worth safeguarding. See Elizabeth Grady Face First, Inc. v. Garabedian et al., No. 16-799-D (Mass. Super. Ct. March 25, 2016).
In a case involving alleged violations of the Kansas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“KUTSA”) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”), a Kansas federal district court granted a defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that (a) payments to forensic experts did not satisfy the KUTSA requirement of showing an “actual loss caused by misappropriation” (K.S.A. 60-3322(a)), and (b) defendant was authorized to access the company’s shared files and, therefore, he did not violate the CFAA. See Tank Connection, LLC v. Haight, No. 6:13-cv-01392-JTM (D. Kan., Feb. 5, 2016) (Marten, C.J.).
The Tennessee Court of Appeals held that the employee’s restrictive covenants were unenforceable when the employer had not provided the employee with any confidential information or specialized training. See Davis v. Johnstone Group, Inc., No. W2015-01884-COA-R3-CV (Mar. 9, 2016).
Reversing a 2-1 decision of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the state’s Supreme Court held unanimously that an assets purchase-and-sale contract containing an unreasonable territorial non-competition restriction is unenforceable Further, a court in that state must strike, and may not modify, the unreasonable provision. See Beverage Systems of the Carolinas, LLC v. Associated Beverage Repair, LLC, No. 316A14 (N.C. Sup. Court, Mar. 18, 2016).
The Ohio Court of Appeal upheld a non-compete giving the former employer discretion to determine whether an ex-employee was working for a competitor. See Saunier v. Stark Truss Co., Case No. 2015CA00202 (Ohio App., May 23, 2016).
In a clash between two major oil companies, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on May 20, 2016, that the recently enacted Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“TUTSA”) allows the trial court discretion to exclude a company representative from portions of a temporary injunction hearing involving trade secret information. The Court further held a party has no absolute constitutional due-process right to have a designated representative present at the hearing.
A Texas Court of Appeals held on August 22, 2016, that a former employer was entitled to $2.8 million in attorneys’ fees against a former employee who used the employer’s information to compete against it. The Court reached this ruling despite the fact that the jury found no evidence that the employer sustained any damages or that the employee misappropriated trade secrets.
In Fidlar Technologies v. LPS Real Estate Data Solutions, Inc., Case No. 4:13-CV-4021 (7th Cir., Jan. 21, 2016), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s conclusion that a plaintiff had produced no evidence refuting the defendant’s contention that it honestly believed it was engaging in lawful business practices rather than intentionally deceiving or defrauding the plaintiff. Even though the plaintiff’s technology did not expressly permit third parties to access the digitized records and use the information without printing copies, thereby avoiding payment of fees to plaintiff, such access and use were not prohibited.
A divided Ninth Circuit panel affirmed the conviction of a former employee under the CFAA, holding that “[u]nequivocal revocation of computer access closes both the front door and the back door” to protected computers, and that using a password shared by an authorized system user to circumvent the revocation of the former employee’s access is a crime. See United States v. Nosal, (“Nosal II”) Nos. 14-10037, 14-10275 (9th Cir. July 5, 2016).
The Ninth Circuit in Facebook v. Power Ventures, Case No. 13-17154 (9th Cir. Jul. 12, 2016), held that defendant Power Ventures did not violate the CFAA when it made copies and extracted data from the social media website despite receiving a cease and desist letter. The court noted that Power’s users “arguably gave Power permission to use Facebook’s computers to disseminate messages” (further stating that “Power reasonably could have thought that consent from Facebook users to share the [Power promotion] was permission for Power to access Facebook’s computers”) (emphasis in original). Importantly, the court found that “[b]ecause Power had at least arguable permission to access Facebook’s computers, it did not initially access Facebook’s computers ‘without authorization’ within the meaning of the CFAA.”
6. Forum Selection Clauses
California enacted a new law (Labor Code § 925) that restrains the ability of employers to require employees to litigate or arbitrate employment disputes (1) outside of California or (2) under the laws of another state. The only exception is where the employee was individually represented by a lawyer in negotiating an employment contract. For companies with headquarters outside of California and employees who work and reside in California, this assault on the freedom of contract is not welcome news.
We also continued to see federal district courts enforcing forum selection clauses in restrictive covenant agreements. For example, a Massachusetts federal district court last fall transferred an employee’s declaratory judgment action to the Eastern District of Michigan pursuant to a forum-selection clause in a non-compete agreement over the employee’s argument that he had signed the agreement under duress because he was not told he would need to sign it until he had already spent the money and traveled all the way from India to the United States.
7. Security Breaches and Data Theft Remain Prevalent
2016 was a record year for data and information security breaches, one of the most notably being WikiLeaks’ release of emails purportedly taken from the Democratic National Committee’s email server. According to a report from the Identity Theft Resource Center, U.S. companies and government agencies saw a 40% increase in data breaches from 2015 and suffered over a thousand data breaches. Social engineering has become the number one cause of data breaches, leaks, and information theft. Organizations should alert and train employees on following policy, spotting potential social engineering attacks, and having a clear method to escalate potential security risks. Employee awareness, coupled with technological changes towards better security will reduce risk and exposure to liability. For technical considerations and best practices and policies of attorneys when in the possession of client data, please view our webinar, “A Big Target—Cybersecurity for Attorneys and Law Firms.”
8. The ITC’s Extraterritorial Authority in Trade Secret Disputes
In a case involving the misappropriation of U.S. trade secrets in China, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide whether Section 337 of the Tariff Act does, in fact, authorize the U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) to investigate misappropriation that occurred entirely outside the United States. See Sino Legend (Zhangjiangang) Chemical Co. Ltd. v. ITC. The crux of Sino Legend’s argument was that for a statute to apply abroad, there must be express congressional intent. Not surprisingly, Sino Legend argued that such intent was missing from Section 337 of the Tariff Act. In Tianrui Group Co. Ltd. v. ITC, 661 F.3d 1322 (Fed. Cir. 2011), the Federal Circuit held that such intent was manifest in the express inclusion of “the importation of articles … into the United States” which evidenced that Congress had more than domestic concerns in mind. On January 9, 2017, the Supreme Court denied Sino Legend’s petition for certiorari, thereby keeping the ITC’s doors open to trade secret holders seeking to remedy misappropriation occurring abroad. For valuable insight on protecting trade secrets and confidential information in China and other Asian countries, including the effective use of non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, please check out our recent webinar titled, “Trade Secret and Non-Compete Considerations in Asia.”
We thank everyone who followed us this year and we really appreciate all of your support. We will continue to provide up-to-the-minute information on the latest legal trends and cases in the U.S. and across the world, as well as important thought leadership and resource links and materials.
Applying new Texas Supreme Court precedent, a Texas Court of Appeals recently held that a six-year-old cease-and-desist letter alleging trade-secret misappropriation did not constitute proof of knowledge for purposes of the discovery rule. By allowing for the accrual date of this claim to be deferred, the court appears to have made it easier for trade-secret plaintiffs to overcome the statute-of-limitations defense in the future.
According to the opinion issued by the First Court of Appeals in Houston, Garner Environmental Services, Inc. (“Garner”) provides disaster-response training and related services. In 2008, Garner’s then-vice president quit, formed a competing company called First in Rescue, Safety and Training, LLC (“FIRST”), and hired several Garner employees. In January 2009, Garner sent FIRST a letter accusing it of wrongfully using Garner’s customer lists, contacts, and other trade secrets to solicit Garner’s customers. Garner based these allegations solely on the fact that, shortly before sending this letter, Garner had learned that a client scheduled to attend one of Garner’s training classes switched at the last minute to attend a class held by FIRST instead. Later that month, FIRST responded that it had not stolen Garner’s trade secrets because Garner’s customer lists and contacts were readily available to the general public, could be replicated from memory, and were therefore not confidential information in the first instance. FIRST’s letter also pointed out that none of the former Garner employees had entered into non-compete or non-solicitation agreements while employed by Garner, so they were not prohibited from contacting Garner’s customers. Apparently, this mollified Garner because it did not file suit against FIRST at this time.
Fast-forward nearly five years: In late 2013, FIRST filed suit against a former employee that had gone to work for another competitor. At an unspecified time in 2014, after reviewing documents the employee had filed in that suit, Garner determined that FIRST had unlawfully used Garner’s confidential information. So, in July 2015—more than six years after sending the initial cease-and-desist letter in January 2009—Garner filed suit against FIRST asserting, inter alia, a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets. FIRST filed for summary judgment, arguing that all of Garner’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations because it discovered or should have discovered the nature of its injury in January 2009. Garner argued in response that the discovery rule applied and, as such, limitations did not begin to run until it discovered the injury in 2014 when it reviewed the documents filed in connection with the lawsuit FIRST’s former employee had asserted against a third party. The trial court granted FIRST’s motion and dismissed Garner’s claims with prejudice.
On appeal, the sole issue before the Court of Appeals was when Garner discovered, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the nature of its injury. Under the discovery rule, the accrual of a claim is deferred until the injured party learned of, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have learned of, the wrongful at causing the injury. Garner argued that the court of appeals was bound by the Texas Supreme Court’s recent decision in Southwestern Energy Production Co. v. Berry-Helfand, 491 S.W.3d 699 (Tex. 2016), which involved the discovery rule in the context of trade-secret misappropriation. In that case, the court held that surmise, suspicion, and accusation, even if sufficient to make one aware of a potential for misuse of trade secrets, are not facts that in the exercise of reasonable diligence would lead to the discovery of theft of trade secrets. Furthermore, the Southwestern court held that the defendant asserting the limitations defense “ha[d] not identified any evidence revealing what [the plaintiff] would have discovered had she made further inquiry.”
Finding “no meaningful differences between Southwestern and this case,” the Garner court noted that although Garner alleged in its January 2009 letter that FIRST had stolen its trade secrets, it had no facts to support these allegations other than mere suspicion that FIRST was competing with Garner’s clients. As in Southwestern, accusations were insufficient to establish knowledge of injury, the discovery rule applied. The Court of Appeals further noted that FIRST did not explain why it is entitled to have Garner’s statements of accusation construed as proof of knowledge while having its own statements of denial construed as “lawyer posturing” upon which Garner could not reasonably rely. The court thus rejected FIRST’s attempt to have its cake and eat it too.
FIRST also argued that Garner could have discovered the injury had it conducted presuit depositions under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 202, which it did not do. In order to take a presuit deposition under Rule 202, the petitioner must show that there is a reason that the deposition must occur before the anticipated lawsuit is filed, and not after. The Court of Appeals, however, reiterated that Garner lacked any proof of its suspicions and thus had no basis to establish that FIRST had any information in its possession that could justify a Rule 202 deposition. A petitioner is also entitled to conduct a Rule 202 deposition if it demonstrates that the likely benefit of the requested deposition to investigate a potential claim outweighs the procedure’s burden or expense. The Court of Appeals stated: “To allow a rule 202 deposition in th[is] situation would require the other party to reveal the confidential information in their possession,” which the court concluded was too heavy a burden on FIRST. Thus, FIRST failed to establish a date (prior to Garner’s stated discovery date in 2014) by which Garner knew or, with reasonable diligence, could have discovered the nature of its injury. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court, and remanded for further proceedings.
The take-away from this case is that potential plaintiffs who, although suspicious, lack concrete proof that a potential defendant has misappropriated its trade secrets, will, on account of the Southwestern and Garner decisions, likely find it easier to assert the discovery rule to defer the accrual date of its misappropriation claim. Moreover, according to Garner, such potential plaintiffs will find it difficult, if not impossible, to meet their burden to establish the necessity of the information to be entitled to conduct a Rule 202 presuit deposition. It remains to be seen, however, if this case might decrease the use of Rule 202 depositions in trade-secret cases. Still, the boot-and-suspenders approach of attempting a Rule 202 deposition may be the better course to preserve the legal rights of a potential misappropriation plaintiff.
Garner Envtl. Services, Inc. v. First In Rescue, Safety & Training, LLC, 01-16-00388-CV, 2016 WL 7671377 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 22, 2016, no. pet. h.)
A 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.).
In a clash between two major oil companies, the Texas Supreme Court ruled May 20, 2016 that the recently enacted Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“TUTSA”) allows the trial court discretion to exclude a company representative from portions of a temporary injunction hearing involving trade secret information. The Court further held a party has no absolute constitutional due-process right to have a designated representative present at the hearing.
A former employee of M-I L.L.C. (“M-I”), a Schlumberger subsidiary, left to work for National Oilfield Varco (NOV) in early 2014. The employee then filed suit against NOV in April 2014, seeking a declaratory judgment on his non-compete agreement. M-I counterclaimed for breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets and further sued NOV as a defendant.
At a temporary injunction where M-I sought to present evidence through oral testimony of its purported trade secrets, M-I asked the trial court to exclude from the courtroom NOV’s designated representative. The trial court categorically denied this request, concluding that it would be a denial of due process to prohibit the representative from attending. The Court of Appeals then denied M-I’s writ of mandamus.
The Texas Supreme Court held, however, that the trial court failed to conduct the necessary due-process analysis balancing NOV’s right to have its representative attend the hearing and M-I’s right to protect its trade secrets from someone who could have been a competitive decision-maker at NOV. Specifically, the Court held that the balancing test required the trial court to determine, e.g.,
- the degree of competitive harm M-I would have suffered from the dissemination of its alleged trade secrets to NOV’s representative; and
- the degree to which NOV’s defense of M-I’s claims would be impaired by the representative’s exclusion.
This analysis may ultimately result in permitting NOV’s representative to attend the hearing, the Court stated, but the failure of the trial court to conduct any such analysis constituted an abuse of discretion.
The Court further concluded that TUTSA allows a trial court to exclude a company representative from portions of the hearing where trade secrets are being discussed. Specifically, the Court held the provision of the statute allowing for “in camera hearings” should be interpreted as proceedings where a party or its representatives may be excluded, such as the injunction hearing at issue. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §134A.006. This interpretation, the Court concluded, was appropriate because “it best gives effect to [TUTSA’s] directive to take reasonable measures to protect trade secrets, and its express authorization for protective orders with provisions ‘limiting access to confidential information to only the attorneys and their experts.’”
Interestingly, the Court also noted that when conducting the balancing due-process test regarding NOV’s corporate representative, the trial court must consider that “even when acting in good faith, [the representative] could not resist acting on what he may learn.” In support of this position, the Court cited to a federal case from the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit which held that “it is very hard for the human mind to compartmentalize and selectively suppress information once learned, no matter how well-intentioned the effort may be to do so.” FTC v. Exxon Corp., 636 F.2d 1336, 1350 (D.C. Cir. 1980). This analysis appears to lend support to interpreting TUTSA to adopting in some form the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine, which has not been otherwise officially recognized in Texas. This doctrine generally holds that a former employer is entitled to enjoin a former employee if the new employment would result in “inevitable disclosure” of confidential information.
TUTSA became effective in Texas on September 1, 2013.
 See, e.g., Harell, Alex, Is Anything Inevitable? The Impending Clash between the Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine and the Covenants Not to Compete Act, 76 Tex. B.J. 757 (2013).